52 Action-Packed Sierra Foothills Hours

Plymouth’s Grand Reserve Inn an excellent perch for Amador County winery and restaurant excursions.

In late Spring 2023, the women behind Teneral Cellars purchased Amador County’s Grand Reserve Inn, where every room has a vineyard view. Planted to Viognier, Zinfandel, Primitivo, and several other grapes, the Sierra Foothills vineyard, for years called Wilderotter but eventually to be renamed Teneral Cellars Vineyard, surrounds the Tuscan-style inn on Shenandoah School Road in Plymouth.  

Grand Reserve Inn’s grand courtyard entrance.

On a late-September media tour, the Grand Reserve proved an excellent perch for wine-related excursions. I was curious to investigate the new ownership’s changes – fortunately, very few because the luxury property was already among the area’s finest. Our 52 action-packed hours took place in the Shenandoah Valley wine region, mainly in Amador County, with a brief second-day foray into El Dorado County. The reminiscences below are adapted from several social-media posts.

Vineyard-view Bordeaux room at Grand Reserve Inn.

Dynamo Runs Biodynamic Abbondanza Farms  

The Sierra Foothills fun began with a tour of Abbondanza Farms in Plymouth. Daniel D’Agostini, a dynamo with deep roots in the area, calls his enterprise “a micro-farm and learning center for mindful farming and gardening.” His certified Biodynamic farm lived up to its teaching-site billing, as some high schoolers who’d been helping in the gardens departed as our group arrived.

Daniel D’Agostini raises bees on his certified Biodynamic farm.

Bed Among the Beds

Amid the raised beds in which D’Agostini grows flowers and produce is the mattress-topped wooden platform on which he sleeps alfresco. The farmer keeps his plants healthy with concoctions like the “tea” he brews from stinging nettle plants he grows. (The goal of Biodynamic farming is to foster a “self-contained, self-sustaining ecosystem.”) Plucked straight from the vine, the tomatoes in particular were terrific. 

Raised bed among raised beds.

Marvelous Storyteller

Daniel’s forebears ran the D’Agostini Winery (now part of nearby Sobon Estate) for a few generations, starting in the early 1900s. The winery itself dates back even farther, to 1856, making it one of California’s oldest. D’Agostini is a marvelous storyteller, especially when discussing his work on photography projects like “Into the Earth: A Wine Cave Renaissance,” done with his friend Molly Chappellet. He’s also involved in the “A Garden in Every School” movement.

D’Agostini interests beyond farming include photography.

Empowerment Powers Teneral Cellars

Teneral Cellars, which started as a digital brand during the pandemic and has attracted attention nationwide, donates “10% of profits to organizations that empower women and promote gender and racial equity.” Philanthropy aside, the wines are good. “Teneral” (rhymes with “general”) refers to an insect’s state between molting and when its exoskeleton hardens—i.e., a critical stage in its transformation into its fully formed self.

Organizations promoting social change receive 10% of Teneral Cellars profits.

Dozens of Wines

Between them, Wilderotter and Teneral market a few dozen wines. The Plymouth tasting room, where some tables sit right in the vineyard, was a quick stop, but our four separate tastings took place over lunch and a courtyard session at the inn and dinners at Element, A Comfort Kitchen, in the town of Sutter Creek, and Taste Restaurant and Wine Bar, Amador County’s longtime Plymouth gem.

Night harvest at Teneral Cellars/Wilderotter Vineyard.

Marvelous Mouthfeel

The Wilderotter 2020 Roussanne and 2019 Mourvѐdre paired well with the lunch’s grilled yellow tuna and vegetables by Ravel Haynes, whose husband, Sam Domingo, crafts the Wilderotter wines. Ravel’s terrific breakfasts at the inn included hot entrées like quiche, Belgian waffles, and egg-topped shrimp and grits. 

No one goes hungry on Ravel Haynes’s watch. Here she’s preparing quiche and Belgian waffles.

