Sierra Foothills Wine Country: Getting to Know Sutter Creek

  • Melissa Vogt

  • 28 Nov 2016 | Travel

The Sierra Foothills appellation is one of my favorite under-the-radar California wine regions. While still unknown compared to other California wine regions, word has gotten out that the Sierra Foothills can produce stunning wine. Many of the small-production growers are impressing palates enough to have gained a significant fan base, and I am definitely a part of that fan base. Known most for its Rhône, Spanish and Italian varietals, there is no denying the ever-growing potential of this region.

In early April this year, I spent a day in Sutter Creek exploring the tiny town’s tasting rooms and eateries. This historic town has a lot to offer, and is absolutely a destination that wine and food lovers should have on their California travel list.

Exploring Sutter Creek
Sutter Creek, and the region’s neighboring small towns of Volcano, Amador City and Plymouth, I imagine are much like what Napa Valley and Sonoma County wine regions looked like back before the wine industry boomed in the 1970s. These are small, mostly agricultural towns with a ton of local businesses, and everyone seems to knows each other. In fact, on the day I visited, the same young man that served me coffee at Element 61 later that day served me a beer at Provisions—that’s how small Sutter Creek is.
The BellaGrace tasting room; most of the quaint, old homes on Main Street have been converted to winery tasting rooms like the one featured here.

Similar in nature to the Bay Area and its northerly wine regions that lie an hour outside of San Francisco, the Sierra Foothills appellation is nestled among a few counties that lie just an hour east of the bustling city of Sacramento. It is a convenient drive for those looking to escape city life, explore wine country and experience a bit of old California charm. While all of the towns are small and may not even have a single stoplight, they are now home to excellent boutique winery tasting rooms, foodie-loving restaurants and shops with antiques, homemade goods and gifts. What was once a California Gold Rush hub has now become a hub for wine lovers and foodies.

In the rural areas that surround Sutter Creek and on your way to and from vineyards, plenty of former gold-panning sites and water wells are marked along the highway, intermittently appearing between the green rolling hillsides that are studded with live oak trees. Each of the towns has countless historic buildings, though the vast majority of them have been renovated inside to offer travelers a sense of modernity among all the historic charm.

Element 61 Kitchen & Drinks
I was surprised to learn that this place had been open for a couple of years already. I have been visiting Sutter Creek for a while now and likely because I already had a favorite café (Thomi’s Coffee and Eatery), Element 61 had flown under my radar. On this trip, I learned that Thomi’s had closed down. Luckily, Element 61 moved in right across the street.

On this occasion, I opted for just a simple cup of iced coffee. Although I wasn’t hungry, their fresh menu of tasty brunch items was tantalizing. On my next visit, I’ll be sure to taste the Hanford House Benny, a classic eggs benedict with a twist of rustic baguette, soprassata, wilted spinach, poached eggs and in-house made hollandaise; or the Carson Pass, which is a cornbread waffle served with pork, and cooked in local craft beer from Amador Brewing Company and Element 61’s own BBQ sauce.

Element 61 has that same trendy feel of a brunch spot in Sonoma County that has been dubbed by the local Bohemian newspaper as a “Best Of,” or a hipster-wrought coffee shop in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. In other words, you don’t feel like you are in a tiny, historic town out in the middle of rural California. The rustic brick building is decked out inside with a nice bar, open seating and a lot of natural sunlight shining through the large front windows; there’s even a patio that’s always packed, because the weather in Sutter Creek is just about always beautiful in the spring and summer. Finding this kind of atmosphere and quality of food (the guests were raving about how good everything was), in a small place like Sutter Creek, shows just how far this wine region has come with its culinary scene. A true coffee snob, I was pleased with my iced coffee, and if you’re looking to indulge a step further during brunch, go for the bloody mary that’s made with local vodka produced by Amador Distillery.

Provisions is another place that you’d expect to find somewhere like San Francisco, Midtown Sacramento or even Santa Rosa—which seems to be a common theme with the relatively new additions to this old gold country town. Housed in a large, rustic building situated front and center on Main Street, Provisions offers the best of both worlds for food and drink. In one half of the building, Provisions is exactly what it sounds like—a general-style store that sells endless culinary provisions. They’ve got cheese and crackers, wine and beer, jams and jellies, sauces and spreads, oils and butters, teas and coffees, pickles and olives, assorted and exotic charcuterie...the list could go on and on. I was very impressed and really had to stop myself from buying half the store to bring home with me.

