Sierra Foothills Seasons


Visiting any wine producing region during harvest is both exciting and a little off-putting. The winery people do have other priorities when grapes start arriving at the crusher. My choice for best place to be during harvest is the Sierra Foothills. For one thing the drama of weather, and its effect on the year’s grape crop, is more intense above the 2,000-foot contour line. A minor climatic event in Sonoma County will be a major problem in El Dorado County. Conversely, the thrill of a great harvest is more intense wherever the season is shorter. 2011 wasn’t a great vintage for Napa, but in the Foothills it started with a snowstorm on 4 June and ended with 4” of rain on 4 October. That’s a four-month growing season. Believe this, the fine growing season of 2012 was met with jubilant celebration at the higher altitude wineries of California.

The middle two weeks of September will normally be hot during midday, then get genuinely cold at night. By the beginning of October deciduous trees at the higher elevations will be turning bright red and orange. It’s the beginning of deer season. There is the Alpenglow at sunset, and the giant-sized harvest moon. There isn’t nearly as much traffic as one would find in Napa and Sonoma. The Sierra Foothills is a small region in terms of grape acreage. Wineries have days in succession when no grapes are brought in at all. Those are choice moments to visit wineries ~ see all the action, but still get some attention from the principals, who are all in attendance.

In your free time there are many events. 23 Sept is John (Johnny Appleseed) Chapman’s birthday. Most of the season is both wine and apple harvest on Apple Hill in Camino east of Placerville. Sutter Creek in Amador County hosts their justifiably well regarded Chili Cook-Off and Car Show in mid-September. Camp Mather just outside Yosemite holds a Bluegrass Festival over Labor Day Weekend, and the public access radio station in Nevada County puts on a Celtic Music Festival it has convened for nearly 20 years.


November and December really are festive seasons in the Foothills. There’s a Mandarin (easy peel) Orange Festival in Auburn. There’s the street fair atmosphere of Cornish Christmas in Nevada City (many of the underground miners came from Cornwall) replete with pasties (that’s meat pies, pronounced PAHS tees) and roasted local chestnuts. The Bracebridge series of costume dinners at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite are magnificent. These affairs have been so popular for half a century that attendance is only granted by lottery pick. Few dinner halls can match the Ahwahnee for its view and its massive structural elements.

Ahwahnee Hotel

There may well be snow and skiing. Either way, fireplaces will play a prominent role in restaurants and in overnight accommodations. Think hearty red wines to accompany meals of wild game with scalloped potatoes, buttery squash dishes, and steaming bowls of thick soup. Or try fondue. There are at least six different genre available at multiple restaurants throughout the Sierras: Mongolian Hot Pot (shabu shabu); cheese; cheese and ale (Welsh Rarebit); hot oil; bagna cauda; and chocolate.

If not snowing, it rains a lot more at altitude in the Foothills than it does in other regions such as the Central Coast. Dress appropriately. The snow line is usually about 3,000 feet of elevation. Think about your plans ahead of time. As you drive along Hwys 50 or 80, if there is a big storm up on the summit, you might encounter a lot of backed up traffic between 2,500 feet and 3,000 feet elevation where all the truckers have stopped to put on, or to take off, chains. Most of the wineries will be in a band below those elevations. You could drop by to wait out the weather. Call to ensure they are not skiing, then save yourself a lot of aggravation by visiting a winery tasting room or four.


There will be vineyards with snow in them. Lots of snow shoeing, and cross-country skiing. The downhill skiing and board opportunities are legendary. For generations small wine producers have provisioned skiers on they’re way to the slopes. Gain some bota bag expertise. I know Baby Boomers who grew up strapped in their car seat thinking a trip to Kirkwood Resort required a stop at D’Agostini for a couple gallon jugs. Cheaper if you brought the jugs back on your next trip. Note the rain shadow effect in the Sierras as it pertains to locating powder snow.

Of course gambling is a year-round income leveler (like cocaine, it is God’s message that you have too much money), and it operates at two elevations in the Sierras. If you go over the top, there are the blandishments of Nevada. Reno, for instance, features the largest bowling alley in America. Seriously. Lower on the California side are the blandishments of the Indian casinos. To be honest, with the possible exception of legal prostitution, they’re not that much different. They are all run by professionals trained in Macau. Nevada may have the edge in terms of shows and entertainment. California’s Indian casino’s are patronized by hordes (poor choice of words, let’s say ‘busloads’) of Asian-Americans from the Bay Area, hence have the better restaurants. Not a bad place to be for Chinese New Year in mid-February. “Gung Hay Fat Choy.” It’s like Mardi Gras with dragons. Take along some small red envelopes to put your tips in. All these places will have wine lists loaded with mediocre European selections, wines which took a severe beating to arrive on site. In most instances a choice from the Sierra Foothills will be far more enjoyable. Zinfandel is fairly safe; Barbera is an excellent bet.