The 2021 Wilderotter Estate Viognier (marvelous mouthfeel and stone-fruit notes), crisp 2020 Teneral Cellars Albariño, and smooth, approachable 2020 Wilderotter Primitivo were three stars of the courtyard session, led by tasting room manager Candyce Rodrick. Before the tasting, we toured the winery, and a few of us participated in punch-downs of fermenting Syrah grapes to extract tannins, color, and flavors from the skins and other grapes. (It’s always fun to visit wineries at harvest time to witness winemaking in action.)

Elements Align for Element

Element, the restaurant at Sutter Creek’s Hanford House inn and cottages, opened right as the pandemic hit and got off to a rocky start. All the elements for success are falling into alignment, though, under new (as of mid-2022) Hanford Inn owners, who brought in Domenica Catelli as executive consulting chef this year. Element bills itself as “A Comfort Kitchen” – who better than Catelli, of Catelli’s Restaurant in Geyserville and Food Network fame, to pull off that concept? 

Element serves comfort cuisine with fine-dining flair.

Catelli and chef de cuisine Tim Blankenship whipped up a multi-course family-style dinner paired with Teneral and Wilderotter wines. To my delight, the menu included a variation on Catelli’s 10-layer lasagna, the ultimate in Italian-American comfort cuisine. 

Domenica Catelli, with Tim Blankenship, holds In Her Shoes Lioness Cuvée Bordeaux red blend, a good match with hanger steak and fingerlings.

The tagline of Teneral Cellars is “Open a Bottle, Open a Conversation,” and the back label of each bottle contains a conversation starter. We had so many bottles opened we could have gabbed for hours, so Osur, Teneral’s Prez/CEO, chose one for us: “How has inequality/inequity impacted your career?” In several cases, the situations described, though sad to say not surprising, inspired future tactics leading to better outcomes.

Two Tastes Better Than One 

There’s only one thing better than a day with a meal prepared by executive chef/managing partner Micah Malcolm of Plymouth’s Taste Restaurant and Wine Bar – a day with two. A catered family-style lunch and tasting at Casino Mine Ranch winery showed off the chef’s rustic, stick-to-the-basics side; he pulled out all the culinary stops for a five-course dinner at the restaurant that evening. The treat at the second repast was dining with Taste proprietor Tracey Berkner, who’d skillfully paired each course with a Teneral Cellars wine.

Taste’s Micah Malcolm prepares lunch at Casino Mine Ranch.

Lighter Casino Mine Ranch Wines with Chicken

Casino Mine Ranch’s dazzling hospitality center opened earlier this year. Malcolm made fine use of the winery’s wood-burning oven and peaches and figs from Berkner’s home. During lunch, the main course moist and flavorful organic chicken, we stuck with lighter wines, the 2022 Réserve Rosé (80% Grenache and 20% Vermentino) and the 2021 Sparkling Wine (42% Grenache Blanc, 29% Vermentino, 29% Grenache Noir). Later, we moved on to the 2018 Grenache Noir and 2019 Marcel blend of 75% Tempranillo with 25% Teroldego (a northern Italian grape).

Lighter wines paired well with Taste-catered lunch.

Verve, Balance, Polish

Jessica Tarpy Shaheen crafted all the wines with verve, balance, and polish. Her boss at the Napa Valley’s Favia, Andy Erickson, is Casino Mine’s consulting winemaker. Add this winery to your list of Sierra Foothills must-visits. On sunny days, when the patio doors are withdrawn to create a fluid indoor-outdoor space, the place is magical, and the staff members love to relate the winery’s intriguing backstory.

Casino Mine Ranch’s hospitality center opened in 2023.

“Cigars,” Scallops, Steak Duck Confit at Taste

Dinner at Taste started with the signature Mushroom Cigars (shiitake, oyster, crimini with goat cheese and phyllo). Two other highlights were seared scallops paired with the 2021 Teneral Cellars El Dorado County Chardonnay, and New York strip loin with Teneral’s All In Zinfandel.

Cigars, scallops, confit, Zin.

Worth the Wait

After the steak, I started thinking about a dessert I remembered from a past visit, but the next course was duck confit with wild and farm-grown mushroom risotto. Teneral’s 2018 El Dorado Merlot played well off this savory dish that made the wait for Chocolate Indulgence (with blackberry and house-made graham cracker) totally worthwhile.

