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Roots of Civilization: Confronting the Wine Snob Within 

Wednesday, Jul 31 2013

Deep in Amador County, two-and-a-half hours from the Bay Area, there aren't any cities — just tiny old Gold Rush towns. In Plymouth there's a 24-hour mini-mart and gas station, two banks, and, at least on the main road, one restaurant: Marlene and Glen's "Dead Fly" Diner. There are maroon signs on country roads pointing to various wineries, and a few motor coaches driving tourist couples and drunk bachelorette parties around. But there isn't a Denny's, McDonald's, Starbucks, or Marriott. Here in the agricultural cradle of the Shenandoah Valley, except for the winery signs, civilization seems very far off.

But now, standing in a vineyard in the heat of a July day, staring at a hillside covered with innocuous-looking plants, I'm trying to wrap my head around something: These wizened grapevines are in fact some of the oldest signs of civilization in California. They are older than all but a couple of buildings in San Francisco. They were planted before the West was won, as the country was rebuilding after the Civil War. And even today, people revere the fruit they produce.

Humans have been making wine for about 7,000 years, and and exalting it about as long. Archaeological evidence points to the ancients serving their fermented grape juice in special vessels, and consuming it with a similar sense of ritual as we have today. Wine is, to be sure, a special thing, reflective of both the people who made it and the earthly conditions of time, geography, and climate. The good stuff tells a story with each taste, one that changes the farther you get into it.

But let's get something straight: Wine's most popular and least-discussed quality is that it gets you drunk. That's why these grapevines were planted more than 140 years ago, and that's why most people drink the stuff today.

The vines in front of me are of the Zinfandel varietal, which is king here in Amador County. Their history is a microcosm of California's. Zinfandel has been compared to a lowly European immigrant: one born in Croatia, with relatives in Italy, who migrated to the New World in the early 1800s. Initially it was grown indoors as a food grape by East Coast horticulturists. When gold was discovered in California, some of those wealthy East Coasters came here, and brought vine cuttings with them. In the fertile soil and Mediterranean climate of Northern California, Zinfandel flourished. The grape would eventually help establish California wine as equal to its European counterparts. Now it's one of the state's most iconic products, the viticultural equivalent of Hollywood, Google, gay marriage, and medical marijuana. In some sense, Zinfandel is California.

I've come here to Amador County, a sparsely populated patch of the Sierra foothills, to find the oldest vestiges of California's wine industry. To get a sense of what the prospectors and farmers who settled this place liked to drink. To seek a wine country unspoiled by the elitism and expense of Napa. To taste the history of my home state.

And, yes, to maybe get a little drunk.

Here in Amador, some wineries all but advertise their lack of pretension. Sobon Estate, deep in the Shenandoah Valley, is the oldest operating winery in California, occupying a property founded in 1859. The sparse, shed-like tasting room is, thankfully, air-conditioned (not all of them are). A bowl of orange cheese sits on the tasting counter, half-covered in plastic wrap. A big man in a white dress shirt, wide-brimmed hat, and 19th-century mustache prattles on to the lady behind the counter about the particularities of his taste in wine. The epitome of a wine snob, I think. Perhaps Amador isn't the anti-Napa after all.

But we fall into conversation with the guy, whose name is John. He's an Amador local showing friends around. He mentions being into steampunk, which explains the mustache. He apologizes for what he calls his "hillbilly" wine-tasting outfit, then pulls out a map and helpfully shows us which wineries to hit. I take the map and thank him sheepishly. Here is a man who embodies Amador's under-civilized brand of civilization: knowledgable, genuine, generous. I, the outsider, have mistaken him for some wannabe wine connoisseur.

And then I realize what I like about Amador County: It hasn't yet been ruined by people like me.

