To say that California has a bit of a split personality is like saying that we have a “little fault line” running down our middle. Californians are Botoxed celebrities and middle-aged hippie activists, surfer dudes and ski bunnies, cosmopolitan urbanites and dry land farmers. It’s an afternoon’s drive from skiing to the beach, and from foggy redwood forests to sere deserts dotted with cholla cacti. So I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to find that California wine country has as diverse a range of personality as the rest of the state.
I spent the last few weekends exploring some of the close- by lesser known wine regions: the East Bay’s Livermore Valley, Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley in the Sierra foothills, and the Delta’s Lodi region. These are not private chef and art collections and $20 wine tasting wine regions like their better known cousins to my north; these are dirt-under-the-fingernails and pick-up truck wine regions where you may be the only group in the winery, talking to the winemaker or his wife about why they love their jobs and what they are excited about sharing with visitors. Wineries and tasting rooms may be cool and elegant, or it may be in an old barn or cellar with tools on peg boards on the wall and folding tables holding a line of bottles for tasting. The grapes that thrive in each specific area are unique because of the weather, the soil, the elevation, even the direction that the valley lies. I was excited to try some wines that I was unfamiliar with: Alvarelhao and Verdelhos in Livermore, the Rhone varietals of Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvedre in Amador, and the Albarino from Lodi, as well as the more familiar Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Tempernillo grapes. And I came home with some bottles to try in a price range that made trying some new and different wine less of a risk.
So, if you wake up one Saturday and you’re in the mood for some adventurous, low-key wine exploration and gorgeous scenery and instead find yourself in a traffic jam behind a bunch of rental cars and stretch limos, take a side road out of there and take off for one of the other wine countries. I plan on spending a little more time looking for wineries on the back roads in the quiet corners and valleys this year.