6 OF THE BEST WINERIES IN AMADOR COUNTY

My father-in-law, in his infinite wisdom and impressive online research skills, found this 1974 Mercedes convertible for us to tool around the countryside in when we visit. It certainly added a classic touch to our wine tasting adventure.

My father-in-law, in his infinite wisdom and impressive online research skills, found this 1974 Mercedes convertible for us to tool around the countryside in when we visit. It certainly added a classic touch to our wine tasting adventure.

When Marc and I go to Sacramento to visit his dad, we use to take day trips to Napa Valley for wine tastings, but we found ourselves elbow-to-elbow with a tangle of tourists, doling out $20 per tasting, and then inching our way home along Highway 80. This past Thanksgiving we discovered Amador County Wineries in the Sierra Foothills.  There are over forty wineries in the area and while this locale has been a wine region since the gold rush days, it’s just in the last twenty years that the bold, robust, flavorful reds, such as the zinfandels they are well-known for, have become major players in the wine market.  Marc and I enjoyed our visit so much in November, we came back again in February to take in a few more wineries in the Shenandoah Valley area.

Here’s what we discovered:

1. Tastings are only $5 per person (waived if you make a purchase -- super affordable)

2. No crowds or pretentious wine snobs, only salt of the earth wine makers, tasting room hostesses, and sometimes their dogs

3. Oh yeah, and some excellent wines to boot!

Borjon Winery

Borjorn Winery became our first stop back in November because of the iconic cowboy logo and the authentic Mexican style building.  It looked like a real vaquero lived here and since my son, Jackson, is an authentic cowboy himself, I asked Marc to pull in.  We immediately fell in love with the modern-rustic-cowboy decor and noticed there were only a handful of other guests at the tasting bar.  After our tasting, we decided a couple of our favorites include the Primitivo Reposado and the Zinfandel Reposado, both award-winning wines.  They also make a delicious rose´ that won Gold and Best of Class in the California State Fair that is only $18 a bottle, a bargain and a perfect pairing for a girls’ California beach trip.  If you’re looking for something bolder, richer (and a little pricier), go straight for the flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, Bull Rider, that is made only from grapes in the Napa Valley.

I had to send my son a photo of myself in this authentic cowboy locale. I knew he would appreciate the hand tooled leather saddle.

I had to send my son a photo of myself in this authentic cowboy locale. I knew he would appreciate the hand tooled leather saddle.

Amador Cellars

We knew right away we were going to like Amador Cellars when we were greeted by a beautiful golden retriever and a handsome, aging black lab.  They escorted us right up to the tasting room door where we almost immediately fell into an exciting conversation with the hostess about Alaska, flying, and wines.  That’s the fun thing about going to wineries, this is the wine-maker’s home. The farm, the family, the pets and the friendly conversation make you feel like a cherished family friend.  We particularly enjoyed the award-winning Barbera (now sold out), but you truly can not go wrong with any of their reds: Grenache Reserve, Petit Sirah, and Sangiovese are among our favorites here.  

Marc, my husband, in front of the Amador Cellars tasting room.

Marc, my husband, in front of the Amador Cellars tasting room.

The official escort to the tasting room. The sign on the table read, “Please do not feed the dogs, no matter how sad they look.”

The official escort to the tasting room. The sign on the table read, “Please do not feed the dogs, no matter how sad they look.”

Paul J. Wines

The highlight of Paul J. Wines was a three-way tie between the gorgeous view from the back window, the impressive handmade wooden canoe hanging just above that view, and the amazingly delicious wines.  The buttery, oaky chardonnay was the surprise wine here, as the area is known for its reds and red blends.  Paul J. makes a “frisky” zinfandel, which is currently sold out, but you can’t go wrong with any of the reds.  For the new kids on the block, Paul J. and his daughter Camille, are doing great!  Keep your eye on these guys!

Check out that handsome canoe in the window! I hope to get the story behind it on our next visit!

Check out that handsome canoe in the window! I hope to get the story behind it on our next visit!

Jeff Runquist Wines

Jeff Runquist Wines has racked up some impressive wine awards.  If you love reds and red blends, this is your winery. The 2016 Petite Sirah boasts the “most decorated” and the winery was voted 2017 Winery of the Year! I can not believe I forgot to snap a photo at this beautiful, upscale, equestrian-and-Tuscan-feeling tasting room.  I do recall a delicious olive spread and toasts served alongside the award-winning table reds. I’m also a sucker for handcrafted olive wood cooking spoons, so I picked up one of these for my kitchen collection along with a couple of great reds.

Distant Cellars

Distant Cellars was an unexpected find we happened upon on our February trip.  As we pulled out of Borjon parking lot (yes, we made a second visit to Borjon since we liked it so well the first time), I reminded Marc that we had never been any farther up the road than this winery.  At that, he turned right instead of left, and meandered along the road, seeming to take any turn he came upon. We were just about to decide that there must not be any more wineries this way when we saw the sign that read, Distant Cellars, and caught sight of the gleaming metal building among the bare grapevines.  We encountered a beautiful tasting room set up for a Valentine’s Day luncheon event that was to happen the following day, a friendly couple at the bar who make clocks, cutting boards, and adirondack chairs from wine barrels, an interesting host with a background as a CBS announcer, and the owner, Steve Gaiser. The handful of wines Steve and his sons make all boast numerous accolades: Drifter Red Blend, Prospect Zinfandel, Tribute Red Blend, and Petit Sirah.  These wines are “structured, bold, and irresistable”!

Distant Cellars tasting room set up for a Valentine’s luncheon. The table is decorated with wine corks and candles.

Distant Cellars tasting room set up for a Valentine’s luncheon. The table is decorated with wine corks and candles.

Helwig Winery

While visiting Distant Cellars, someone there mentioned to us (when they heard we were from Alaska) that we should make a stop at Helwig Winery, as the owners’ daughter, Mary Helwig, is a musher in Willow, Alaska, and a former Iditarod racer.  Helwig Winery did not disappoint. This is one impressive establishment! They offer a summer concert series on the grounds, wine cave tours, food pairing experiences, host private events, and have a B&B on site, as well as a 40-acre, gated French-style estate available for family and group rental. Oh wait, did I mention their amazing wines at affordable prices?  The sparkling rose´, Barbera, and Frenchman’s Creek Petit Sirah were among our favorites.  They even have a line of olive oil products that include olive oil, lip balms, and soaps.

The tasting room bar at Helwig Winery.

The tasting room bar at Helwig Winery.

A movie poster advertising a documentary about daughter, Mary Helwig’s, rookie year as an Iditarod racer.

A movie poster advertising a documentary about daughter, Mary Helwig’s, rookie year as an Iditarod racer.

The two excursions we made to check out these six charming wineries turned out to be high-spirite and surprisingly affordable weekend tours.  We met one couple who live in the San Francisco area who drive up at least four times a year to pick up their wine club haul, mingle with the owners and locals, and lend a helping hand (or foot) during harvest time.  The wife told me they used travel points on this trip and were staying at the local Days Inn. Brilliant! Most of us have the connotation that wine enthusiasts must be rather wealthy folks who don’t mind splurging on a fancy weekend pleasure trip, but the truth is, many of us do enjoy a nice, moderately priced bottle of wine from time to time and would love to learn more about the wine-making process, meet the winemakers, and share a connection to the place where our favorite grapes are grown.  If this sounds like you, Amador County Wines are a must-do girls trip or couple’s weekend.

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DISCLAIMER: At this time, I do not receive any income from the mention of products or services.  Any products or services listed are strictly my own recommendations based on my own experiences and opinions.