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Amador County Winery Reviews by Matt the Wine Mo
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A Trip Abroad
Amador County in the Sierra Foothills

Ah, summertime in San Francisco. Not to drop names, but Mark Twain once said that the coldest winter he ever spent was July in our fair City. (No, bitch, I am not that old, I read it somewhere. Hmph.)

In any case, there are times when I crave hot air -- of the non-political variety, thank you very much -- so I long to escape from the City on those dreary, foggy, damp days when the temperature promises to stay in the 50s for an entire week. The Boss and I also enjoy road trips, so we occasionally take a summer drive to more seasonal climes. Though I hear that Sonoma and Napa are now sweltering in a veritable heat wave, there is another destination that is guaranteed to be hot and summery in the Sierra Foothills. It has wine too! I speak of none other than Amador County.

Often associated with the Gold Rush, Amador County is also a hidden treasury of California wines. Locals will tell you that wine production started earlier here than anywhere else in Northern California -- certainly earlier than Napa County and Sonoma County. But don't quote the Wine Mo on that, as I have not been able to find supporting evidence. (I also don't need any more attitude thrown at me by Napa wine snobs than I already get, thanks.) However, it does seem likely that viniculture has been practiced in the area for quite a while. Indeed, the wineries are strongly influenced by Italian wine-making traditions instead of French, hearkening back to the early settler days when this section of the Sierra Foothills was inhabited by immigrants from Italy. There is still a strong Italian accent in the local culture, as well.

Since I'm sending you so far out of town, I'm going to review several wineries in the area this month as well as a local restaurant. I'll try to be brief, as the underwear salesman said to the model. Hubba, hubba. Sorry, no time for good humor, too many wineries to review....

Wilderotter Vineyard is a recent addition to this very old wine area. Their modest sized tasting room is very new, I believe built within the last year or two, and their first wines were only available in 2003 to the general public if I recall correctly. However this winery is already shaping up to be a star. We started our tasting with the 2005 Granache Rose. I'm not a huge fan of rose wine, but this was a nice enough dry sort: as I always say about rose, people who enjoy this sort of thing will enjoy this sort of thing (apologies to whomever actually said that first). We next moved to the 2005 Sauvignon Blanc. The Wilderotter offering is crisp and distinctive, with hints of pineapple in the nose; the winery claims "citrus," and they deliver. The next white on our tasting menu was the 2004 Estate Viognier. Delivering that "leafy" flavor that I'm personally so fond of (a sort of green earthiness), the complex flavor of this wine was pure delight to me. We took home several bottles. This would be a great wine for an afternoon with friends after the Gay Pride Parade (I did, in fact, serve it to our webmaster, Don, who was visiting us in the City for the big celebration). We next tasted the 2003 Amador Zinfandel. Another very distinctive offering from this winery, it is not quite as tannic as many of the California Zins -- some may not like that, but the Boss and I agreed that it was a nice change, providing a highly drinkable red for everyday occasions. Our last tasting at Wilderotter was their 2003 Sierra Foothills Syrah. This is the wine to watch from this winery! Very complex, the nose offers fruit right up front; when the wine hits your tongue, you will definitely be reminded of black cherries, but then you will realize that it is actually a VERY dry wine (though not super tannic). An excellent, excellent wine for special meals or very close friends. Bottom line: an outstanding new winery in Amador County well worth buying from now and watching for the future. 19890 Shenandoah School Road, Plymouth, CA 95669 (Google maps not working really well for this one, but it's right before Bella Piazza, mapped below)

The Boss and I have been to Bella Piazza on both of our trips to Amador County. This winery is owned by the same people who own Villa Toscana (another Amador County outfit not reviewed this time). They have been around for a while, and have a large facility (just up the hill from Wilderotter) in the grand Italian style -- it's truly a "Beautiful Plaza" -- that is filled with a suprising amount of slightly silly antiques and paintings for sale along-side their wines. But don't let the tourist trap atmosphere put you off. They do make some mighty fine wine. We began our tasting with their 2004 Semillon, one of my favorite white varietals. This semillon starts crisp and bright, but mellows into a delicious honey-like finish (without getting syrupy-sweet). We then tried the 2004 Chardonnay, one of the Boss's favorite whites (I know, I know, how typical for a California girl). Bella Piazza's take on the chardonnay is one of my personal favorites, as you can taste some of the barrel-smoke in the wine along with a very well-balanced buttery texture. This is a chard to share with friends who usually don't like California chardonnays. Next, we tried their 2002 Primitivo.

