The charming gold rush town of Sutter Creek is going through a re-birth. With delicious tasting rooms opening along Main Street, plenty of places to stay, and restaurants going through renovations, it’s time to return and give this town another look.
Try the quaint individual tasting rooms to chat with the locals and possibly meet the winemaker or owner. But go to the Sutter Creek Wine Tasting wine bar to try wines from several different labels during one tasting. They have a great variety of reds, whites, and roses as well as some interesting sparkling wines. With discounts for a purchase of 3, 6, or 12 bottles, why wouldn’t you want to stock up on a bunch of these:
Gold Hill California Champagne – a nice crisp sparkling with a hint of sweetness but not too much.
Le Mulet Rouge Almond Sparkling Wine – nuts are a flavorful pairing for sparklers so why not get them all blended together. This slightly sweet sparkler is great for appetizers, cheese, or as a dessert wine.
Gold Hill Malbec – dark ash and berry with hints of plum and blueberry dominate giving it a ripe luscious mouthfeel. We love this high alcohol wine for after dinner.
Gold Hill Merlot – probably one of our favorite Merlots. Lively bright cherry without overwhelming acidity dominates this wines body. Light tannins and a log lasting finish keep it real.
Gold Hill Barbera – this area is known for Barbera and theirs has tart bright red cherry fragrance with a big wide body full of flavors.
Gold Hilll Cabernet Sauvignon – with a cherry cola fruit palate, this wine is balanced by bright vibrant acidity and strong tannins.
Gold Hill Petite Sirah – this wine has a smooth slightly spice box melange of blueberry pie with a dark dank smoky quality that gets more and more prevalent as you swirl. PS, I love you!
Rhone varietals like Syrah, Grenache, and, the cult, Mourvedre crowd the soil in Paso these days. Big fans of these grapes unite here. But, when you crave something a bit more Italian inspired, and we all do at some point, head to Pianetta for big full Italian stallions with a California style. This father-daughter fab find is a block away from the Paso square and the spot to buy wine that feeds your Italian food cravings…or any food cravings, really.
They don’t make any whites but their rose hits the spot with its chilled watermelon flavor. A bit of floral fragrance is the first thing you smell but big round refreshing strawberry, banana, and plenty of watermelon follow. This is a nice meaty rose for taco night or even a barbecue. Their Sangiovese has that bright crisp cherry flavor typical of this grape yet the long finish you’d expect from a cab or robust Merlot. Finally, they serve a very unique Petite Sirah with an earthy green lavender nose but licorice and all spice body with very smooth tannins. Savor this glass for a few minutes and you’ll smell a smoky campfire scent as you swirl.
Each wine is welcoming enough to return to a previous wine after you’ve moved on to bigger bodied wines. Check out these family operations because they are often better at passing on traditions and cross training the unique practices that give their wines character. That’s how they manage to keep their style consistent across vintages.
For a taste of charm in Sutter Creek, stop by the Baiocchi tasting room where Greg pours lively local varietals with Italian style. With a nod to his ancestors, he takes a fun creative approach to winemaking that captures the flavors best for pairing wine with foods. His “Dego Red” is not only a tribute to his grandfather but also shows he likes to have fun with wine descriptions. His tasting room is one of the few where you can get a cool cigar and smoke on the sun kissed patio. Pun intentional.
The tasting went a little like this; Viognier hits you in the nose with lots of caramel. Then, strong acids make your lips smack and mouth water. But the most memorable flavor in this wine is its minerality and stone fruit that keep that overly floral feeling from overwhelming. Indeed, a very balanced wine. Next, the “Dego Red” is a soft, bright, and easy to drink red blend of Grenache and Syrah. Then, the Grenache, Syrah, and Tempranillo G-minor has tight crisp acidity with tart fruit but a smoky back beat, probably thanks to the Tempranillo. His Grenache is like smelling a bowl of berries and waves of tart cherry or cranberry. It craves a barbecue.
If you could channel the past lives of a wine tasting room in gold country California, I’m sure you’d be amused. Between the buildings of former brothels, various jail cells, and gold mines underneath, anyone could spin a wicked story. But none so true as the one where Driven Cellars now pours fab juice.
