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California’s Mother Lode of Wine By Sarah Lunsford With its Mediterranean climate, rolling hills and rural culture

, it’s no wonder the Mother Lode has become a wine making region, and with the choice of fine wines to sample and great wineries to visit Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties are a destination spot for those who enjoy the fruit of the vine. Amador County Amador County, with wine making running through its history since the 1800s, is home to the Shenandoah Valley, a beautiful sight even if you don’t stop and taste the wines along the way. Thirty of the 35 wineries in Amador are located in the Shenandoah Valley, which is just at the end of Plymouth on Highway 49. On the drive towards Plymouth visitors may well think there is nothing but golden rolling hills dotted with oak trees, but a peek of green to the right just before you reach the town will reveal the change that encompasses the land when vineyards cloth it green. A stop at the Amador Vintner’s in Plymouth is a must. Here visitors can get a map of the area along with good advice about what wineries produce what varietals and other information that will make the trip even more enjoyable. When entering the Shenandoah Valley and turning right on Shenandoah School Road, make sure to stop and take a good look, along with a photograph, at the sight the rivals Sonoma County’s wine region for sheer beauty. Of course having to choose from so many wineries is a difficult task, here are a couple that are a do not miss on a tour of Amador County’s wineries. Soban Estate Nestled in the foothills, one of the oldest continuously operating wineries in California is the Soban Estate Winery found at the end of the Shenandoah Valley on Shenandoah Road. Driving into this winery estate feels like taking a step back in time complete with a English farm house, the peaceful sound of birds and farm equipment placed so well that it takes on a sculptural quality. Two Swiss immigrants founded the winery in 1856. Later, it was bought by the Italian Catholic D’Agostini family in 1911. It was during the time that the D’Agostini’s owned the winery that an interesting point in its history took place. It was one of the only wineries that was allowed to stay open during Prohibition because it produced alter wine for the Sacramento Diocese of the Catholic Church. Shirley and Leon Soban added it to their already flourishing winemaking endeavors when they bought it from the D’Agostini’s in 1989. The Soban’s had already tasted success in the wine making arena with their Shenandoah Vineyards they founded in 1977. Since the Soban’s purchased the winery the demand for Soban Estate wine has grown from 5,000 cases produced in 1990 to 40,000 cases produced in 2009.

They use only estate grown grapes to produce the wines for both their wineries. (an aside: wineries using only estate grown grapes to make their wines only use grapes from their own estates and do not purchase grapes from anyone else) Soban Estate wines are mostly distributed in restaurants and stores in the U.S. but can also be found overseas in countries like Germany and Japan, among others. Although there is not an official guided tour of the premises, the winery does have a museum where visitors can take as long as they want to peruse the history of the winery. The tasting room features a wall constructed of wine barrels that were taken apart then used to line a wall in the tasting room, which gives it a unique feel. “When people come up here they love it,” said Leon Nielsen, Soban Estate Hospitality Coordinator. “People really enjoy coming back.” She credits the friendliness of people in Amador County as one reason they keep coming back, along with the quality of the wine. “Just fine wines and reasonable prices,” said Nielsen. Wilderotter Vineyard This warm and peaceful vineyard will make visitors feel like they have just arrived in Tuscany especially after seeing the quaint Italian flavored building that houses the tasting room. Wilderotter Vineyards was founded by Jay and Maggie Wilderotter when they purchased 40-acres of land in 1990. “They love Italy and wanted to do this after the Tuscany Region,” said Naomi Ardi, Wine Club and Special Events Coordinator. It was slow going at first, but Jay, a retired Air Force pilot, wanted to do it on his own to avoid debt by planting a few acres at a time. “Basically, he started out as a grower,” said Ardi. Eventually he planted 26-acres in grapes and sold them to other wineries until 2003 when he produced 750 cases of his own wine that quickly sold out. That 750 has grown in the last few years to about 2,400 cases produced. They produce small case lots of about 100 while offering visitors 15 different wines to choose from when they visit. “We have the mostly whites,” said Ardi, with a customer favorite being the Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are known for their consistency. “Jay always says it has my name on the bottle,” said Ardi. Dobra Zemlja The winding ribbon of a road leading up to Dobra Zemlja winery takes visitors past pine trees and granite rock outcroppings leading them to grounds that include a terraced garden, pond and picnic tables, not to mention a tasting room in the cellar. The winery’s name means “good earth” in Croatian which is where owner Milan Matulich is from. He and his wife, Victoria, opened the 50-acre winery in 1997 that has grown slowly through the years. “We’re just a small family run winery,” said Norina Johnson, den mother at Dobra. The winery produces about 3,400 cases annually and does not distribute, preferring to sell through their wine club and at the tasting room, which hasn’t hurt their sales because they frequently sell out.