I want to spend a little bit of time telling you about primitivo in case you don't know about it. If you do, please feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph. There is much argument in the wine-making community about whether or not primitivo grapes are the same as zinfandel grapes. One researcher (from UC Davis, the same "experts" that claim no one can taste the difference between a red and a white wine) has claimed that the varities are genetically identical, though possibly from different clones. Any experienced vintner will tell you that anyone who works with vines in the field can easily tell the difference between the grapevines in nature. Who is right? I am not an expert in such matters -- well, not officially -- but I tend to believe the people who actually make wine instead of the lady in the lab trying to match up genes in some DNA sequencing computer. Maybe her computer has a virus. On the other hand, this opinion seems to put me in the same category as Dubya, who would rather believe what he believes than take the word of any fancy scientist. How embarrassing. Perhaps it's the same grape, just treated differently in the field and finished differently in the winery. Anyway, primitivo is one of the oldest varieties of wine grape in existence, probably originating in modern-day Croatia. It was taken to Italy very early, and all Italian wines from similar grapes are called "Primitivo." These wines are very similar to zinfandels (any time a similar grape from California is sold in Europe, it must be called a zinfandel) but to my palate, they are a little more robust and straight-forward. The Boss added this note when I was talking to him about the differences between zins and primitivos: "If you are ravishing one of the farm boys, you take a bottle of primitivo. If you're ravishing a frat boy, you take a bottle of zinfandel." Hmm, that might say more about his taste in boys than the wines....

Bella Piazza makes an excellent American Primitivo. It's bold and tannic, yet fruity and slightly sweet. This wine is guaranteed to go well with a robust meal. To satisfy our curiosity as to the difference between primitivo and zin, we tried their 2002 Zinfandel next. They were similar wines, however, the zinfandel was definitely more complex and ever so slightly less aggressive. The next wine we tried was their 2003 Montepulciano, certainly one of their headliners. This is a subtle wine, but still is tannic enough to stand up to most food. Many of the finest qualities of the wine, however, are quite delicate -- you will enjoy this wine with most things, but you will miss some stellar points unless you taste it with mild food or by itself. It is floral but not prepossessing, has an underlying oakiness, and sparkles with very subtle hints of black cherry. Finally, we tried the 2002 Port. This is not a bad effort. Certainly a lovely, syrupy creation with dark berry flavors, but lacks some complexity. Try it. It may be to your taste. Bottom line: an excellent producer of many fine varieties of wine, don't be put off by the touristy facade. 19900 Shenandoah School Road, Plymouth, CA 95669 Google Map (not the best map, but close enough to get you there)

In between Bella Piazza and Cooper Vineyards on Shenandoah School Road is Montevina Winery -- you would be hard pressed to miss this enormous barn-like structure. However, the Boss and I did miss it on this trip because of our experience on our first visit to Amador County. Frankly, every wine we tasted stood up poorly compared to the other wines we tasted; some were downright insipid. However, they do have some value-priced wines, still many of their prices were quite as rarified as the best wines we tried. I will give them another try at some point when we return, as the staff at other wineries has said that they make some good wines, and expressed surprise that our experience wasn't better. Perhaps the bottles had been open too long. In any event, for the time being you may want to focus your limited time in the foothills on other wineries. Please note that my last visit was in late summer 2005 -- things may have changed for the better. 20680 Shenandoah School Rd., Plymouth, CA 95669 Google Map

