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Big Crush 2017

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By Dan Clarke

When I first started visiting the Shenandoah Valley of California, there were wineries, but not nearly so many.

In those days I was preparing the first issue of what was to become the Foothill Wine Press, which debuted in January of 1985. It began as a black and white newspaper, published every other month. While we covered wineries and a bit of tourism from Nevada County south through Calaveras County, most of the action was in El Dorado and Amador County. It seems like there were only eight or ten wineries in all of Amador, most of them in the Shenandoah Road and Steiner Road area in the northern part of the County.

Since then I have followed the progress of Amador’s wine industry, of course, but haven’t spent as much time there as I did three-and-a-half decades ago, especially having spent most of the last couple of years in the Pacific Northwest while developing Taste Washington Travel.

wine popsicle at Turley PicmonkeyTurley offered an adult wine popsicle

The Amador Vintners Harvest Wine Festival, otherwise known as the “Big Crush,” seemed a good time to return. I had enough fun on Sunday to regret not having scheduled to spend both weekend days there. A brochure of the event’s activities indicated 41 different wineries were participating in this 25th anniversary edition of the event. Most had prepared some food to accompany whatever they would be pouring for the visitors and several had booked live music. There were other blandishments, as well. Chaim Gur-Arieh conducted a varietal identification seminar at C.G. Di Arie. At Iron Hub, winemaker Tom Jones and his son Spencer invited visitors to participate in blending exercises and Paul Sobon led fitter and more intrepid visitors on a mountain bike ride through the vineyards at Sobon Estate. Clearly, there was more to do than could be accomplished in just one afternoon.

When I saw my friend John Hoddy, winemaker at Bray Vineyards, at my first stop on Sunday afternoon, he chided me for arriving relatively late in the weekend. “You’ve got a lot of drinking to do,” he said, quickly amending that comment to “a lot of sipping to do.” Stops to make. People to see. I soon passed by the big R in front of Runquist Wines. I’d met Jeff Runquist when he was at Montevina on Shenandoah School Road in the old days. He’s had many an accolade since then and now has his own winery. His winemaker colleague at Montevina was Jeff Myers, who’s now general manager at the old Montevina Winery, which has evolved to carry the Terra d’Oro identity. Across the street I stopped in at Turley Wine Cellars, which came into being with the purchase of Karly Winery. Old friends Buck and Karly Cobb were still living in the area and doing well and were picking grapes that weekend for their own post-retirement winemaking project, I was told. In addition to some lovely Zins being poured, there were also some wine popsicles on offer. I’m sorry now that I declined to try them.

Moving up the road I stopped at Scott Harvey Wines, where Rolly poured several samples, including a rose that was a blend of several grape varieties, including just a bit of Concords—a most unusual wine. Scott, too, is an old friend. He was around the property, apparently busy actually attending to the business of being a winemaker that Sunday. A bit further on I stopped at Renwood, once the location of Santino Wines where I met Scott when he was their young winemaker. Good snacks and pours of wine were enjoyed while sitting on a comfortable patio at Renwood. Still on Steiner Road, I visited a small winery which has a devoted following. Nearly all their wines are too high in alcohol for my taste, but the winemaker/proprietor is a great guy and a personable host.

Two Tone Steiny and the Cadillacs PicmonkeyVintage blues from Two Tone Steiny and the Cadillacs

Before heading back down Highway 16 toward Sacramento, I dropped in at Karmere Vineyards & Winery, where I tasted several wines, had a cup of great vegetable soup and listened to the stylings of Two Tone Steiny and the Cadillacs. Though only sipping, the afternoon was becoming quite a bit of fun. A final fling at Wilderotter Vineyard allowed some more tasting and a light lunch of caprese salad and some tri-tip.

My car knows the way home, but we made just one more stop before getting on the road. It was Amador Brewing, situated at the point where many wine tasters turn left at Plymouth for the drive home toward Sacramento. The place was packed. There were even employees outside helping arriving cars find parking. I must not have been the first person who thought, “What a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to have a good beer to conclude a day tasting wines?” And, “Why didn’t I think to create such a place before this outfit did?” My pint of Kölsch was cold and refreshing and a nice couple named Chip and Dixie invited me to share their table. Turned out they’re also from Sacramento. In fact, they live just a couple of blocks away.

In all, it was a fun afternoon. While I didn’t get to see many old friends, I did enjoy some ghosts—memories from another era—and meet some nice new people along the winetasting way. Three hours were well spent, I’d say.

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