With the motto, “Big Amador Reds, No Lightweights” visitors can tell what kind of varieties they’re likely to enjoy when they take the trip out to the winery. “We’re a family oriented, kind of fun winery,” said Johnson. They were the first winery in the area to reintroduce jug wine, which they began selling about 7 years ago. “We sell the most jugs on a daily basis,” said Johnson. That may be because they use premium wine blends to make their jug wines, but then again, it may be because of the funky labels that change every couple of years. The labels are designed by artist Victoria and must be seen to be appreciated. The winery is family friendly. It’s not unusual to see whole families come out for the day to enjoy the grounds and can get pretty busy on Saturdays. “When you sell jugs for a living, it gets pretty crazy in our tasting room,” said Johnson. Calaveras County In the 1980’s there were 3 wineries in Calaveras County, since that time the wine region has grown and visitors can enjoy a wide variety of wine and tasting rooms. The credit for the growth of the wine industry in the county is largely given to Barden Stevenot of Stevenot Wineries who got the wine ball rolling back in 1975. “Barden was really the first one to go at it in a big way,” said Chuck Hovey, former winemaker for Stevenot Winery. Since then many have taken that ball and run with it. The county now has 20 wineries and 25 tasting rooms, some from neighboring Tuolumne County and the further afield Napa County, for visitors to enjoy. A visit to the Calaveras Wine Alliance in Murphys can give those who want to visit local wineries and wine tasting rooms a map to plan their trip. For those who just want to park their cars, a trip to Murphys offers them a chance to walk Main Street and get a large sampling of wines the county has to offer. For those who want to see a little more of the beauty that a rural wine making county has to offer, a drive is in order. Here are just a couple tasting rooms and wineries that visitors won’t want to miss. Laraine Winery Laraine Winery off Highway 4 is found in a delightful valley covered in vineyards that where visitors are treated to the experience of an 1800’s farmhouse where the tasting room is located. “It’s one of those places you just have to come out and enjoy,” said David Webster, Laraine Winery General Manager. David and Laraine Gerber bought the property in the late 1980’s after having come up to the area for many years. The winery has a Hollywood history. David Gerber is an Executive Producer with television shows like Police Woman, Baywatch and Batman to his list of credits. The winery is named after his wife Laraine who was an actress in, among other projects, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which was filmed in Murphys. After purchasing the property Laraine studied viticulture at U.C. Davis, and, the couple ultimately settled on growing 10 different varietals. The property encompasses 100-acres, and produces 1,000 cases annually. “We’re a boutique winery and would like to remain that way,” said Webster.

Even so, the tasting room averages 100 to 200 guests on a weekend with most finding out about the winery through word of mouth. The winery draws from other California wine regions to produce it offerings of wines that lend themselves heavily to the red side. “(We) have Sonoma rootstock, Calaveras fruit and a Napa winemaker,” said Webster. Zucca Mountain Vineyards Zucca Mountain Vineyards tasting room in Murphys stands out as what is arguably the most unique tasting room found in the town , and when the sign into the tasting room says ‘watch you head’, it’s best to take that advice. Although owners Gary and Carol Zucca officially began their winemaking adventure in the 1990’s, Gary came from a family that enjoyed the process of making wine long before that time. “My dad made wine for the family and I made wine for the family,” said Gary. Carol came from a chemistry background and the two educated themselves in all aspects of viticulture and viniculture. “We wanted to do it all,” said Gary. In 1998 the couple had their first harvest of a couple of varieties. At that time, they decided to concentrate their efforts on winemaking. Since that time their wine production has grown, and, they are now producing 1,500 cases annually. When the time came to open a tasting room, the spot that came available was a cellar in Murphys. “We thought, it will work,” said Gary. “Our kids laughed at us.” They remodeled the space that can be accessed on Algiers Street on the way to Murphys Park, eventually growing up into two other levels over the cellar, and in the process creating a unique wine tasting experience. Visitors go down a few steps into the cool tasting room where they can beat the heat in the summertime, and for those visitors who can’t make it down to the tasting room, Carol or Gary are more than happy to bring their wine up top for people to try. Zucca, like many other wineries in the Mother Lode, makes use of what the region has to offer. “We buy all local grapes, all Calaveras and Amador County,” said Gary. Ironstone Vineyards No story about Mother Lode wineries is complete without the winery/entertainment complex that is Ironstone Vineyards. A vineyard whose story is as large it is. John Kautz, the man behind the winery, could take a whole magazine to tell just his life story. He was named one of the top young farmers in the 1960s, starting with 12-acres of farmland that he eventually into 7,000-acres of agricultural endeavors. These include more than just vineyards, and are located in Calaveras County and beyond. “He was the first to plant Chardonnay in Lodi,” said Conrad Levasseur, Community Relations and Development Coordinator for Ironstone Vineyards. “People thought he was crazy. (But) he knew that area was a perfect Mediterranean climate.” Those who drive through Lodi can see part of the 5,000-acre John Kautz Farms in that area, with each of the different vines marked to show which Ironstone wines they produce.