On the other half of the building, Provisions is a tap-room featuring California craft beers. This place is rugged, raw and exposed in its interior with semi-painted brick walls and original wood flooring. But don’t let that deter you, because the system here is pretty cool. You pick out a bunch of goodies from the store, have the friendly staff plate it all up for you, and then take it over to the the tap-room to enjoy with a refreshing pint of beer. So, naturally, this is exactly what I did.

Enjoying a full plate of crostinis, goat cheese and wild boar salami with a pint of Amador Brewing Company Kolsch was a nice way to spend the afternoon in Sutter Creek. The Kolsch was creamy with mild hop notes, crisp and refreshing, as well as grassy with some gentle vanilla—great for the hot afternoon weather. I’m told, too, that the local winemakers love this place, as it provides a nice way to end the day after being in the tasting room. Chances are, you’ll be chatting it up with a winemaker at some point if you drop in at Provisions. That personal vibe is something you just can’t get everywhere else.

Andrea’s Bakery
If there’s one place I never miss visiting while I am in the Sierra Foothills, it’s Andrea’s Bakery. Located in Amador City (just a two-mile drive from Sutter Creek), Andrea’s Bakery brings the freshest and most delicious breads and pastries to locals and visitors of the region. I’m addicted to their mini-quiches, which are bite-sized, flaky-crusted morsels of delicious egg and gourmet cheese goodness.

Their scones, of which the strawberry almond is my favorite, are sugar-crisped on the outside but soft on the inside; full of flavor and never too sweet, Andrea’s scones and other pastries are a great snack for just about any time of the day. Their artisanal breads are fresh and soft, and they make just about every style can think of: French, focaccia, ciabatta, sourdough, etc. Sticky buns, croissants, cakes and even tarts, there is hardly a bakery item left unturned. And you won’t be disappointed by any of it, I promise.

Accommodations in Sutter Creek
Sutter Creek is one of the most charming wine country destinations because of its many bed and breakfast inns that offer historic charm, comfortable accommodations and a refreshing respite from corporate hotels.

Offering small but charming rooms, Hotel Sutter is right on Main Street, just across the street from Provisions. Their renovated rooms are very comfortable and complete with modern amenities. The hotel is also home to the Cellar Lounge, a bar that is open later than any other establishment in Sutter Creek.

At the Grey Gables Inn, the antique charm is off the charts. This adorable bed and breakfast is an old Victorian home with eight rooms, each named after canonical authors and poets. In fact, each room features works by the author after which the room is named—should you have the urge to brush up on Romantic poetry by the likes of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Antique furniture is juxtaposed against newly-remodeled bathrooms, offering the kind of luxury that wine country visitors come to expect. The beds are comfortable and the lack of television is inviting and refreshing. Studded with rose gardens around the Victorian home, the property is a lush haven on the outskirts of Sutter Creek. A fresh, plentiful and delicious homemade breakfast is served promptly each morning, followed by afternoon tea and evening hors d'oeuvres with wine. Proprietors Roger and Sue Garlick, originally from England, are friendly and gracious hosts. Other bed and breakfasts in Sutter Creek include the Sutter Creek Inn, Hanford House, Foxes Inn and the Eureka Street Inn—all of which are excellent places to stay.

Dining in the Sierra Foothills
I tried to book a table at Taste restaurant in Plymouth, but reservations were full on a Saturday night, so not getting a table was entirely my fault. I should have booked well in advance, knowing the quality of the food (I have been here a couple of times before) and how much it is adored by all who visit. Next time, I will be prepared and make reservations well in advance—as you should, too, if you want to dine at this fantastic restaurant. The cuisine is creative and delicious, and the wine list is superb. So plan ahead and don’t miss dining here like I did on this visit.

