Shenandoah Valley wineries, gold rush history make Sierra foothills the place to visit!

View of Shenandoah Valley vineyards from Karmere Winery.

Our out-of-town guests Janet and Patricia sample wines at Karmere Winery’s tasting room, done in French chateau style.
Band entertains at Helwig Winery in the Shenandoah Valley.
Fiddletown’s Community Center features a giant fiddle over the doorway.
The old Imperial Hotel in Amador City also boasts a fine restaurant.
Old Wells Fargo stagecoach thunders down Main Street of Sutter Creek.

Shenandoah Valley wineries, gold rush history make Sierra foothills the place to visit this fall!

What do Plymouth, Amador City, Sutter Creek and the Shenandoah Valley in the Sierra foothills have in common? The answer is a heavy dose of early California and Gold Rush history, fine wines and stunning scenery – all linked by a scenic stretch of California Highway 49. These destinations, only an hour to 90 minutes from Stockton, offer all that plus changing fall colors of the Sierra as we head into late summer/early fall.

Let’s start with the most distant point, the Shenandoah Valley in Amador County, positioned at 1,200 to almost 3,000 feet above sea level, and offering those changing seasonal colors. The valley, composed of granite and volcanic soils, quickly became a growing wine-producing area during the California gold rush in the 1850s.

The Shenandoah now hosts over 40 wineries; many of them also feature wine tasting rooms in surrounding cities like Plymouth, Amador City and Sutter Creek. Our favorites in the valley include Helwig Winery, offering industrial-chic buildings on a picturesque hilltop. With valley-wide views and live music on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s a favorite first stop. Another is Karmere Winery, featuring an elegant French-château tasting room and offering the history of local growers who introduced Spanish, Italian and Rhône varietals to the foothills, resulting in renowned Sangiovese, Barbera, Tempranillo, Viognier and Syrah wines.

Turley vineyards offers single-vineyard Zinfandels and Petit Syrahs in a lovely setting accentuated by period-correct antiques. Dobra Zemlja Winery produces robust Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Barbera and Zinfandel wines – and features the valley’s first wine cave, a cooling 56 degrees, entered through a 19th century barn. Story Winery is intimate and offers inspiring views and vineyards dating to the 1890s, featuring Zinfandel, Mission, Barbera, Sangiovese and Primitivo grapes.

Plymouth, located on Highway 49 on the southwestern edge of the Shenandoah Valley, is growing in stature and offers historic buildings and shops along its compact Main Street. Of special note is the regionally-renowned restaurant, Taste, and recently opened boutique 16-room hotel next-door, Rest. We’ve sampled Taste several times, finding it memorable. Friends recently stayed at Rest, enjoying its afternoon wine-tastings and morning breakfasts.

Though no tasting rooms grace Fiddletown, this is one of our favorite hidden-gems of California gold rush repute. Located just a few miles from Plymouth and the Shenandoah Valley, take Fiddletown Road to the  several-block remainder of the once bustling downtown to see the old (name needed) blacksmith shop dating to 1859, the Fiddletown Community Center with giant old-time fiddle standing tall over the entrance, two red-brick buildings that housed historic Chinese retailers, and an 1850 rammed-earth adobe building housing the apothecary of Dr. Yee. Fiddletown, with no tasting rooms nor restaurants, thankfully offers a gem of a candy/confection store, Brown’s English Toffee, with a host of tempting sweets.

If you wondered about Fiddletown’s name, in the 1860s and 70s, it was a gold rush boomtown, but operated only when the seasonal creeks flowed. During the warm summer and fall months, when the creeks ran dry and placer mining could not be accomplished, miners took time off and just “fiddled around” – hence, the town’s quaint name.

Heading southeast on Highway 49, Amador City is one of the earliest gold rush boom towns and preserves much of its history.   A nicely-outlined historic walking tour offers glimpses of life in the 1850-60s era, and many of the town’s oldest buildings and mining sites are preserved.  As one of California’s smallest incorporated cities, it offers a compact footprint that is fun to walk and photograph!

Gold was first discovered in nearby Drytown in 1850, and soon mining claims and mines cropped up along Amador Creek; Amador City soon grew to thousands of miners, shopkeepers and restaurants/saloon workers.  In 1853, the Keystone Mine was formed by consolidating several smaller claims and produced over $25 million in gold; soon the main shaft would reach some 2,600 feet into the Sierra hillsides. Today the city boasts many historic buildings now home to overnight accommodations, boutiques, antique stores, a soda fountain, upscale bakery and dining options.

Just a few miles further on the old stretch of highway 49, you reach the largest of nearby gold rush towns, Sutter Creek. Walk the 10 block stretch of Main Street featuring the Hotel Sutter, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the state and a fine place for lunch or dinner. Other noteworthy eateries include Cavana’s Bar and Grill with good pub food and a classy oak bar and, around the corner, Gold Dust Pizza for fun family dining.

Main Street features several classy bed-and-breakfasts, cute shops and restaurants interspersed with more than a dozen wine tasting rooms. The old Sutter Creek Theatre, open most weekends with live entertainment and the historic Knight Foundry, recently reopened for Saturday tours, make Sutter Creek a special stop along the Gold Rush Highway, Hwy. 49. The Knight Foundary, the only water-powered foundry in the US, was in continuous operation since 1873 until just a few years ago. Sam Knight designed the water wheel which was used world-wide, powering early hydroelectric plants throughout California, Utah and Oregon.

For more information, to plan your wine tour; for insight into activities, dining and lodging.

Contact Tim at; follow him at Happy travels in the west!

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