During the thriving days of California’s gold rush, many men traveled to these parts in search of a dream. Whether that dream panned out or not, those men needed comfort and sustenance. So, most of these little gold rush towns contained hotels, saloons, and brothels– the trifecta of happiness. What’s interesting about Sutter Creek’s brothel is that it was across Main Street from the hotel where many gold rush enthusiasts stayed. To avoid being seen walking into the saloon or brothel, men used a trap door in the sidewalk to cross the street and enter privately through an underground tunnel. After safe passage into the saloon, they could have a drink and enter a small viewing room or parlor adjacent to he bar where they viewed various women and selected a fitting companion. The new tasting room for Driven Cellars still has the other end of that trap door entrance. The rest has been blocked off to protect pedestrians and pets. But, they still have the parlor room… only now it is more like a comfy wine lounge. But I’m sure men still view other women for companionship while sipping a tasty bevie.
Driven Cellars is in a spot to watch not only because they are in a historic building but also they plan to serve food and offer patio seating. They also have a lively selection of crisp refreshing whites and big bold reds. Our fave of the day was a Primitivo with the tart red cherry flavors but thick plum body that balances out this grape’s pronounced acidity. It is their most popular red and one that makes the trip worth a visit, even if you already have companionship for the night.
The newest tasting room in Murphys is in a larger than most building right on the main strip. I believe it was once the firehouse. In this great location, Bunting serves up some classically French styled wines with a punch. The French style is not only seen in their delicious grape varietals that are sometimes hard to find in California like Marsanne and Roussanne but also in an incredible balance of bright crisp acidity with soft tannins that show off the natural fruit flavor of a varietal. The punch is in the high alcohol levels (sometimes 15%), which makes the experience like classical music with the volume turned way up.
Definitely worth a visit!
You might think that wineries with huge opulent estates and sprawling views ought to have delicious wine. You may assume all that money means better quality juice. You may be right but I doubt it. If you like the view, go drink it up! At the end of the day, the wine you’ll want to have is from a smaller producer like Jade Moon.
It is their careful attention to detail and fearless pursuit of flavor that make their wines balanced yet complex. Each wine is crafted with respect to the iconic traits of each varietal. Their Sauvignon Blanc has bright crisp acidity but they’ve tamed its harsh grapefruit profile, allowing slight herbal flavors of sage shine through. It makes a wonderful sipper and an even better pair to sumptuous salads or slightly spicy shellfish. Their round supple Chardonnay has a range of flavors starting with a little butter that follows with thick succulent lemon curd and a whiff of honeysuckle. It is your mate for a saucy barbecue or rich creamy lobster mac and cheese.
These whites are under their Wild Hogge label that is exported to Bermuda. But their reds under the Jade Moon label are available locally in many of California’s scrumptious restaurants. The Odyssey in Paso Robles for one has discovered how their richly textured wines unearth a bounty of flavors alongside their eclectic menu options. Each full bodied red has an amazing array of bright and dark fruit with a long finish you’ll remember. You just can’t get this flavor from a mass produced wine! If your palate is particular, find winemakers like this with the same appreciation, refined palate, and strong sense to continue feeding that brilliant passion.
Every winery has a personality. Even large wineries managed or owned by some corporation can create and market their unique qualities and differentiators. But the wineries that make a huge impact let the winemaker’s personality shine through, making the wine a beautiful reflection of that brilliant character.
A trip to Pisoni Vineyard will wow you. The wow factor here is not only its multi layered and complex wines, which truly express their region’s potential. But the adventurous spirit of Pisoni’s namesake, winemaker, owner, and renaissance man, Gary Pisoni just might change your way of thinking about wine. Pisoni’s unconventional ideas are part of his success. Some are highly confidential yet so entertaining that even he can’t keep them secret. Vineyard practices like picking the leaves off the morning sun side is just the beginning. His theory: all the work you do loves you back when you drink the wine.
Pisoni wines are equally entertaining. The luli Pinot Noir has that unmistakable ripe raspberry and bright cherry that Pinot Noirs love to show off but layers of a eucalyptus log roaring on the fire and toasting nutmeg or chestnuts in the background give this wine complexity. If this sounds romantic, that’s probably because it is; this wine has all the textures you need for a lux meal when you’ve got love on the menu. Maybe luli means “love in a bottle” or “loves you back.”