Missing my chance to dine at Taste, I opted for the Restaurant at Hotel Sutter as a second choice. I had been here a couple of times before and remembered the cuisine fondly. I went to the restaurant with high expectations, as the last time I visited in September 2014, I was impressed by the culinary expertise of Chef Darius Somary—who proved to be a gem in this historic town—elevating the local cuisine to a new level. However, on this visit, I knew immediately that the chef had changed.

After a full day of wine tasting, I opted for a cocktail to start the meal. The Lacy’s Lemonade was made with vodka, lemon liqueur, elderflower syrup, lemonade and sprite. While the elderflower syrup was a nice contrast to the lemon flavors, the cocktail was overall extremely sweet and lemony—not enough else going on to really make for any complex flavor combinations. I was hoping for a bit more.

I did like the Caesar salad, which is a pretty simple dish to prepare. It was plated nicely with fresh, crisp romaine leaves and topped with a tasty, zesty Caesar dressing. The homemade croutons added a nice crunch, as did the crispy prosciutto—which gave a saltiness that pleasantly contrasted the fresh romaine.

For the entrée, I ordered the shrimp and grits. While this was a tasty dish, it was not exactly innovative. You may be asking… is shrimp and grits supposed to be innovative? Let me tell you, I have had some incredible shrimp and grits from the likes of Charlie Palmer at his Harvest Table restaurant in St. Helena, Napa Valley. These shrimp and grits, however, did not possess the depth of flavor I was seeking. The grits were classically cheesy and cooked to a nice texture, and the shrimp was certainly sweet and tender, but there was simply no “wow” factor here. Salty bacon added a bit of complexity, but I was once again expecting more.

Upon returning home, I looked up the restaurant to see what had changed, and my guess had in fact been true. There had been a change of chef and it was noticeable. The new and current chef, Adam Masters, certainly has big shoes to fill—as former Chef Darius Somary set the expectations pretty high. While I am sure it possible for Masters to get there, his flavors right now have a ways to go before reaching Somary’s level of synergy. I wish Chef Masters the best of luck in his endeavor to bring truly innovative cuisine to The Restaurant at Hotel Sutter, and I look forward to returning and tasting how his cuisine develops over time.

Wine Tasting in Sutter Creek
Sutter Creek is a mecca of boutique winery tasting rooms, and they are all within short walking distance of each other. Many of the tasting rooms feature outdoor patios, which is a perfect scenario for spring and summer vacations, and each is filled with friendly staff—many even with the winemakers themselves. This personal aspect is something that makes Sutter Creek unique. The winemakers are there to connect with visitors, share their stories and really show how passionate they are about their wines.

Baiocchi Wines
Greg Baiocchi of Baiocchi Wines is definitely one of those charismatic winemakers that you will find behind the tasting room bar. Greg does it all at Baiocchi: he works in the vineyards, he makes the wines and he even pours them from bottle in his Sutter Creek tasting room. This family operation has an average annual production of about 2,000 cases and the vast majority of their wines are made from their 12-acre estate vineyards in the Fair Play appellation—one of the smaller sub-appellations of the Sierra Foothills. “If you’re going to do Rhône or Spanish varietals, Fair Play is where it’s at,” Greg says with a smile. His Rhône and Spanish collection boasts an impressive lineup of blends and single varietal wines.

The 2014 Del Papa, a unique white blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier, is a beauty. Classic peachy aromatics with some stoniness emanate from the glass, while on the palate, crisp and refreshing flavors of stone fruit, green melon, a touch of pineapple and minerals leave you begging for another sip.

Of the blends, my favorite had to be the 2013 Octave c6 (Greg is a musician; ask him about the names of some of his wines when you are in the tasting room and you are bound to have an intriguing musical conversation). “This wine came together as an organic evolution,” Greg told me, as he poured a splash in my glass. It is a six-varietal blend that was inspired in part by Saxum Vineyards’ blending style. The aromatics lure you in right away with stunning dried fruit aromas. It is smooth and silky on the palate, round and enticing with gently gripping tannins. Balance and seduction are the words that come to mind when tasting this wine. I could tell that the wine was aged in neutral French oak, and that subtle approach gives way to the palate full of dried red cherry and strawberry fruit, well-integrated with the dusty minerality and enchanting texture on the finish. If you are a single varietal purist, don’t pass up the chance to taste this wine—I promise you will love it.