Spring is the season of new releases from wineries, and that can be important in the Foothills where tiny wineries often sell out of their best items within a couple weeks of release. Joining a winery’s club is about the only way to solve that problem if one is not able to make a long weekend trip to the region each year in April. As an example Jeff Runquist began making a Barbera from Cooper Vineyard in 2001.  Jeff is a wonderfully talented winemaker, and the wine created a mild cult sensation. Within years Dick Cooper was besieged by requests for Barbera grapes. He tried raising the price to new customers, to no avail. Every winemaker in the Foothills wanted those grapes. The younger generation of Coopers started making a Barbera from their father’s vineyard at a custom crush facility. They sold the wine exclusively to their club (realizing a much bigger profit than selling the grapes), and still sold out within hours of release. Today Runquist still gets a limited allocation of Cooper’s Barbera grapes ~ money is rarely the most important thing in an old farmer’s life ~ but consumers have to be wide awake to ever see a bottle of it ($26 for either the Runquist or the Cooper Family wine).

McLaughlin Ranch
McLaughlin Ranch

The Foothills start to rouse themselves from Winter dormancy in March and April. Of course that process starts at the lowest elevations and progresses steadily uphill. At the summit it is skiing wearing shorts. In the middle trees bloom, days become longer, and sunnier. Temperatures are generally very comfortable, but can range back and forth between extremes. Daffodils are among the first flowers to push up, even through snow on the ground. The most resplendent location for daffodils is a property near Sutter Creek in Amador County called McLaughlin Ranch. Over the years they have planted hundreds of thousands of daffodil bulbs. It really isn’t a festival, because weather will affect the timing of the bloom. It’s a location. Check the Daffodil Hill blog for up to the minute information. Plan a picnic. Take a camera.

Depending on your appetite for cuteness, there is an annual Teddy Bear Convention in Nevada City. And the culinary menu must include the Asparagus Festival in Stockton. Asparagus is notoriously difficult to match well with wine because (like spinach) it has a slightly metallic aftertaste. Sauvignon Blanc from Amador County is the precise answer. Never expensive, Amador Sauv Blancs have a distinct gout de terroir  from their iron-rich, rust-colored soil which is magnificent with plain asparagus. Serving the tender shoots with mayonnaise moves the dish in the direction of Sierra Foothills Roussanne. Serving with a Hollandaise sauce calls for a Central Coast Chardonnay. Grilling our featured vegetable means a Foothills Sangiovese should get the nod. Wrapping two or three asparagus spears with bacon, then frying them before service with a hot Russian mustard (great walk-around hors d’oeuvre) demands a high-altitude Foothills GSM blend.


Tensions about spring frost can be severe. In Napa the danger is usually over by 20 April. In the Foothills, above 2,000 feet of elevation the danger is expected to continue until Mothers’ Day (10 May), and it is well-documented even a month later. All rivers running out of the Sierra are full of water and ice cold. As an example, the Middle Fork of the American River just upstream from Coloma (where gold was first discovered in 1848), at a hazard (big rock) called Troublemaker, has normal flows through the Summer (maintained by releases from a dam) of 2,000 to 3,500 cfs (cubic feet per second). In early May those flows may reach 10,000 cfs. It is an exhilarating ride. Wetsuits are required and welcome. Grilled sausage on a sesame bun with cole slaw or salsa and a local bottle of Petite Sirah can do a lot to bring back the lower register of your voice. Incidentally, on the river we refer to those wines as Petty Sara. Ain’t nothing petite about whitewater rafting, son.

In mid-May the Amgen Tour of California bicycle race begins in the mountains. It is America’s top stage bicycle road race. Traditionally Memorial Day (31st May) is the beginning of Summer, and the weekend when all the campgrounds and lake resorts open for the Season. They remain open until Labor Day Weekend (first weekend in September) which is the traditional opening for public schools.


Summer days in the Sierra Foothills can be quite hot. Mornings are comfortable because it takes a while for the sun to rise up over the mountains. Then heat builds rapidly until about 4 pm. By 7:00 pm cool air has begun to flow generously down the hill. Temperatures drop 20ºF in short order making for extremely pleasant outdoor evenings, be they BBQs on the patio, campfires by a stream, or a houseboat feast puttering about the lake. Bug repellant, and a light jacket, are always good ideas at sundown.

Music festivals, theater productions, and county fairs abound during Summer months in the Foothills. All combine nicely with a few rounds of winery visits and some antique shopping. Look for Passport weekends, when a group of wineries put on food and entertainment for a succession of visitors. Hiking is a rewarding pastime in Summer. There are spectacular routes throughout the Sierras, including the unique Independence Trail, a former miner’s water flume which has been refitted to allow easy passage even for people in wheelchairs.

Fishing, of all sorts, is widely practiced. There are few wine-food pairs more hauntingly synchronous than cold Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg in the Delta and freshly caught, pan-seared rainbow trout. The fish is delicate, seasoned only by the physicality of the hike and the uncertainty of the catch. The wine is also delicate, with pear-like fruitiness reflected off honey and almond background nuances. The flavor of the wine is accentuated by the rarity of finding a bottle in good condition. You can’t hike the trout out of the mountains. It degrades too fast. And the bottle of wine will get shaken so badly on a hike into the mountains, it won’t be in good condition. It will have bottle shock (all the smell molecules go into solution in the wine for week or two). What you have to do is hike-in the wine one weekend. Cache it in the stream. Then return on another weekend to catch the fish, and relocate your now perfectly chilled bottle of wine. Like I said: a rare treat.

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