Exploring Amador’s Shenandoah wine country

PLYMOUTH — Sonoma is fine and Napa is grand. But there’s something about the Shenandoah Valley that makes it incredibly special. Amador itself is simply beautiful, with 50 wineries tucked along the valley’s winding lanes and among the nearby Gold Rush-era towns. The winemaking is serious and the region’s barberas, zinfandels and tempranillos rack up the awards to prove it. But pretension is nearly nonexistent in Plymouth and whimsy abounds — and tasting fees go from low to zero, especially if you buy a bottle. And you will.

Plymouth is at a crossroads — literally and figuratively. To the west lies the two-block-long historic downtown, where crumbling storefronts are slowly giving way to exciting new things. The beloved Amador Vintage Market is here, along with Mark and Tracey Berkner’s James Beard-recognized Taste restaurant — where reservations are a must even at unfashionably early hours. But they’ve been joined by a new brewery, a new Berkner-owned boutique hotel and a winery that brings new meaning to the term dessert wine. (We’re talking barbera-chocolate chip ice cream, people!) To the east lies the Shenandoah Valley.

And the new Hotel Rest (www.hotelrest.net) makes a great home base for it all. That said, don’t dilly-dally about checking in. You won’t want to miss the late afternoon wine and hors d’oeuvres. Those delicious bites — potato-cheese croutons topped with bacon jam and basil, for example — come from Taste and the wines tend to be from local labels, such as Fate Wines, that you may not know. Yet.

When morning rolls around, grab coffee and dash across the street to Amador Vintage Market (open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday; www.amadorvintagemarket.com) to grab picnic fare before hitting the road. Most of the Shenandoah Valley wineries open at 10:30 or 11 a.m. and close around 5 p.m. Prospect Cellars is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., making it a fine place to begin or end a day of wine tasting. Our suggestion: Start at the far end of the valley and work your way back. Here’s a perfect day-long itinerary, with three wineries and a stop for lunch. Also: ice cream.

Borjon Winery

Plymouth's Borjon Winery makes gorgeous, complex wines, including the BullRider, a cabernet sauvignon made from Napa Valley grapes. (Jackie Burrell/Bay Area News Group)
Plymouth’s Borjon Winery makes gorgeous, complex wines. 

There are so many wineries tucked along every lane in this vineyard-rich valley, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose just a handful. (Psst, consult our Shenandoah Valley guide for even more suggestions, including Helwig, Andis and Karmere.) But we’re on a mission to discover new things, and Isy Borjon’s winery is known for its stunning, complex reds. Here, a “reposado flight” is $5 for six tastes, which gives us a chance to try the 2015 sangiovese, a 2014 barbera and a crisp, bright 2016 rosé that earned a gold medal at the Amador County Fair. The cowboy motif you see emblazoned on barrels and wine labels continues with the beautiful saddle in the tasting room. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at 11270 Shenandoah Road in Plymouth; www.borjonwinery.com.

Lunch: Amador Flower Farm

Noon looms as you hopscotch your way across the valley. So be aware that while some Shenandoah Valley wineries, including Karmere Vineyards, Story Winery and Wilderotter Vineyard, allow picnicking. Renwood Winery allows only its own fare. Fortunately, it’s extremely fun fare: BLTs with Gorgonzola and avocado (pair it with the D’Agostini Zin), for example, and Drunken Watermelon Salad (rosé offers the tipsy factor).

And then there’s the Amador Flower Farm, quite possibly the most beautiful picnic spot in the valley. In the spring, this day-lily farm is a riot of color. But the picnic areas, which are open to the public, are heavenly at any time of year. Open daily at 22001 Shenandoah Road; www.amadorflowerfarm.com.

Bray Vineyards and Fate Wines

You’ll spot bright yellow road warning signs as you drive toward Bray Vineyards, but instead of deer-crossings or Ped Xings, they sport a wine-chugging tractor driver. That sense of whimsy pervades the tasting room, too, where the staff pours tastes of barbera and sangiovese, as well as their sauvignon blanc-centric BrayZin Hussy Blonde for $5. What makes this such a stellar stop, though, is the twofer factor. Longtime Bray tasting manager and former Taste sommelier Thomas Allan takes over the back room on weekends to pour his Fate Wines sangiovese and viognier, wines so lovely we bought a case. Bray is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on weekends and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays, except Tuesdays, when they are closed. 10590 Shenandoah Road; www.brayvineyards.com.

Prospect Cellars

It's a rare winery that has its own ice cream, but Plymouth's ProspectCellars partners with Sacramento's Gunther's Ice Cream Shop, so winery visitors can sample treats such as barbera-chocolate chip ice cream. (Jackie Burrell/Bay Area News Group)
It’s a rare winery that has its own ice cream. 

After a day of sunshine and wine tasting in the gold country, you want to hit pay dirt on your last stop. Or rather, Pay Dirt. Housed in the restored original post office on Plymouth’s tiny Main Street, the laidback Prospect Cellars leans in the Gold Rush direction. The building interior is all distressed wood, Edison bulbs and rustic charm that woos you to stay and hang out a while. The zinfandel is Pay Dirt, the red blend is a Gold Digger. Get there early enough in the day and the back bar serves Andrae’s Bakery sandwiches. And if you’re charming enough, chances are good that you may score a scoop of wine ice cream, gratis. Sacramento’s Gunther’s Ice Cream Shop makes custom ice cream — including a sensational barbera-chocolate chip — for the tasting room. Open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Monday at 9506 Main St.; www.prospectcellars.com.

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