Each season of the year has its own beauty and photographic challenges.
In late winter, particularly February and March, the vines are bare but the vineyards are blooming with wild flowers, especially Mustard and Orange Poppies. This is my favorite time of the year in the Napa Valley.
In the summer, the canopies are in full array and in mid-July they go through véraison as they transition from super-acidic green fruit to yellow (white-wine grapes) or red and purple berries (red-wine grapes).
In the fall the grapes are begging to be harvested and the vineyards and wineries are buzzing as everyone is in suspense, preparing for the frantic mad dash to harvest the fruit at just the perfect time.
After the harvest, in the late fall and early winter, the grapes are gone but the leaves display a rainbow of colors. This time is very short as the first cold snap and downfall of rain or large gust of wind will turn the leaves brown and strip the vines of their leaves.
Then there are those in-between times during the season transitions in which the vineyards are neither here nor there.
One of those is in early spring (April-May) after all the wild flowers in the vineyards have been mowed, the canes have all been pruned and all that remains are sticks or stumps in the vineyard. While the weather may be great in California (low to mid 70’s) visually the vineyards aren’t much to look at and it can be a real challenge for the wine country photographer.
Then comes bud break, the stage of the vineyard cycle when the first new growth appears. While close-up shots of vines may be visually interesting with their cute little leaves, the vineyard as a whole tends to look like a giant military formation of naked wooden soldiers in which the underlying dirt is more visible than any signs of life on the vine.
The exception is when those bare centurions happen to be really old gnarly vines. This is when the beauty of ancient vineyards display their unique charm as the craggily, twisted oak-tree like vines are unobstructed by large green canopies.
With that in mind and summer-like weather in the forecast I set out on a 2-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to the green grass ancient oak covered Sierra Foothills to visit three wineries in Amador County. In the summer this region can become extremely hot (90-100+ degrees) and the hills turn golden-brown. So, early Spring is a great time to visit and take pictures.
Some of the advantages of this region are that it isn’t as touristy as Napa and Sonoma, the servers are very laid-back, the wines are more affordable ($8 -$25 on average), tastings are often complimentary and there is no snobbery to be found.
However, whereas Napa and Sonoma have moderate Mediterranean climate this is a warm Continental climate. So, don’t come looking for subtle wines with a lot of finesse. This is where you come for BIG, bold, rustic, mouth-filling fruit driven and earthy wines that are best enjoyed with backyard barbeques.
The history of wine making in this region is the oldest in California. Just east of Sacramento, this is where the gold rush began in the 1840’s and some of the early plantings of the Mission grape and zinfandel first found their home. The oldest vines in this area are over 140 years old and nowhere else in California will you find anything like these ancient majestic vines.
My first stop in search of ancient vines was at Story Winery which is owned by Bruce and Jan Tichenor. Founded in 1973, they have been producing wines of distinction for nearly 40 years. Utilizing estate grown grapes, the family-run winery utilizes ancient giant gnarled vines that were planted in the 1890’s. Next to the vineyard, is a fragrant garden is with the aromas of sage and jasmine as well as relics of the Gold Country’s past.
The tasting room is a renovated 1870’s bunkhouse, surrounded by an ancient Mission vineyard, which was used during the mining era of the 19th century and subsequent farm era of the 20th century. The outside walls are constructed of incense-cedar which are full of holes filled with acorns provided by woodpeckers. Surrounding the tasting room is a wood deck where you can enjoy your wine samples and get a panoramic view the Cosumnes River Canyon and hillside vineyard.
The Mission grapes were introduced to Amador County during the Gold Rush of 1849. Spanish Missionaries originally brought the grape to California in the mid-1700’s to make communion wine at the various Missions. Settlers were given clippings to start their own vineyards, thus the name “Mission” grape. A hearty and resistant grape, it yields a very soft, simple, jammy and earthy wine. Historically, this is the most important grape in California so even if you don’t like it you should try it and learn about it for its historical significance alone. From these grapes Story Winery produces four wines: a dry, “Red Mission,” a Mission Rosé labeled “Miss Rose,” a blend of Mission and Zinfandel labeled “Miss Zin,” and a Mission Port.
In addition to really old Mission vines, since the mid-1800’s, Zinfandel has been had a home in the Sierra foothills and by reputation has become “California’s wine.” But the historic roots of this zesty grape go back to the Primitivo grape originating from Puglia, along the eastern coast north of the heel of the boot of Italy. But, there are also indications that the lineage of this grape dates even further back to Croatia where it is known as Crljenak Kasteljanski. Story Winery and Vineyards has 40 acres of Zinfandel vines, some of which pre-date 1900.
While visiting I tasted the following wines:
The tasting room is tiny so they serve their white and Rosé wines outside on the porch and their red inside the air-conditioned bunkhouse.
My first wine was the 2010 Miss Rose, a Rosé made from the surrounding Old Mission vines. This wine is clear, dry and displays fresh strawberries, melon rind on the nose. On the palate this refreshing wine has sufficient acidity but it is a simple enjoyable wine for sipping on a hot day. It sells for $18, a fair price.
The second wine I sampled out on the porch was the 2009 Chenin Blanc. On the nose I picked up red apples and melon. On the palate the wine full bodied, round, soft and slightly cloying and sweet. I would have found it more enjoyable if it were more crisp. This wine sells for $14 a bottle.
My next three wines were sampled inside the tasting room. Although it really wasn’t all that hot outside it seemed to be rather humid so the air conditioning was a welcome relief.
The first wine I sampled in the tasting room was the 2009 Miss Zin. A 50/50 blend of the ancient Mission grape and Old Vine Zinfandel that were planted in 1936. This is a simple fruity and jammy wine with notes of strawberries, cherries and spice with a medium length finish. This wine sells for $26 a bottle.
The second red wine was the 2008 Creekside Old Vine Zinfandel. This is a big, ripe, fruity, jammy wine exuding strawberries, raspberries and spice with a medium length sweet-tobacco finish. On the palate it is soft and supple and mouth-filling. A fair priced wine at $28 a bottle.
My final wine was the 2008 Hilltop Zinfandel This is a bigger wine than the previous Zin with notes of dried fruits (dates, prunes, raisins) and strawberry preserves and a touch of smoke. On the palate it is soft and supple and mouth-filling. A nice wine for only $16 a bottle. I would have purchased one but my cellar has plenty of Zins.
To see more pictures of Story Vineyards, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:
To visit or for more information:
10525 Bell Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
Phone: 1-209-245-6208 or 1-800-713-6390