By Robin Swanson
OK ladies – it’s time to play hooky. You deserve it. You’ve worked really hard this year – but even while you try to change the world, you need to take the time to recharge your batteries every once and awhile. Come on now, even POTUS takes time out for the occasional Kennebunkport or Martha’s Vineyard escape, and the globe still manages to keep on spinning on its axis. And here’s the beauty part for those of us here in Sacramento: the perfect “sick day” (cough, cough, sniffle) getaways are located only about an hour away nestled in the Sierra foothills, otherwise known as the Fair Play region and Amador County. The scenic drive through rolling hills provides the much-needed mental health day, while the Barberas, Sangiovese, Zinfandels and other divine red wines that are bountiful in this region are fundamental to helping lower the blood pressure of stressed-out and overworked girls on the grid.
So take a deep breath, write a cryptic message on your “out of office” assistant (it REALLY can wait until tomorrow) and give yourself a day to soak in the hidden gem right in our own backyard – a wine region that people in most of the rest of the country would travel hundreds of miles to experience. In fact, many people compare Amador County to Napa 30 years ago – free wine tasting, a casual atmosphere and not too crowded. (Not to mention that the lack of crowds seriously diminishes the odds of you getting busted on your “sick day…”)
There’s only one rule – turn off your cell phone/iPhone or any other device that is going to interrupt the zen-flow of the day. I mean it! Keeping your iPhone at-the-ready in Amador is like taking a conference call at the spa – it’s simply against the rules. (PS – the cell coverage out there is spotty anyways – so don’t count on your Google maps to get you from one winery to the next.) Invite the guys if you must – though I happen to think there’s nothing better in life than a day of revelry, imbibing and wine-tasting with the gals.
In full disclosure, to ensure that I thoroughly researched the Amador and Fair Play options for this piece, I actually took two separate day-trips one week apart to these nearby regions (somebody had to do it), so if you’re going to try this at home – create your own adventure with a few stops (and a designated driver, of course) along the way.
Let’s start with a little drive up the I-50 corridor, exit off to the quaint little town of Placerville and wind around some country roads into a wine region known as “Fair Play.”
There you’ll find (click on the name to visit their website):
- Perry Creek, a winery best-known for producing “Zinman,” a spicy Zinfandel in a zany bottle that was rated among the top 15 best-value Zinfandels by Wine Spectator in 2010. They also produce a number of other wines that grow well in high altitudes, including their signature reserve wines, called: “Altitude: 2401,” which include some unique Zinfandels and a Petite Sirah. This is a fun winery that sells a deceptive wine glass which is supposed to hold an entire bottle of wine in a single glass. We didn’t want to start our wine-tasting day by experimenting with such a bold endeavor, put perhaps braver souls than I (and those with a much higher tolerance) can report back to me whether they were able to finish this special “glass” of wine. Doctors do recommend a glass of red wine a day for good health, after all…
- Windwalker, right next door to Perry Creek, this winery offers more wine tastings than you could shake a stick at. (Did I mention to pack some snacks for in-between wineries to increase your chances of making it through the day?) This winery also has an extensive gift shop, which sells all kinds of fun knick-knacks, including my personal favorite, clever cocktail napkins (a must-have in my limited book of tricks for hostessing…) As I mentioned, they serve almost 20 different tastings, but their signature wine is Barbera, which is exactly the bottle that ended up coming home with me.
- Charles Spinetta – A little further down the way, this winery has been farmed by an Italian family since the mid 1800’s, and features not only wine, but a pretty extensive and unique art gallery. With walls covered in prints and paintings that would appeal to nature lovers, this woodsy winery is very cozy. They ask you to choose 3 wines to taste at this winery from a list of 6-7, and they also allow you to sample their homegrown olive oil and vinegar, as well. The two stand-out wines in my book were of a sweeter variety – the “Black Muscat,” a non-syrupy, dark, sweet wine, and the Zinetta, which is a signature Zinfandel and Sangiovese blend.
Head further South and you’ll run directly into the gaggle of wineries in Amador County. A few of my personal favorites are:
- Young’s– There are few wineries more picturesque than Young’s. Take a quick walk through their grounds and you will not only see rolling hills covered in grape vines, but cascading arches of vines, artwork hidden in the trees and gardens, and a tranquil pond. Inside, you get to taste a variety of Zinfandels and a Petite Sirah that will knock your socks off, among other things. The “raging” debate among my cohorts was whether the 2007 or 2008 Petite Sirah was better (the 2008 won by a 2:1 margin).
- Villa Toscano – This is another winery with spectacular scenery that will make you feel like you’ve been transported to a small villa in the Italian countryside. Known for their old vine Zinfandels, this winery offers barrel tastings of wine that hasn’t been bottled yet. Though many years ago I did purchase “wine futures” of their Jake’s Zinfandel, this year my favorite in-barrel tasting here was the 2009 Barbera. If you buy their wine futures, you pay in advance before the wine is bottled to ensure that you get a case of wine that may or may not be served in the tasting room. This is one way to guarantee that you’re getting a unique wine that you can’t just pick up at the Nugget. One of the best features of this winery is that it is one of the only estates that serves up some basic nosh – pizza, salads, spaghetti and sandwiches. They also have a unique gift-shop in their tasting room with art, ladies handbags, frames and other goodies. PS – they advertise a sister winery called “Bella Piazza” not too far away.
- Bray Vineyards – Just down the street, Bray Vineyards is home to one of my favorite easy-drinking wines, the “BrayZin Hussy Red,” a zippy Zinfandel/Sangiovese blend that goes with just about anything, not to mention its clever marketing. This low-key winery with a sense of humor offers a range of Zinfandels, Barberas and Sangiovese blends – the standard varietals that grow well in this region.
Vino Noceto- Another great winery in the Amador region with Italian roots, they offer some full-bodied and earthy reds, but my personal favorite here is the “Frivolo,” a light, floral muscat wine perfect for summer. This is a no-muss, no-fuss kind of tasting room, and with the low-overhead, their wines are a pretty great bargain.
- Dobra Zemlja Winery- This off-the-wall Croatian winery is just a little off the beaten path, but worth the trip for some unique, earthy wines. Though they are sold-out of one of my favorites, the Grenache, I’m also a fan of their bold Syrahs!
- Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estates - These affiliated wineries are also institutions in Amador County, with the Sobon family opening up Shenandoah in the 70’s and debuting Sobon Estates in the late 80’s. Of their wines, I love the Zingiovese, a Zinfandel/Sangiovese blend that’s as smooth as the dark chocolate you should consume with it. They also offer a range of dessert wines and a pretty intense port, for all of you port-lovers out there.
The above list of wineries in this region is by no means exhaustive – it just includes a few of my favorites. For a more extensive list, peruse this Amador tourism web site or the wineries of Fair Play site and you might find some other gems to visit.
If all of this wine-tasting has made you hungry, I have one recommendation for an amazing restaurant in Plymouth, called Taste. Not only does this restaurant serve fresh and seasonal ingredients, they are extremely accommodating to all of their patrons. Our party included a vegan, and they not only gave her a special vegan menu, they ended up creating a special meal for her that wasn’t on the menu. The rest of us chowed down on some amazing, juicy scallops and enjoyed butternut squash soup and mushroom cigars as an appetizer. On Monday nights, they serve a 3-course Prix Fixe menu for under $30 if you’re an adventurer looking for a deal.
Alright, that’s my best suggestion for playing hooky – and I suppose for the Goodie Two-Shoes out there, you could re-create this same adventure on a weekend. But in my book, there’s nothing better than the rare escape on a weekday to get a fresh perspective on life.