Nestled in the Sierra Nevada’s historic Gold Rush region, Amador County is a year-round playground — ski and snowboard in the winter; raft white water and pick luscious fruit in the spring and summer. Pan gold whenever you’re feeling lucky. And, enjoy great wine every month of the year.
Amador County is packed with history, beauty, and friendly people. Spanish for “one who loves,” Amador was named for the gold miner who created in the 1850s a successful mining camp near what is now Amador City. Home to some of the most lucrative mines, the area now boasts historic towns that have maintained their authentic charm.
During a weekend jaunt, my husband and I toured the county, which stretches along Highway 49, stopping in Plymouth, Amador City, and the lush Shenandoah Valley. Here’s what we found.
In the once-booming town of Amador City, discover the Imperial Hotel. Opened in 1879, this gem has been restored to its original luster. Our second floor front room had high ceilings, brick walls, and French doors that opened to a grand porch. From there, we had close-up views of Main Street and the hills.
The rooms are cozy and offer a glimpse of what it might have been like to stay in one of the Mother Lode towns during an earlier historic era. Today, guests at this friendly bed and breakfast focus on visiting nearby vineyards while exploring the past (209-267-9172, imperialamador.com).
Play & Shop
During the Gold Rush, Amador County was the hotspot for growing grapes in California. But once the Gold Rush subsided and Prohibition set in, the area was deserted. Now, new growers and vintners are focused on creating great wines.
We started our tour in the lush Shenandoah Valley just outside Plymouth. With over 40 wineries in the county, we had an interesting selection from which to choose. In addition to Zinfandel (the county is home to some of the oldest vines), this region in the Sierra Foothills boasts Syrah, Tempranillo, Roussane, Sangiovese, Barbera, and other varietals. The “wine” drive is along country roads with beautiful views.
Jeff Runquist Wines was a great introduction to the region. The two side-by-side tasting rooms are open, airy, run by friendly and knowledgeable staff, and filled with wine enthusiasts. The winery sources its grapes from throughout California. Favorites (all from Amador) include these 2012s: Primitivo “R” Nostro Vino Vineyard, Barbera, and the “R” Carignane Aparicio Vineyards (209-245-6282, jeffrunquistwines.com).
Continuing along scenic Shenandoah Road, Borjón Winery offers an intimate place to get to know the Mexican-American heritage and rich wines of the Borjón family. They’ve called the Shenandoah Valley home for 30 years, starting first in labor contracting and vineyard management then adding winemaking to the portfolio. Don’t miss the 2011 “Diferente” Red Wine (50 percent each Barbera and Zinfandel) and the 2012 Barbera “Reserva” and Zinfandel “Reposado” (209-245-3087, borjonwinery.com).
Renwood Winery’s modern tasting room is set right off the road among the sprawling winery facility (owned by an Argentine billionaire). Sample the wines at the inside bar or outside on the patio. Specializing in old vine Zins, try the 2011 “Premier Old Vine” and “Merida.” If you’re hungry, choose from a wine and food pairing or something from their deli (800-348-8466, renwood.com).
One of the shops on Main Street in Amador City is Feist Wines. Located in an old 1850s’ saloon, it’s a casual place to taste small-lot wines and listen to music. The owners are passionate about both. These 2012 Shenandoah Valley wines are terrific: Reserve Primitivo, Reserve Barbera, and Zinfandel (209-267-8020, feistwines.com).
And while you’re strolling along Main Street, take time to visit the Amador Whitney Museum. This treasure is home to the history of pioneer women during the Gold Rush (209-267-5250, touramador.com). The Victorian Closet is filled to the brim with clothes, quilts, trunks, and other great antiques (209-267-5250, touramador.com).
The town of Plymouth, “the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley” and established in 1871, has the same kind of ambience and charm of Amador City. The whole area is known for antiques including Drytown, located between Plymouth and Amador City.
The Amador Flower Farm is a popular attraction with 14 acres of verdant gardens and picnic areas (209-245-6660, amadorflowerfarm.com). Elsewhere throughout the area and depending upon the time of year, find hiking and biking trails, fishing, golf, water, and snow activities. If you want to get into the spirit of days past, pan for gold!
The Amador Vintage Market, in the center of Plymouth, is the place for a wine country experience. You can choose to eat in or get all sorts of goodies to take out. The interior space in the historic building combines an open dining-beer-wine-gourmet-foods area with the kitchen and deli.
Alongside Highway 49 in the midst of acres of vineyards, we unwrapped our picnic and savored these house-made favorites: A classic panini, grilled focaccia stuffed with fresh Mozzarella, basil pesto, balsamic onions and tomatoes; and the curried chicken salad, delicious chunks of breast meat, grapes, celery, and almonds combined with a curry mayonnaise. And don’t miss the cookies (209-245-3663, amadorvintagemarket.com).
Back in Amador City, the Imperial Hotel is home to the Saloon & Restaurant. The bar and creaky wood plank floor are reminiscent of the high times during the Gold Rush. The restaurant serves straight from the local gardens. As a guest at the inn, you’re greeted each morning with a house-made breakfast, like our tasty egg strata.
For dinner, we had the spicy Mexican shrimp to start, and then the grilled lamb chops — both tender and flavorful — paired with local wines including the 2008 “Corinne” Mourvèdre and the 2011 Nine Gables Mission “Old Vine.” Afterward, all we had to do was walk upstairs to our room (209-267-9172, imperialamador.com).
Early in the day, find everyone at Andrae’s Bakery, which specializes in handcrafted breads and pastries made with organic flours and local ingredients when possible. The bakery is featuring Irish soda bread March 5 through 15 (209-267-1352, andraesbakery.com).