As you finish the loop of Shenandoah School Road, you will pass another new addition to the tasting rooms of Amador County: Cooper Vineyards. You may know some catty queens who never have anything good to say about another gay person; fortunately, most of the wineries of the Sierra Foothill are not like this at all. The kind folks over at Wilderotter recommended that the Boss and I stop at Cooper since we claimed to be mostly on the lookout for white wines (as usual ... and, again as usual, we nonetheless ended up with a good selection of reds in the trunk, as well). Unfortunately, when we arrived Cooper was overrun by a large tasting party. One of the usual advantages of visiting the wineries of Amador County is that they are not as polluted with tourists as the more popular destinations of Napa and Sonoma. We were not so lucky this time. As a result, the tasting room service was perfunctory and not nearly as friendly and attentive as that to which I am accustomed. "It must be your cologne," catted the Boss. "Oh, no, I must have used yours by mistake," I retorted. Anyway, EVERYONE knows that we SF queens don't use cologne. In any case, it is my hope that Cooper's staff is as friendly as everyone else and they were just distracted by their unusually large crowd. We'll visit again and let you know. But on to the wine! (Didn't I promise to keep these brief? Ah, well, c'est la vie.) We began with their 2003 Roussanne, a wine that I have not had abundant experience with, so I can't compare it with a "typical" Roussanne. However, I can say that it was a tart yet very buttery white, such an enchanting combination that we took several bottles home (did I also serve that to Don and crew for Gay Pride Day? It would have been an excellent choice.) The maker notes hints of passion fruit, with which I must agree. The 2004 Viognier was our next wine: the bouquet is very mild -- almost weak -- but the taste was quite good, on the sweet side of viogniers, with honeysuckle notes. We then moved on to the reds with the 2004 Barbera. Not quite as strong as the Bella Piazza, Cooper's effort is nonetheless quite drinkable, with buttery touches on the fruity nose. The flavor certainly reminds one of currants, but the promised "smoky" notes were not really very strong. We then tasted the 2003 Zinfandel del campo, which is a field blend of barbera and zinfandel grapes (that is, they were crushed together instead of being blended after fermentation). A great, strong wine with lots of tannic fruit in it, this wine will stand up well to any strongly flavored food. It's definitely a wine for food pairing in the grand Italian tradition! Think spaghetti and meatballs (or wheatballs if you're a vegetarian). Cooper's 2003 Petite Syrah was the star player in our tasting. A mature effort with a lot of fruit, mostly black cherry, this is nonetheless a lovely dry red. This is a first class wine; their future petite syrahs should be watched. We ended our tasting at Cooper with their 2004 Zinfandel del campo. This wine was a little young for my taste, being quite tannic. However, it promises well since tannins mellow in bottle aging. The 2003 was good enough, and this vintage promised well enough, that the Boss talked me into taking a bottle home anyway. Well, he does like his pleasures a little on the acid side ... witness yours truly. Bottom line: another new winery that promises well for the future, though it may need a little more polish than Wilderotter (but then, they have a wider selection). 21365 Shenandoah School Road, Plymouth, CA 95669 (Google maps doesn't work for this address, sorry!)

The Boss and I then proceeded up Steiner Road, another loop road off of the main drag between Plymouth and points futher north-east. I will take this opportunity to mention another winery that we did not visit on this trip -- Renwood. This winery we did not visit because of time constraints. It is actually an outstanding winery with many fine vintages. Our trip about one year ago was well worth the time and the price of the one and a half cases we carried away with us. Stop by and try whatever is on the tasting list. I'll review it as soon as we have a chance to visit them again. 12225 Steiner Road, Plymouth, CA 95669 Google Map