As for the single varietal wines, they are equally as impressive. I enjoyed both the 2013 Mourvèdre and 2012 Sharon’s Vineyard Grenache. A mere 82-case production (get it while it lasts!), the 2012 Sharon’s Vineyard Grenache was aged for 22 months in 25% new French oak. Pure Grenache, bottled unfiltered, this wine expresses pronounced aromas of dried red fruit and violets. The palate exhibits a spice-driven character with dried strawberry and floral nuances. Smooth and soft in its light to medium-body, this is a wine with a ton of spice, energy and length on the finish.

In a conversation about the region’s wines, Greg noted, “We’re definitely bringing something to the table.” With wines like this, I couldn’t agree more.

BellaGrace Vineyards
I always look forward to visiting BellaGrace, as I have enjoyed their wines for many years now. Overall, I was very impressed with the current releases. Already made at a high-quality level, on this visit I noticed an even higher level of quality than in prior vintages. Owners Charlie and Michael Havill, at the helm of winemaking and grape-growing, deserve recognition for their soaring quality, as the current release wines are more finessed and elegant than ever.

The 2015 Vermentino is made from estate-grown fruit in the Shenandoah Valley, another of the Sierra Foothills sub-appellations. With a nose full of tropical notes of mango and guava, your senses are immediately seduced. Crisp acidity balances a very mineral-driven palate, with peachy stone fruit flavors alongside mango and kiwi.

Always a classic, as the Sierra Foothills is one of the premier appellations for Barbera in California, BellaGrace’s 2013 Barbera shines bright. The majority of the fruit comes from the iconic Shake Ridge Vineyard, owned by renowned viticulturist Ann Kramer, and the wine boasts quintessential Sierra Foothills Barbera aromas of spiced plums. A beautiful spice-driven wine, the mouthfeel is balanced in its silky demeanor coupled with lively acidity. Fruit flavors of spiced plum and cherry that are wrapped in soft tannins make this a classic Sierra Foothills Barbera, full of earthy spice and lively energy.

While it was difficult to pick a favorite wine, I was particularly impressed with the 2013 Reserve Petite Sirah, a floral and blueberry-scented wine with a ton of personality. The palate brings that regional typicity of dustiness, along with silky tannins and mixed fruit: blueberry, blackberry and even some red cherry. This is an elegant, soft and balanced expression of Petite Sirah.

Amador 360 Tasting Room
On this trip, I visited Amador 360 for the first time. A co-operative tasting room, the menu features a collection of wines from producers around the region that do not have their own tasting facilities. This location provides a good opportunity to taste a number of very small producers in one place.

While a handful of the wines I tasted were enjoyable, I tasted mostly non-appellation wines with fruit sourced from larger, all-encompassing areas—which is to say that typicity and quality were not as high as the wines from the three tasting rooms I visited in Sutter Creek. There were a few exceptions with good price to quality ratios that are worth noting.

A pleasant white, the Le Casque 2013 Roussanne from Amador County expresses floral aromatics with yellow peach and mango. Crisp and simultaneously round, flavors of melon and tropical fruit mix with gentle oak and spice on the palate. This is a balanced and straightforward white wine. The Fiddletown Cellars 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel was a good wine for its $15 price tag. Made from Fiddletown appellation fruit, the spice-driven palate shows dried red and black fruit in a vanilla-tinged, balanced and approachable style. This was one of the few appellated wines I tasted and at this price, it is solid purchase for youthful drinking. Binz’s 2013 Slate Creek Hills Vineyard Grenache has those typical dusty tannins that I enjoy so much in Sierra Foothills wines. Dried strawberry and red cherry provide a tasty, but simple approach. This is an easygoing wine for a relaxed evening.

Amador 360 is a friendly, laid-back tasting room with very approachable wines. You will feel at ease as you taste through some tasty, uncomplicated wines from around the region. With that being said, if you are looking to taste complex, classic expressions of the region, head to the boutique tasting rooms in Sutter Creek for a stronger showing of regional typicity and quality.

More articles from this author