Spelunking and Tasting in the Sierra Foothills

By Wendy Van Diver

Armed with two iPhones, one iPad, a relatively ancient (three-year old) GPS system, and contributing photographer Linda Blue, I set out to tour and taste through the rugged and historic Sierra Foothills of California. I decided to start at the north, so Nevada County would be our first stop. Jacque and Lynn Wilson of Pilot Peak Winery waited patiently when we got lost just 45 minutes short of the winery, bumped along a winding unpaved road full of ruts and rocks until we found our way to asphalt, and then to Pilot Peak. Situated on a serene, woodsy mountainside, the winery has become a popular spot for weekend gathering on its lovely series of terraces that cascade down the hill. The Wilsons showed us around and then lead us into the nearby town of Grass Valley where Pilot Peak shares a cooperative tasting room with Bent Metal Winery and Solune Winery. I felt fortunate to have an opportunity to taste the wines of three local wineries under the guidance of such gracious hosts. From there, Linda checked into her room at Holiday Inn Express-Grass Valley and I checked into mine at Grass Valley Courtyard Suites. Linda was delighted with her fitness facility and I, my deluxe room with a complete kitchen and wood-burning fireplace. We met for dinner at Villa Venezia where we enjoyed savory pasta dishes paired with local wines. The following morning we wandered the charming streets of Grass Valley and then Nevada City. They both offer historic Gold Rush charm, unique places to stay, interesting shops, and wonderful architecture.

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The wineries of El Dorado County were next on the itinerary, so we drove down a lovely country road with a brief stop at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, which includes a museum, working sawmill, and restored buildings. We were awestruck when we reached Gold Hill Vineyard. The view is simply amazing. Linda set out to capture it in her lens, while I chatted and tasted the exceptional wines with owner Bryna Dacus. Next, we stopped at David Girard Vineyards where we tasted more exquisite treasures from the winery’s premium vineyards. Suzette, who amiably poured for us, suggested we visit Bella Vista Bed & Breakfast next, and I’m glad I followed her advice! The intimate inn has a splendid view and grounds, including an outdoor pool with its own beach! From there, we took yet another scenic route into the town of Placerville and found our way to the remote and utterly divine Eden Vale Inn. This slice of heaven provides enchanting grounds and spacious, beautiful rooms with private outdoor soaking tubs. The atmosphere was instantly soothing and I decided we should take a couple of hours to enjoy this special place. I rowed the small skiff out on the pond and watched a llama graze on a distant hill. We could have stayed there all evening, but I was glad we didn’t when we arrived at Madroña Vineyards. We were greeted warmly by founders Leslie and Dick Bush, their son, Winemaker Paul Bush, and his wife, Maggie. Although Maggie had promised she wouldn’t, she did plan a beautiful dinner for us to enjoy as we watched the sunset. Sitting and talking with Paul and Maggie was one of the highlights of my entire trip. Back at Eden Vale, Linda and I toasted marshmallows and stargazed as we talked softly with Visiting Innkeeper Gayle Ballard, who prepared a scrumptious breakfast for us the following morning.

I could feel the great wines and meals beginning to take hold on my hips, so I made our next stop Gold Bug Park and Mine. There is so much to do here, including gem panning, touring an authentic stamp mill, and taking a guided or self-guided tour of the mine. The short hiking trail around the main grounds was just what we needed before we got in the car and drove to our first winery of the day: Miraflores Winery. This exquisite Tuscan villa-style property produces sophisticated Italian varietals and blends and the staff is ultra-gracious and accommodating. Manager Matricia Haigood would not let us leave without preparing a delicious cheese platter for the road. We then stopped by Skinner Vineyards to say hello to Winemaker Chris Pittenger and Eric Wolff; then to Perry Creek Winery for a tasting; and then on to Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards where Winemaker Craig Becker shared tastes from two barrels holding excellent future vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon. Our last visit of the day was to Mount Aukum where we enjoyed an impromptu tour with Tasting Room Manager Tashia Rynearson and Linda shot the gorgeous views of El Dorado County.

The sun was just starting to set as we arrived in Amador County’s Sutter Creek, where we checked into the historic American Exchange Hotel on Main Street. Tired of driving, we opted to eat in the hotel’s restaurant, and enjoyed an exquisite dinner. We met several nice people—all eager to sing the praises of Amador County.