We did have time for a stop at Shenandoah Vineyards. Being a native Virginian (it's for lovers!), I was somewhat taken aback to find that there was another Shenandoah Valley, but apparently some of the original settlers moved to the Sierra Foothills from the East Coast . The winery's tasting room features the photography of Galen Rowell, famous for his iconic pictures of nature for National Geographic. The owner of the winery was a good friend of the late Rowell, and so shows and sells prints of his work. It does make for a very lovely setting (if, once again, in the somewhat tourist-trappy mold). In my opinion, the wines here tend to be variable in quality: they have some vintages that I absolutely must take home, and some that I am not of a mind to buy. We started our tasting with the Sauvignon Blanc, a tart wine with a lovely strawberry aroma. Unfortunately, the final verdict on the palate was "a little flabby;" it did not have the staying power or complexity that I look for in a white wine. We moved on to the Zinfandel Special Reserve: this was a fair wine, but probably not deserving of the appelation "special reserve" as the tannins seemed a bit *ahem* unrefined. Ah, but then we tasted the Zingiovese, a blend of ... well, it's so obvious I blush to mention it ... zinfandel and sangiovese. This wine is definitely one of Shenandoah's best performers; the nose will remind you of a yummy berry jam, and the flavor is deeply fruity with nicely balanced tannins. Next, we tried the Cab-Shiraz -- unsurprisingly, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Perhaps it was simply the delicious complexity of the previous wine, but this wine did not seem as complex as the blending promised. Also, the tasting notes say that the wine is "... light, yet bold ..." but I found it very tannic; mind you, not in a bad way, but by no means would I characterize this wine as "light." Shenandoah has a special selection of wines that carry the appellation "ReZerve." There is a small charge to taste the ReZerve selection, refunded if you buy any of the wines. The Boss and I decided to fork over the small charge so we could try their ReZerve Barbera and the ReZerve Primitivo to compare with the Bella Piazza offerings. The Barbera was a very simple wine, but also had some tannic characteristics -- it was not noteworthy to me, and the Boss said that it did not stand out in comparison to the Bella Piazza offering. The Primitivo, on the other hand, was almost syrupy, and is an interesting comparison to others that I have tasted. Overall, however, it may not be worth your money to do the ReZerve tasting unless you have liked the free tastings quite a bit. Finally, we tried the real winner of Shenandoah Vineyards -- their Black Muscat. One does not find a dark muscat very often, but this winery specializes in dessert wine: they also have a standard muscat (Daphne), a standard port, and a white port, none of which we tasted this time but which we will be back for. I am a real fan of muscats, and their Black Muscat is a velvety, sweet liquid confection with deep floral notes reminiscent of wild berries and the complex flavor typical of the variety. I recommend this wine very highly. Bottom line: a great place that should be part of your Amador County visit with some winners and some wines that I did not care for. 12300 Steiner Road, Plymouth, CA 95669 Google Map

Finally, when you are done with your trip to Amador County, you are going to want to find a nice place to eat. There are many options, some more rustic than others, but finding a great place out in the foothills can be a bit trying. There is a good diner on the corner of Highway 49 and Main St./Shenandoah Road in Plymouth -- very authentic, but it also has good vegetarian options. However, for a true eating treat, you must try Giannini's in Pine Grove. It's well worth the trip slightly out of the way. After taking a bit of a nature trip, the Boss and I found ourselves in Pine Grove passing by the front door and decided to stop for dinner. The menu is your standard old-fashioned Italian restaurant fare, with any number of the things you might imagine -- chicken cacciatori, eggplant parmigiana, veal piccata, lasagna -- along with real authentic dishes such as saltimbocca and sweet breads saute. They have an excellent house wine, but also an excellent selection of local Amador County vintages. Be warned! The full deluxe dinners come with enough food for three people! I had a "light Italian dinner" of gnocchi that "just" came with salad, soup, and bread (and I skipped the soup), but the Boss had the eggplant parmigiana dinner with a polenta board, salad, soup, pasta, and bread. That's right, pasta, too! I helped with the polenta board, but he could not eat everything, despite the fact that we had almost nothing to eat earlier in the day. The food was AWESOME -- it could not be beat with a wooden spoon, and I've had good Italian before. The only thing that worried me a bit was that it seemed a bit straight ... the waitress was wonderful (I mean really outstanding, in the rural restaurant style), but we seemed to be getting some sideways looks from nearby tables of old Italian couples and other locals. Then, right at the end of the meal, one little old Italian lady started talking to us, and before you could say "spaghetti and meatballs" we were being told about all of the fine places to go in the area and being treated like family. Truly an outstanding experience, though the Boss did experience a food coma on the way home (it was a true five-course meal). PLEASE NOTE!!! Giannini's is closed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday! So remember to only plan on eating there on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. They have no website, but are easy to locate on Highway 88 in Pine Grove. Phone 209-296-7222 19845 State Hwy 88, Pine Grove, CA. Google Map

Please note that Google Maps is not doing its best in a lot of these locations, I've tried to note where it's good and where it's not. Use the "map" feature only, the "satellite" pictures are not aligned very well and are mostly at a very bad resolution.

BOTTOM LINE ON AMADOR COUNTY: out of the way, not very well known, but well worth a visit! The Boss and I can make this a day trip, but you may want to stay over in the area, particularly if you don't have a designated driver! Let me know if you find a good place to stay the night:

Matt the Wine Mo lives in San Francisco with his lover, the Boss. Matt the Mo and Boss visit Sonoma and Napa every few months, sometimes bringing along their friends the Punk (the cynical artistic type) and Fruity (who doesn't like wine) to keep the tastings real. More about Matt the Wine Mo

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