The inland, Central California wine region called the Sierra Foothills is known for producing primarily big reds, such as zinfandel and syrah. But the area also makes an assortment of well-balanced white Rhône varietals including viognier and marsanne. Northern Italian varietals like barbera are also becoming part of the viticultural picture.
Comprised of six counties—Sierra Foothills, Amador, El Dorado, Shenandoah Valley (located in El Dorado), Fiddletown, Fair Play and North Yuba—the region boasts some 130 wineries, says Mark Skenfield, a viticulturist for Vinescapes, a vineyard management company based in Murphys, CA. Skenfield works in several of the AVAs and has relationships with all of the Sierra Foothills wineries.
Operators say the area’s wines for the most part are good values, but they often require hand-selling as many customers are not yet familiar with them. Many wineries are also still family-run operations, which can limit their production and distribution.
Taste Restaurant in Plymouth, CA, carries about 75 wines from the Sierra Foothills, offering one of the country’s broadest selections, says Tracey Berkner, one of the owners. Part of that is because Taste is located at what she calls “the gateway to Amador wine country.” The operator’s bottle selections are priced from $18 to $160, and wines by the glass are $6 to $13.
Berkner, who says that the area’s wines can be “rustic,” notes that some Sierra Foothills producers may make a few as 50 cases of wine annually. While prices are rising for some of them, “there are just a few wines that charge the big Napa prices,” she says. Several of the region’s wines offer equal quality at half the price of Napa producers.
Customers find these wines accessible and the small-production format appeals to many guests, according to operators that feature these wines. Sierra Foothills seems to “represent the smaller, family-style wine producer,” says John Baucccio, beverage director for Paul Martin’s American Grill.
The Newport Beach, CA-based restaurant currently has four outlets in California and is opening two more just south of San Francisco this year. The restaurant carries seven different grape varietals from four producers, including a handful of zinfandels, a cabernet sauvignon and a viognier, which are priced from $40 to $57 a bottle.
“Locals know them well and love them,” says restaurateur River Klass of the region’s wines. “We hand-sell to the rest, and the reception is always fantastic.”
Klass, the owner of American comfort food restaurants Grounds and Firewood in Murphys, CA, carries 21 different grape varietals from local wineries. He merchandises the wines by region by the glass and varietal for by-the-bottle selection. “I know the winemakers, and I am always proud to pour my guests our local wines,” he notes.
Most operators list Sierra Foothills wines on their lists as a California AVA and then break them down by varietals. Because the restaurant features so many selections from the region, Taste’s entire wine list is organized by grape varietal.
Locals know the wines, and tourists tend to be interested in trying them. Berkner notes that most of her non-local customers take a “when in Rome” approach to wine selection when visiting the region.
LOWER-ALCOHOL, HIGHER ACIDITY WINES
Despite the Sierra Foothills’ frequently hot microclimates, solid winemaking techniques and diverse sub-regions are resulting in wines that are often lower-alcohol and higher in acidity than many consumers might expect. “These wines tend to have less heavy-handed oak use and fruit extract than some other regions,” says Bauccio.
Some of the more delicate white varietals produced in the Sierra Foothills, such as sauvignon blanc, may not have the elegance wines from other areas, Bauccio notes. But the white Rhône varietals “seem to be a better fit for a white variety from this region.”
The area tends to be a “cooler climate where the vines are a higher elevation. This produces a less-ripe grape, which in turn gives the wine a lower alcohol and usually higher-acid [level],” says Jonathan St. Vincent, wine buyer at San Francisco wine shop D&M Wine.
While the Sierra Foothills vineyards offer solid wines, the region doesn’t always produce wines “that fit the typical California wine drinker’s profile,” St. Vincent notes. The store currently carries five wines from the region.
ZIN TO WIN
Zinfandel is the best-known grape in the region, and styles can vary widely from producer to producer and in different sub AVAs of the region. Berkner says that all her current zinfandels are from the Sierra Foothills’ region, and their flavor profiles vary enormously.
For instance, “The zinfandels have a distinct quality of plum and black pepper from the Shenandoah Valley,” Berkner notes. “The zinfandel from Fiddletown shows more baking spice [flavor] and acidity.”
Barbera is also gaining in popularity, Berkner notes. A barbera festival, which takes place in Plymouth, CA, was launched three years ago and has been highly successful. “These are still-to-be-discovered wineries for many people, even though some have been here for 30 years or more,” she says.
One of the region’s wine strengths is its old vines. “The zinfandels are very well regarded from this region, mostly due to their mineral finish and the polish and sophistication that comes from older vines,” Bauccio says.
“If the region can focus on Old Vine zinfandels, and define what that means to the consumer and the resulting wines—communicated with integrity and honesty—then it will continue to do well,” says Bauccio. “The region should focus on its own strengths, rather than market itself as a friendlier, ‘less fancy’ Napa/Sonoma alternative,” he adds. ·
Sierra Foothills Fast Facts
Major AVAs: Sierra Foothills, Amador, El Dorado, Shenandoah Valley (located in El Dorado), Fiddletown, Fair Play and North Yuba
Growing conditions: Highly varied microclimates, warm days (some periods with temperatures exceeding
100 degrees) and cool nights to high-altitude,
cooler growing regions up to 3,000 ft.
Popular varietals: Zinfandel, syrah, barbera, Rhône white varietals
Major vineyards and wineries: Terra d’Oro, Sobon Family Wines, Ironstone Vineyards and Winery