Taste proprietor Tracey Berkner paired a Teneral Cellars wine with each of several courses.

Flavor Science Enhances C.G. DiArie Wines

C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery operates a tasting room in Amador County on Shenandoah School Road, but instead of going there, we slipped north into El Dorado County to the vineyard (42 acres planted on a 209-acre parcel) and production facility, which also has a tasting room and patio. Vintner-winemaker Chaim Gur-Arieh gave us a winery tour before tasting us through several finished wines. His wife and winery partner, Elisheva, couldn’t make the session, though her presence was felt through her several paintings gracing the walls. 

View of neighbor’s vines from C.G. Di Arie’s tasting patio.

Kinder, Gentler Extraction

Chaim is a commercial flavor specialist going back decades. He applied his expertise to winemaking by developing what he calls a “submerged cap fermentation tank,” a kinder, gentler method of extracting flavor that he likens to a French press coffee system (albeit mechanically more elaborate).

The winemaker likens his submerged cap fermentation tank to a French press coffeemaker.

Favorite Reds

One standout was the 2020 Shenandoah Valley Barbera (with 5% each of Primitivo and Petite Sirah): red-fruit dominant, fruit-forward but not overripe, delicate yet lingering finish, pure deliciousness. More restrained was the 2018 Sierra Foothills Grenache (with 8% Syrah): lean red fruit, elegant, slight herbal notes, good choice for folks who prefer reds with food supposedly better with whites. Also appealing was the 2019 El Dorado County Tempranillo (with 5% Syrah): easy drinking owing to two years in French oak, then another year in neutral barrels; soft yet palpable tannins; red-to-blue fruit with persistent savory undertone.

Chaim and his daughter, Sivan Gur-Arieh.

Sushi Wine

Didn’t have the 2021 “Hikaru the Sushi Wine” Sparkling Rosé Wine Blend with sushi, but super chilled, it was satisfying on its own. Also in this line, a collaboration between Chaim and his daughter, Sivan Gur-Arieh, are a Sauvignon Blanc and the Chilled Red Wine Blend.

Daughter and father collaborated on sushi wines.

Touring Shake Ridge with Viticulturist Ann Kraemer

On our last day, viticulturist Ann Kraemer conducted a Kubota tour of Shake Ridge Ranch. Descriptions of her 46-acre Amador County vineyard always mention its rocky slopes (quartz, basalt, shale, etcetera) and myriad angles of exposure, but it was enlightening to experience all of this up close – and in one steep case on foot.

Ann Kraemer, right, with Jill Osur of Teneral Cellars.

Among the grapes grown at Shake Ridge (elevation 1,650 to 1,800-plus feet) are Viognier and Greco whites and Grenache, Syrah, Mourvѐdre, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Primitivo, and Barbera reds. Wineries purchasing them include Keplinger, Jeff Runquist, and Edmunds St. John, and Kraemer has a label of her own, Yorba Wines. Ken Bernards of the Napa Valley’s Ancien Wines makes the Yorba wines.

Top wineries vie for Shake Ridge fruit.

Sutter Creek Tasting Room

After our vineyard tour, another Ann, who goes by Annie to avoid confusion with her boss, greeted us at Yorba’s downtown Sutter Creek tasting bungalow. All the reds had spent plenty of time in the bottle – the current-release Tempranillo is the 2013, the Barbera the 2015. They’re so ready to drink.

The back labels of Yorba Wines tell the story of Ann Kraemer’s agricultural forebears.

Spectacular Syrahs

The 2012 and 2014 Syrahs were both spectacular, albeit in different ways. The 2014 played up the grape’s more savory side, with an underlying minerality that brought back visions of the terrain we’d just traversed. On the other hand, the 2012, though older, was all about its concentrated dark-red and blue fruit and persistent if laid-back tannins. A white we had later was the 2019 Greco di Oro. As with the reds, it impressed with its balance and subtle acidity.

Lead photo is Sierra the Wine Dog on the lawn at Grand Reserve Inn.

Travel Info

Amador Wine Country
Visit Amador
Visit Amador City
Visit Sutter Creek

See Also

Amador Wine Country

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