In 1989, John assembled a group of miners to begin blasting the granite riddled area that would eventually become home to the winery and largest amphitheatre in the area. The ground was so hard it took 10 months to blast it, which is where the name for the winery came from. The land was as hard as iron so John decided to call it Ironstone. The wine caves and the wine tank farm area were built in first, then the winery just sort of took shape from there. It now encompasses 1,150-acres including the tasting room with its 42 feet tall, 13 feet deep and 16 feet wide fireplace that can roast half a steer or a whole pig; 14-acres of landscaped gardens that include a pond and were designed by landscape architect Don Boos; a museum featuring the largest known crystalline gold piece in the world; and the amphitheatre completed in 1998, that can seat up to 7,000 and has featured acts from Etta James to Sheryl Crow. The winery produces just under a million cases of wine annually. These include Ironstone label wines along with its 15 other labels, including Sonoma Creek, Leaping Horse and Dogtail. “We’re marketing in all 50 states and 53 countries,” said Levasseur. The winery has events throughout the year, most notably the March release celebration of its popular Obsession Symphony, along with the September Concourse D’Elegance, an annual event that draws 400 classic cars and directly benefits the 4-h and Future farmers of America agricultural programs for young people. Tuolumne County Currently boasting 4 wineries/vineyards, Tuolumne County is making its way towards becoming a larger wine making area in the Mother Lode wine region. Gianelli Vineyards Tuolumne County is home to one of the youngest wineries in the Mother Lode, Gianelli Vineyards that just opened its tasting room in Jamestown in May of this year. A drive on Main Street Jamestown reveals that the move was a good one because the tasting room is proving to be very popular. Owners Ron and Laurie Gianelli came to the county with roots already in place. Ron’s family first settled in Tuolumne in the late 1800s. As their last name indicates, they have an Italian heritage that crosses over into their winemaking. The focus on new and emerging Italian varieties, said Chuck Hovey, Gianelli Vineyards winemaker. The Gianelli’s made several trips to Italy while researching what grapes they wanted to grow, settling on 16 different varietals they began planning in 2003. Since that time they have sold their grapes to wineries across the river in Calaveras with the thought in mind that they would eventually make and distribute their own wine. “Our vision was to open up a winery and make our own wines,” said Laurie Gianelli. To make their vision a reality they brought respected local winemaker Chuck Hovey on a board. Hovey has been in the business of making wine for 31 years and has even released his own Hovey label in June of this year. Gianelli’s has two locations for visitors to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Not only is their tasting room located in Jamestown but their vineyard is too.

At the Gianelli Vineyard there are 28-acres of vines with plans to build a tasting room soon. Here visitors can get a behind the scenes view of their winemaking process by appointment. The winemaking tour includes a look at the vineyards featuring the Italian rootstock vines, a peek at the wine making equipment and, if Hovey is available, a lesson in winemaking. Their first crush produced 700 cases of wine, and they are expecting that to grow over time. “In a few year’s they’ll be up to 5,000 cases,” said Hovey. Mt. Brow Winery A drive out to Mt. Brow takes visitors through the roads less traveled in Tuolumne County giving them a taste of rural life. Reaching the vineyards and tasting room that taste grows into a full glass when visitors arrive at the winery’s operations located on the family farm. “We’re still basically a family owned and operated winery,” said Jeff Costello, Sales and Marketing Manager. Jeff’s parents, Jim and Pam Costello purchased the property they would turn into a primarily red producing winery in 1991, and began growing grapes just a couple of years later in 1993. “My dad had already started making wine as a hobby,” said Jeff, but when Jim went into the business of growing grapes he took classes at U. C. Davis, a leader in viticulture science. For many years, they sold their grapes to wineries like Stevenot and Chatom in Calaveras County and made about 40 cases of their wine for friends and neighbors in Tuolumne County. It was the urging of those friends and neighbors who tasted the quality of the wines that made them decide to sell produce their wine for public consumption. In order to sell to the public, they become a bonded winery in 2002, a process that every winery that sells to the public must undergo. “Our first official crush under bond (was in) 2003,” said Jeff. Since that time their case production has increased to 1,800 a year. “Everything’s about Tuolumne County and red wines,” said Jeff, noting they only buy grapes from the other Tuolumne County vineyards. “We’re truly a Tuolumne County winery.” Visitors who come to this winery for the wine tasting can request a tour of the winery and its operations. The family hosts two main events at their grounds every year, a car show in June and their crush event in September. At the crush event, wine club members can pick grapes starting at 7 a.m. The grounds open to the general public at 11 when the crush event begins and people can get into barrels and crush grapes or just watch their friends and family participate. Mt. Brow is not only family owned and operated, it is family and dog friendly as well. *************** “This whole region is developing together,” said Conrad Levasseur, Community Relations and Development Coordinator for Ironstone Vineyards. “If you just take the food and the wine that in itself is a draw.”

Add to that the friendly people, the unrivaled beauty along with the peaceful atmosphere, and you have an unbeatable combination for an unforgettable day in the Mother Lode’s wine country.