Shenandoah Valley wineries and Gold Rush history make Amador County a “must visit”

Where, in about 10 square miles, can you discover fine wines, dining, cooler temperatures, beautiful scenery and Gold Rush history? It’s the Shenandoah Valley and Amador County wineries, just 55 miles to the northeast of Stockton and San Joaquin County.

Whimsical bicycling art in Karmere Vineyards.

Following gold’s discovery in 1848 in nearby Coloma, new mining communities burst upon the scene and in the next two decades, more vineyards blossomed in the Sierra Nevada than anywhere else in the state. As the gold fields panned out in the late 1800s, the old Zinfandel vineyards endured and, almost a century later, paved the way for new pioneering wines, drawn by soils and climate ideal for fine wines.

Today, more than 40 wineries offer wine tasting, events and gorgeous views, clustered along California Hwy. 49, the Gold Rush highway, and in the Shenandoah Valley which expands into the Sierra foothills from the highway to the north. Gold Rush towns like Sutter Creek, Amador City, Drytown, Fiddletown and Plymouth offer tasting rooms, places to stay, rich Gold Rush history, shopping and fine dining to complement your visit.

View from Karmere Vineyards, looking southeast over the Shenandoah Valley to the Sierra foothills.

The Shenandoah Valley, ranging in elevation from 2000 to about 3000 feet above sea level, is home to decomposed granite and volcanic soils, wonderful for wine grapes. Paul, the host at Karmere Wineries elegant French-château tasting room, explained that in the last 30 years, local growers have introduced Italian, Rhone and Spanish varietals to the foothills, leading to renowned Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Barbera, Syrah and Viognier wines.

The area is always degrees cooler than the San Joaquin Valley, and offers views to please your senses while the wines satisfy your taste buds.

Amador City Street Dance attacts big crowd of both locals and tourists!

For a host of events, check Amadorwine.com to plan for your wine tour, and special events. A very fun activity for young to old is the Amador City Street Dance, Saturday nights, 6 to 9 PM, on August 6 with the Spotted Dog Band, and August 13 with the Full Circle Band (and, the dances are free). Coming the first weekend in October to the Shenandoah Valley wineries is The Big Crush, with special tastings, activities and food tied to the harvest.

With 40-plus wineries, you have a marvelous selection, and most tastings are no charge in the valley.  Some of our favorites include:

Live music performs most Fridays at Helwig Winery in the Shenandoah Valley.

Helwig Winery offers industrial-chic winery buildings on a scenic hilltop with marvelous views and cool wine cave tours.  Each Friday evening through September, enjoy live music in their Pavilion with a modest cover charge and catered barbecue; or join for outdoor concerts at their terraced amphitheater for larger performances, with Greg Rolie on July 30 and Christopher Cross, August 27. Story Winery offers wonderful views and vineyards dating to the 1890s, featuring Zinfandel, Mission, Barbera, Sangiovese and Primitivo grapes.

Karmere Winery features cute bicycling art through the grounds and is a frequent location for weddings with a great view of vineyards and the foothills to the southeast. Their French-chateau-like tasting room features bold Syrahs, Zins, Barberas and Nebbiolos.

Stunning sunset over the Helwig Winery on recent Saturday night.

Turley Vineyards features single vineyard Zinfandels and Petit Syrahs in a lovely setting accentuated by period-correct antiques. Dobra Zemlja Winery produces robust Viognier, Barbera, Syrah, Grenache and Zinfandel wines – and features the valley’s first wine cave, featuring a cooling 56 degrees, housed in a 19th century barn. At the east end of the valley, visit Mt. Aukum for marvelous views from the highest point in the region (in the valley, you have about 20 more winery choices, all of them unique).

Tasting rooms abound in Sutter Creek, Amador City, Drytown and Plymouth. Gold Rush history, with museums, former mining sites and quaint retailers, fill all these old towns. Sutter Creek is the largest town, with an eight-block stretch of the old downtown almost completely preserved as it looked 150 years ago (it also features the most tasting rooms).

While no tasting rooms grace Fiddletown, stop on the several block remainder of the once bustling downtown to see the old blacksmith shop, Fiddletown Community Center, two red-brick buildings that housed historic Chinese retailers, and an 1850 rammed-earth adobe building housing the apothecary of Dr. Yee. Here you will also find a gem of a candy/confection store, Brown’s English Toffee, with a host of tempting sweets.

Dr. Yee's Chinese Apothecary in Fiddletown, in a rammed-earth adobe dating to 1850.

In case you wondered about Fiddletown’s name, in the late 19th century, it was a Gold Rush boomtown, but only when the seasonal creek flowed. During the warm summer and fall months, when the creek ran dry and placer mining reached a standstill, the miners took time off and just “fiddled around” – hence, the town’s name.

For good food, Plymouth, Amador City and Sutter Creek offer a variety of restaurants. Don’t miss Taste, in Plymouth, known as one of the top restaurants in the entire Sacramento Capital region (reservations strongly suggested).

Amador City's free street dance is held on Saturday evenings and brings out hundreds!

How to get there: Take CA Hwy. 88 from Lodi, to Hwy. 49, then go left/northeast to Sutter Creek, Amador City and Plymouth (the major entryway into the Shenandoah Valley).  It’s about 55 miles and one hour from the Lodi area.

For more information: for Amador wineries, Amadorwine.com; for information about local activities, dining and lodging, Amador County Tourism, TourAmador.com.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in the west!

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