Amador County, California: Gold From Mines & Vines

By Marguerite Thomas

Imperial Hotel Amador City California

Whooshing down 500 vertical feet through an opening in the earth's surface is not for the faint hearted, or at least not for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. But for people unfazed by dark, damp tunnels and rough-hewn rocky caves, a visit to an actual working gold mine can be a fascinating experience. Come to think of it, "working" may not be the best choice of words here since economic woes have kept California's famous Sutter Gold Mine closed to mining for a couple of decades. But according to Steve Duke, my guide underground, the price of gold is currently high, new owners have taken over, and rumor has it that the place will be up and running again in the near future. Not a moment too soon either, as far as Duke is concerned: "As a miner, I make around $75 an hour," he explains. "As a tour guide I earn $10 an hour."

Not that mining for gold is a walk in the park. It can be dangerous, dirty work, although it is certainly less hazardous than in 1849, when the Sutter Gold Mine opened. As the 300,000 gold-crazed men, women and children who flooded into the region from the four corners of the earth quickly discovered, death could strike a miner in any number of ways, from fire to asphyxiation to simply getting lost in the endless, black tunnels.

"If a miner got into trouble down there and failed to come up it might be a long time before his absence was noticed," Steve Duke tells me. He pauses at a board on the wall and hangs a tag on it indicating the time of day and number of people who will be entering the mine with him. "Tag-in boards are now a Federal requirement for every mine in the United States," he says.

During the tour Duke lends a poignantly personal perspective to his description of life (and death) in the mine. Together we visit the "safe room" (a reinforced cave where miners gather in the event of collapsing tunnels or other disaster), peer into an alcove that contains the 19th century "widow maker" (a diabolically dangerous drill), and gawk at the almost imperceptible specks of shiny material -- gold -- embedded in a thick vein of quartz.

But precious metal is not the only valuable commodity in Amador County, a bucolic region nestling in the foothills of California's Sierra Madre Mountains 45 miles (72 kms) southeast of Sacramento, the state's capital. Today's treasure, which thrives in sunlight and fresh air and yields what might be considered liquid gold, is wine.

Locally produced wine is bringing new hopes for prosperity to this agricultural region, where traditional farming has been in the economic doldrums for years. "Forget sheep, for example," grumbles Ken Deaver, an Amador farmer who happens to own a substantial herd of the wooly creatures. "There's no money in lamb meat, and wool is worth nothing." Then his mood brightens. "We're doing pretty well with the wine, however."

Deaver is a garrulous and often controversial character, whose family has been farming this land for four generations. He shows me a vineyard that was planted by his great-grandfather; it is, he says, the oldest surviving vineyard in Amador County and perhaps the oldest in California. Without their summer foliage these vines look like a battalion of baroque sculptures laid out against a plein-air backdrop. Deaver, who is a large man at 6-feet, 4-inches tall, would dwarf the average vine, but these massive trunks rise up almost to his waist, stretching their gnarled gray limbs out as if in welcome.

"It's hard to date them precisely," Deaver muses, "but these vines were probably planted in the 1850's." They are Mission vines, an almost obsolete grape variety that was introduced into the Americas by the 19th-century Franciscan missionaries who colonized the continent. Although Deaver aslo produces Cabernet, Merlot, and Zinfandel, his most unique contribution to the world of wine is Golden Nectar Port, made from the fruit of these ancient Mission vines. The rich, sweet, succulent and powerful wine does indeed shimmer in the glass like molten gold.

The wine that is putting this region on the map, however, is not sweet and golden, it is dark purplish, powerhouse Zinfandel. Though Amador County is less famous than California's Napa and Sonoma Valleys, attention is increasingly focused on this place, where cellars and winemaking techniques are being updated, new vines planted, and historic vineyards resurrected. Many old Zinfandel vineyards, some dating back to the 19th century, yield wines that are uniquely complex and flavorful. Most recently, the region has also been attracting attention with impressive wines made from Barbera, Sangiovese and other Italian grapes. Among Amador County's 30 wineries in operation today, outstanding labels include Amador Foothills, Bray, C.G. DeArie, Deaver, Renwood, Jeff Renquist, Montevida / Terre d'Oro, Shenandoah, Sobon and Vino Nocetto. Most of the wineries have welcoming tasting rooms, and many also have scenic picnic sites under the shade of spreading oaks and sometimes along the shores of a lake.

For serious dining, the region is blessed with a couple of exceptional restaurants, as I first discover when I venture out for dinner at Taste, on Main Street in Plymouth ( Taste may be located in a relatively remote place, but I would happily dine here if it were in San Francisco, New York, or any urbane metropolis. The setting is informal yet sophisticated, the service friendly but professional, and the cuisine simply wonderful. I begin with the restaurant's signature mushroom cigars (minced shitaki and porcini mushrooms laced with goat cheese, rolled into sheets of phyllo and baked until crisp). The roasted salmon is exceptionally savory thanks to its coating of tapenade and sun-dried tomato, and the duck breast, with a pomegranate reduction, is tender and delicious. The bread -- both the walnut-blue cheese loaf and the truly French-tasting baguette, are noteworthy. The fairly-priced wine list focuses on Amador County (particularly Zinfandel and Italian Varietals), but there are plenty of other California regions represented, and European selections as well.

The Imperial Hotel ( also has a notable wine list, with lots of local producers featured on it. The historic building, which first opened its doors to guests in 1879, has been beautifully restored to retain its historic Gold Rush character. The spacious dining room, with burnished wood floors and mellow yellow walls, provides a soothing background to the comfort food I'm in the mood for. Beet salad jazzed up with California's own Point Reyes blue cheese, followed by a fine steak with mashed potatoes, does the trick, especially accompanied by a glass of Il Gioiello's tasty and refreshing Viognier/Roussanne to start things off, followed by a zingy, spicy Zinfandel from Drytown Cellars (perfect with the steak!)

Since the same bread I so admired at Taste is also served at the Imperial Hotel, I am determined to track down the baker. As it turns out, this is an easy task, for Andrea's Bakery & Cheese Shop ( is conveniently located just up the street in Amador City, a tiny hamlet with a population of around 200. Bread, cheese and wine -- the most perfect gastronomic triangle. I wish I could just settle into a corner of this tiny shop for a few days with a couple of bottles of Zin and free access to all the goodies. (Everything is hand-made from scratch at Andrea's.) I'd start, perhaps, with some of that sublime walnut-blue cheese bread, plus a little of the chewy ciabatta, and maybe a slice or two of roasted garlic sourdough. By lunchtime I'd want a sandwich: Kobe style pastrami and Swiss cheese, perhaps, or smoked duck breast and quince paste. Would I be able to pass up the chocolate chunk cookies or a slice of Andrea's famous Basque cake? Of course not. But since it is actually breakfast time, what I do opt for to go with my coffee is a flaky crusted mini-quiche filled with artichokes and goat cheese. Then I give in to the temptation of a supremely supple cranberry scone, nor can I resist a beautifully gooey raisin cinnamon roll. Maybe it's just as well that I can't spend more time at Andrea's or I might be too wide to waddle back out through the door. And that would be a shame, for there may be a shortage of gold in them thar' hills, but there's plenty of good wine to be enjoyed.

(Marguerite Thomas writes about wine, food, travel and personalities. She is the author of "Wineries of the Eastern States," a travel guide to U.S. wineries.)


© Marguerite Thomas Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Vacation Travel - Amador County, California: Gold From Mines & Vines