Any road trip between Santa Barbara and the San Francisco Bay Area deserves a wine break. One of the most picturesque stopping points about half way through your journey is Paraiso Vineyards just north of King City and Paso Robles. Upon stopping, the first thing you notice is a lovely cork tree growing right outside their tasting room.
But what takes your breath away is the view of its hillside and sprawling valley while sipping sumptuous wines. Their Chardonnay has a lively blend of red apple, citrus, and pineapple flavors from partial time in French oak and stainless steel. It’s thickness and hint of banana must be what the French contributes. It would be a lovely pairing for rich salads or saucy lean meats.
Their flight of several Pinot Noirs showcases the versatility of this region. The first Pinot starts with tart currants and raspberry but the second Pinot has more richness with flavors of cherry and berry with a dark musty earthiness and a bit of spice. The third Pinot has more firm rich blueberry and dark black cherry with a balanced and complex body. This is the meaty one who can stand up to a steak or barbecue dinner. Their Zinfandel might surprise you not because of its lively berry profile but because of its subtle earth and spices of clove and sage. It must be its proximity to the coast that ensures the fruit is not overripe and its body has a velvet texture.
Finish the tasting with a dessert wine you certainly won’t see very often. It is a port varietal called Souzao aged into a port styled dessert wine with lots of plum, vanilla, and caramel flavors. An afterglow of cocoa rounds out the berry and plum but what lingers is the smokey vanilla and caramel. This one really rounds out your meal or dessert.
The people at RiverStar Vineyards are not only blending stars. They also create new wine styles that shine. They have invented a delightful new way to end your meal. Making a dessert style wine out of plain and simple table grapes, they’ve found a slightly tart and sweet way to polish off the flavors in any dish with a blanket of white pepper atop a crème brulee body.
But, to start things off, they pour a Sauvignon Blanc with more big pineapple and subtle apple flavors than severe grapefruit. Next, a Moscato changes all the sensations in your mouth with its slight sweetness. Orange blossoms meet your nose while citrus and honeysuckle cross your tongue. Finally a very peppery Viognier finishes the whites probably because of its robust body with all that jazzy spice.
The reds are equally unique, leaving you with a different way of feeling about these varietals. Their Merlot has a brick red hue and a smoothness born of Hungarian oak barrels. It’s slightly creamy texture is evident as its cherry and plum flavors linger. An award winning Syrah represents the halfway point between a cool climate tart wine and a hot climate jolly rancher with plenty of plum, cherry, and apple yet a creamy mocha texture. But their blends are what make this tasting memorable. An Eclipse made from Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel has bright red and dark fruit all at once while smoky spices fill your senses. A Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel blend has the nice acidity you crave from these grapes with the structure you expect from a Bordeaux.
Finally, dessert arrives in the form of a lovely liquid tootsie roll. Hard to imagine yet way too easy to drink. But their Twilight is a chewy deep dark chocolate port style wine made out of a single port grape: Touriga Nacional. Its ripe plum is its only sweetness but sets the cocoa free. If you’re already too sweet for a sweet way to finish, their Syrah port style wine has the lightness of wine because they don’t add brandy. Yet, 18% alcohol may be the perfect finish for your dish or any day.
Admit that you’re sometimes drawn into a tasting room by the way it looks. When the wine doesn’t live up to those expectations, chalk it up to a life lesson and quit letting your eyes judge.
Dawn’s Dream Winery delivers on both beauty and quality. A fabulously decorated and newly appointed tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea serves the tender wines styled like those in Burgundy. A Chardonnay has the green apple you’d expect but nice tart crisp key lime that is a bit of a surprise. Its plush body has a hint of pepper that feels more like olive oil than butter, leading to a long finish. Three Pinot Noirs follow each with a different personality. The first starts off really floral with flavors of pink grapefruit and pomegranate or red apple. The next is less similar yet has the bright raspberry and strawberry common in Burgundians. Then, cedar and sandalwood round out its tart red flavors and a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sage give it additional layers for pairing. The last Pinot holds back its punch like most from Burgundy. Tight and gripping, the subtle fruit takes a while to emerge and the spice is hard to get but present. This wine takes a while to open but Burgundy wine lovers would appreciate all of them.