The following morning was dedicated to the lush and beautiful Shenandoah Valley, where we first visited Andis Wines to admire its stunning state-of-the-art facility, and then stopped at Helwig Winery. Helwig’s General Manager Joe Shebl dropped what he was doing to show us around the impressive property which includes a unique wine cave system and built-in outdoor concert venue. I have always wanted to taste the wines of Susan Farrington at Villa Toscano and I was not disappointed.

Ironstone Vineyards has long been a pillar of the Calaveras County community. After a brief tour to see its outdoor amphitheatre and museum, we tasted a variety of wines from the Ironstone portfolio while I had a wonderful conversation with Community Relations Director Conrad Levasseur. Conrad then graciously pointed me to our hotel in downtown Murphys, the charming Victoria Inn. The town of Murphys currently boasts umpteen winery tasting rooms along its enchanting Main Street. Hovey Winery has one of the newest, in the front portion of the historic Albert Michelson house. We were greeted there by Jan and Chuck Hovey. Chuck has been crafting wine in Calaveras County for about 30 years and it was a privilege to sit with him as we tasted his impeccable and elegant wines.

After savoring inspired panini paired with glasses of Laraine Winery Chardonnay at V Restaurant, Bar & Bistro, it was time to turn in. In the morning, I had a great conversation with Victoria Inn owner Michael Ninos over breakfast and then we hit the road. And, despite a few alternate suggestions from my GPS, we stayed on paved roads all the way home.


As seen in the issue Spring 2013 issue of Touring & Tasting Magazine.


Sierra Foothills

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The foothill range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains was dubbed “Gold Country” during the great California Gold Rush more than 150 years ago. The region is still referred to that way—and maybe for good reason. Here, the vineyards, located between 1,500 and 3,000 feet, are planted in well-drained, rich soils. Warm, sun-drenched days followed by cool, crisp nights yield grapes of remarkable intensity. And intense grapes produce wines with magnificent flavor profiles: pure gold.

Wine Trails of the Sierra Foothills

When we’re talking about the sierra foothills, the first word that comes to the visitor’s mind is “breathtaking.” Pick a trail and drive through hills, valleys, old mining towns, and untouched fields.

Rediscovering Gold in the Sierra Foothills

Although the California Gold Rush of 1849 is long past, the quaint towns and fertile land of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains still whisper "gold".

Savoring the Bounty of Gold Country

Delicious fall recipes that go great with wines from Sierra Foothills wine country.

What Sierra Foothills Winemakers Enjoy Most About Their Craft

Here we ask some of the Sierra Foothills’ inspired winemakers what they enjoy most about winemaking and the Sierra Foothills.

Vistas and Varieties in the Sierra Foothills

Today, while Zins remain impressive, Rhône and Italian varieties have found a happy home in the Sierra Foothills and Gold Country’s diverse terrain.

Blazing New Trails in El Dorado County

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Behind the Bar in the Sierra Foothills

One of the many pleasures of wine touring in the Sierra Foothills is the relaxed, convival attitude we find in its tasting rooms.

Tour Journal: Calaveras County, California

Until recently, the only thing I knew about Calaveras County was there’s a short story written by Mark Twain with frogs and Calaveras in the title. I had no idea how beautiful and rustic it is.

Tour Journal: Amador County

Located about 45 miles southeast of Sacramento, this scenic county at the heart of Gold Country offers great wines, fabulous food, charming small towns, and a warm, welcoming attitude.

The Treasures of Gold Country

Tucked away in the folded foothills of the Sierra Nevada, California’s Gold Country is an unforgettable destination where the state’s past, present, and future come together.

Close-Up: El Dorado County

Just 40 miles east of Sacramento, El Dorado County is located in the breathtaking Sierra Foothills in the heart of California’s Gold Country.

Tour Journal: El Dorado County, California

Located just 40 miles east of Sacramento in the Sierra Foothills, commonly known as California Gold Country.

Tour Journal: Amador County, California

Just 45 miles east of Sacramento, Amador County beckons with beautiful rustic vistas, historic downtowns, and rolling scenic vineyards. 


In the heart of the Sierra Foothills, acclaimed for interesting and historical places to visit, Miraflores is dedicated to helping write a new chapter in its history as a world-renowned viticulture area.

Madroña Vineyards

Paul and his wife Maggie of Madroña Vineyards continue the Old World winemaking practices Paul’s father began.

Ironstone Vineyards

On a far edge of the charming gold rush town of Murphys, Ironstone Vineyards offers visitors a genuine experience that only begins with its approachable wines.