Northern California’s Shenandoah Valley Wine Country: Postcard from Suzy
Don’t ask me why anyone outside of Virginia names anything the Shenandoah Valley
and for heaven’s sake, don’t start singing the song as I’ve had it stuck on my
brain for a week now!
Oh Shenandoah, I love your dauuuuughter…
GOLD RUSH COUNTRY
If you’ve ever smirked through Are
You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? you
probably remember all about John Sutter, Sutter’s Mill and the California Gold
Rush that began in 1848, hit pay dirt in 1849 and changed the face of the U.S.
What most people don’t know is that many of the immigrants who
came for the gold ended up in other professions, many of them plying the same
trades they had in Europe: they planted vines and made wine. The area between
Yosemite and South Tahoe, the Sierra Foothills, is the oldest consistent
wine-making area in California. This land was made for zin.
The Gold Rush cities stretch along Highway 49—some are just small towns that
represent the heartland of America; many are restored cutie-pie villages. The
jewel of this crown is Sutter Creek, where, yup, Col. Sutter moved after running
away from his mill and the mobs that came for gold. This is a town that seems to
have stayed still in the mid to late 19th century, with perfectly restored
houses and store fronts on the town’s Main Street which has a few wine tasting
rooms, some tourist traps and many antiques stores selling affordable Victoriana
As beautiful as Mendocino and the northern coast line are, this is a more earthy
beauty—and more to my liking. My great-grandfather was a farmer in upstate New
York and I think I have dirt in my veins. The walnut orchards, the rows of
vines, the green fields and hills that house hidden gold are all spectacular.
The small villages, kind of like the authentic version of Disney’s Frontier land
are so visually appealing that I am tempted to sell my house and retire to the
formerly wild west.
There are about four or five adorable B&Bs right in downtown Sutter Creek. Most
agree that the most luxurious isFoxes Inn ( )
which is picture perfect.
We chose Hanford House, half a block away,
because they are pet-friendly. This B&B is built in two parts—there are
apartments in a restored 1913 house next door to the main inn; these are so
modern they even have heated floor tiles in the bathrooms. And they allow pets
in these rooms.
If your taste runs to old-fashioned hotels, the tiny town of Amador City, a few
miles away, has The Imperial Hotelthat looks like
something Jesse James would like. It also has a popular restaurant. For those
who prefer mass-market motels, there’s a few of those here, too.
WINERIES & VINEYARDS
Most of the vines are north of Sutter Creek, between the town
of Plymouth (needs work on its cute factor) and Fiddletown in the rambling hills
that have produced gold nuggets and Italian-style wines for over a century. The
weather is suited to growing zinfandel (because the hills are above the fog
level), but more than half a dozen varietals are grown in this region, reds and
whites. There are also fortified wines at most vineyards. The Amador County
vineyards are family-owned whereas vineyards in nearby Lodi (about an hour’s
drive away) have mostly been absorbed into a conglomerate.
More important is the style of doing business here—this is the antithesis of
Everything is down home and friendly; most tastings are free. The area is
pet-friendly and many vineyards not only allow children into the tasting room,
but have play areas for them. Summer visitors should note that kids should not
run wild inside wineries (it’s rude) or outdoors, as there are rattlesnakes out
there. Limos filled with people who want to drink away reality are not welcome,
but everyone else is invited to sit down, chat a while, taste and learn about
The area is very much a weekend venue—only a few vineyards are open during the
week and fewer restaurants are open in the daisy chain of Gold Rush communities.
There are assorted winter promotions; Valentine’s Day is a big event here
because of the hidden and romantic nature of the destination. By summer, the
families will arrive. Get there before them!
By Suzy Gershman for PeterGreenberg.com. Suzy Gershman’s by
Suzy Gershman & Sarah Lahey is now available on Amazon.com now and in book
stores in mid-October!
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Wine Tasting & Shopping Mendocino
- Suzy Gershman’s Bottle Blogs Finale
- Shopping section
- California travel section
- Suzy Gershman’s California Wine Country Postcard
- The Kitchens & Chefs of California Wine Country
- Santa Barbara Shopping: Suzy’s First Postcard
- Unusual Autumn Travel: California’s Central Coast
- Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Sausalito, California