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Four Fires Draws Wine Buffs

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After some weather issues the first two years, this May Amador Four Fires saw  a beautiful spring day After some weather issues the first two years, this May Amador Four Fires saw a beautiful spring day Photo by Shelly Eady

By Michael Eady

May 6th was the third edition of Amador Four Fires.

The setting was the Amador County Fairground in Plymouth about 40 miles east of Sacramento. The Four Fires festival is a terrific showcase for Amador County and its growth and sophistication since the days long ago when wine authority Darrell Corti is reputed to have derisively referred to it as “Amateur County.” Over the past 25 years the wine scene in this foothill county can only be described as burgeoning. Once mom and pop wineries dominated the landscape, but many have been replaced or renovated to include celebration venues and concert facilities.

With the growth 0f the wine industry in the Sierra Foothills this mostly rural area has become a favored wine tourist destination that provides a bucolic backdrop for a relaxed outing. Amador County now competes vis-à-vis the more famous but now impacted and traffic-congested Napa Valley and, to a lesser extent, neighboring Sonoma County. The town of Plymouth itself is emblematic of the small town nature of the Sierra Foothill gold country and the county fairgrounds provide an appropriate venue to highlight the character of the area.

Amador Four Fires grilling meat PicmonkeyOpen fire grilling of one of the regions    Photo: Shelly Eady

The event is called Amador Four Fires, but the name is somewhat misleading. While there were at least four fires burning, the name refers rather to the structure of the wine tasting. Amador County is widely known for their red wines, especially Zinfandels. As the industry has expanded, additional wine varieties have become established and now thrive in the foothill climate. Notable among these is Barbera.

Because of this diversity, the event is organized not by winery but by type of wine. Amador has proven to be extremely suitable climatically to grape varietals that hail from Spain, Portugal, southern France and Italy, so the tasting areas are segregated into the location of origin of each varietal. Hence, one tent is titled “The Iberian Zone” featuring grape varietals that originate in Portugal and Spain on Iberian Peninsula. Another was “The Rhône Zone”, which, as the title indicates, presented Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Rousanne and Mourvèdre. Rounding out the “four fires” were “The Italy Zone and “The California Zone”.

In what can only be viewed (by me) as a positive development of the evolution of local wine-makers is the abundance of lighter-bodied red wines that are more delicate on the palate and food friendly than the over-extracted, high-alcohol wines that have long dominated the California wine landscape. The quality and diversity of the offerings was delightful. Surely there was something for everybody, whether it be an herbaceous Vinho Tinto from Bray Vineyards to a leathery Mourvèdre from Cooper Vineyards or a bold, peppery Barbera from Feist Wines. The lone disappointment was the California Zone, which was inexplicably segregated from the other three, and was almost hegemonically comprised of Zinfandel wines.

Following proper wine tasting protocol, I first took a spin through each zone tasting the whites and roses. I was pleasantly surprised to find a fair number of rosé wines represented, of which the Terra d’Oro 2015 rosé stood out for its structure and complexity. At the other end of the rose spectrum was the Yorba Wines Rosado made from 66% Primitivo and 34% Tempranillo, which was described by the gentleman pouring the wine was “a red wine for white wine drinkers.” It was after the whites and before tasting the reds that the car keys were handed off to my wife.

Many wineries were represented, too many for a comprehensive tasting, so I simply wandered through the various zones tasting whatever caught my fancy. For example, the Italian Zone had a 2014 Nebbiolo from Matthew Gibson winery, notable not only for its quality but also its relative scarcity. Nebbiolo is native to Italy’s Piedmont where it produces the famed Barbarescos and Barolos. With less than 200 acres of this grape planted in all of the state, California Nebbiolo is difficult to find.

Rappin with the Rickster

Rick Kushman and Mike Eady PicmonkeyRick Kushman and Mike Eady    Photo: Shelly EadyAmong the luminaries populating the Amador Four Fires event was Rick Kushman. Rick is a journalist, who currently holds, as his day job, the position of Communications Strategist for Atlas Peak wines. His outside ventures include authoring an authoritative guidebook to the wineries of Napa Valley (reviewed by yers truly), A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes from a Season in Napa Wine Country. He subsequently wrote The Barefoot Spirit, a best-selling book about the founding and marketing of Barefoot Cellars. He has a monthly broadcast segment on the local Sacramento NPR station (KXJZ) talk show Insight called “Kushman by the Bottle.” He and his partner Paul Wagner also host a podcast entitled Bottle Talk, which Rick describes as “Car Talk for wine lovers.” By his own admission, Bottle Talk covers a wide range of topics and is not necessarily devoted strictly to wine.

In keeping with his gregarious temperament, Rick is nothing if not loquacious and I had a chance to talk at some length with him, which is how one always talks with Rick. The one question that had been sticking in my mind most prominently was whether there was any one style of wine-making or grape varietal that was emerging as dominant or exemplary of the Amador region. In his response, I got quite a lesson but the short answer was “Barbera.” When I asked his favorite wine, he glibly replied, “The next one someone offers me. But seriously, I’d have to say Barbera.”

For more on this and many other wine---or not wine-related—topics, you can access Rick’s podcasts at

Amador Four Fires isn’t only about wine. Several local eateries were on hand to provide sumptuous eating opportunities. One of these, a shrimp and chorizo paella, was cooked over an open fire on the largest paella pan I’ve yet seen. Skirt steak, lamb, salads, fondue and a spicy veal stew were also in the lineup providing a repast that was worthy of the wines being poured. There was live music and wine seminars and craft booths to browse. There was also a Q and A session moderated by Rick and his partner Paul Wagner with encouraged visitors to interact with local wine experts and writers. Rick and Paul later added a podcast to the event.

Before departing the fairground, we were able to test one of Rick Kushman’s more famous bromides. As he has often noted, “There is nothing you want more after a long day of wine tasting than a cold beer. Truer words have rarely been spoken and we were able to refresh our wine-weary palates with a beer from Amador Brewing, a new local brewery that had cleverly placed a small kiosk near the exit. The Four Fires Festival certainly gave a good accounting of the Amador County wine industry and was well worth the $80 price of admission.

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