We follow the map to a winery called Dobra Zemja, run by a Croatian family, which specializes in the biggest, spiciest reds you can imagine. Their weaker wines start at 15 percent alcohol by volume, and top out at over 17 percent — which is extreme, but that's how they like to do things. Dobra Zemja also makes a fiery red blend that they sell in a jug. This is kind of a joke, since jug wines are seen as the antithesis of quality by serious wine people. It's funny when you realize that the wine is damn good — I wouldn't expect it to impress my wine-snob relatives, but it's definitely enjoyable — and costs $20 per liter. You can even bring your jug back and have them refill it straight from the cask.

We roll on. Outside of Vino Noceto, a red, barn-like winery on the main road through the valley, there's a statue of a grinning, cartoon dachshund, from the old Doggie Diner chain. It proved a good omen. This is one of the few wineries I know that makes grapes from the oldest vineyard in Amador — the Original Grandpère vineyard, where I stood and stared earlier, where the vines go back to the 1860s. As Zinfandel drinkers well know, there is a lot of hype surrounding "old vine" wines, which produce less fruit, but, supposedly, more concentrated flavor. The term has no technical meaning, however, so an "old vine" zin in the grocery store may come from vines that are 70 years old, or 100, or 50. Except here. These Zinfandel vines are the oldest.

The 2009 Original Grandpère Zin pours a deep purple, almost black. It has all the usual Zinfandel flavors — plum, jam, blackberry — but with a depth and richness that I hadn't found in any of the other zins.

I can't quite pin down how similar it is to early California wine. I keep asking people what kind of wine the gold miners, farmers, saloon-keepers, doctors, and assayers of the 1850s and 1860s would have drunk — whether it would be recognizable as the Zinfandel we know now — and I never get a straight answer. A book I find on local wine history doesn't help, either. But much of the early wine culture disappeared when Amador fell into economic decline in the late 1800s. Many vineyards were torn up to plant crops, and most of the rest were done in by Prohibition. That's why the Original Grandpère vineyard is special. It's a survivor, a link back to the early days of California, a sign of original intent from the people who settled this place. While almost everything else has changed, these vines have been here, hidden from many, producing wonderful grapes the whole time.

The wine from the oldest Zinfandel vines in California is at least as great as I hoped it would be. The folks at Vino Noceto pour samples that amount to a third of a glass, and happily offer up one from every bottle they have open, all for no charge. By the time I get through them, I'm feeling the principal effect of any wine, good or bad. I'm giddy and drunk in the heat, just like every other tourist.

I need a meal. In Amador, however, you don't just stumble into a restaurant where the chefs' attention to detail matches the local winemakers'. There are a few fancy places around, but the closest eatery is the "Dead Fly" diner, where the old pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe hang crookedly on the wall, and the server calls you "dear" or "baby." The word "chipotle" appears on the menu four times, spelled differently each time, and not a single time correctly.

This is about as far from Napa as you can get. Free tasting, family-owned wineries, little pretension. The history — of wine, of the Gold Rush, of California agriculture — is still rich in Amador County. There is civilization, and there has been for a very long time. But it's not totally civilized.

The previous afternoon, we'd stopped at an old frontier-style roadhouse in a place called Drytown (it bills itself as "the only wet spot in Drytown"). Walking into the dark interior, half a dozen heavily tattooed, tanned locals turned at once to look us over.

How my wife and I must have seemed, with our collared shirt and sundress and fancy camera: the very picture of oncoming change, urban folks come up for the weekend to sniff and swirl and mull. Outsiders.

But that's the thing about California, and Californians: We, or our relatives, all arrived here however many years ago, and were left to see how we do in this sunlight and this soil. I feel like a stranger among normal wine culture, and yet I feel like another kind of stranger here, in Amador. But I was born in this state. And one day, I will be the same as the old vines, wizened and gray, full of stories that people can no longer decipher.

The roadhouse has a good, strong IPA on tap. I order two pints and take a look around — at the rock band setting up, at the dollar bills hanging from the ceiling, at the locals. And once again, Amador County makes me feel sheepish: Everyone else in here is drinking Bud, from bottles.

About The Author

Ian S. Port


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