Shenandoah Valley of CaliforniaCharles Spinetta Winery and Wildlife Art Gallery
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Ag Alert, the most widely read agricultural publication in California, visited our winery and vineyard to document a typical day of harvesting grapes. The article was published November 8, 2006 and is used courtesy of Ag Alert. Learn more about agriculture at Farm Bureau
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Photo: Charles Spinetta and his son, Jim, foresee a bright future for winegrapes and wines from the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County.
Robust, rustic and exuberant describe more than a great glass of zinfandel wine. They’re also fitting terms for the vineyards and vintages of Amador County.

Winegrapes in this tranquil area, about an hour east of Sacramento, date back to the gold rush days. While gold was discovered in California in 1848, European immigrants who headed West to search for their fortune planted vineyards. As rowdy mining towns like Pokerville, Drytown and Rough and Ready were established, the first zinfandel vines were planted as early as 1852. A decade later, Amador County and the foothill region had more wineries than anywhere else in the state.

As the gold rush faded into the history books, grape growing and winemaking in the region have enjoyed a renaissance.

“In 1975, we moved across Amador County to Shenandoah Valley,” said Charlie Spinetta, who with his wife and three sons owns and operates Spinetta Family Vineyards in Plymouth.

The Spinetta family is among a growing number of farms and wineries that have Amador County on the adventurous wine lovers’ map.

Spinetta Family Vineyards grows about 400 tons of grapes each year, with the bulk of the wine shipped to other wineries. They make about 5,000 cases and sell wine via their tasting room and mail order. Visitors can sample wines at the family tasting room, which is part of a more than 3,000-square-foot cedar and redwood wildlife art gallery that features 400 works of local and nationally known artists.

Their wine embodies the passion the family has for farming in harmony with their natural surroundings. Wine labels are a showcase of wildlife art, with wild turkeys, valley quail and mule deer.

Spinetta Family Vineyards and others in Amador wine country feature a relaxed atmosphere with plenty of time to decompress, go on a picnic and savor the scenery and a glass of wine. The area includes Amador Cellars, complete with a winery made of rice straw and concrete; Avio Vineyards, where guests are occasionally guided through vineyards by Cappy, their resident goat; and Sobon Estate, which this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

“Amador County is a fun, folksy place for wine,” said wine industry analyst Bill Turrentine of Turrentine Brokerage in Novato. “Most of the wineries are small and family-owned and many are located in scenic and historic sites. Most of the independent growers are passionate about their vines and their grapes. The wines are, like the growers and winemakers—full of character, sometimes idiosyncratic, always interesting.”

Since 1990, Amador County has seen a more than 60 percent increase in vineyards and a nearly fourfold jump in winegrape value. The county in 2005 was home to nearly 3,900 acres of vineyards and $13.2 million worth of winegrapes, predominantly in the Shenandoah Valley. Thirty-five wineries operate in the county, a figure that has more than doubled in the last decade.

There are two major factors driving the growth: location and climate. Amador County is a Club Med for grapevines, with warm days, cool nights and rich soils. Plus, it’s a short, soothing drive via Highway 49, close to major urban areas, including Sacramento.
Photo: Laughter, singing and precision work are easy to see during the winegrape harvest at Spinetta Family Vineyards. Vineyards Image
“People want to get away,” said Charlie Spinetta’s son, Jim. “Americans are more likely these days to go on a day trip, where they can get away from the city and come out and see what rural life is like. That’s what we’re sustaining here.”

Family farms comprise the vast majority of Amador County wine country. Tourists to the area can soak in history and often have an opportunity for a face-to-face visit with the winemaker or grape grower—part of a work ethic that delivers results.

“You have to be salt of the earth,” Jim Spinetta said. “You can’t make a good wine unless you get on a tractor or prune the vines. You’re more likely to make a better wine if you go out there and get your fingernails dirty.”

Continuing with the region’s historic feel, zinfandel, one of the state’s oldest grape varieties, comprises the majority of Amador’s grape tonnage. Some of the farms feature still-productive zinfandel vines that date back to the 19th century. Other varieties gaining favor include those from the Rhone Valley and Italy, such as syrah, barbera and sangiovese.

With a seven generation-long history of farming in the county, the Spinetta family was recently inducted by the California State Fair into the California Agriculture Heritage Club, marking 150 years of business in the state.

“We are continuing a legacy,” Jim Spinetta said. “It is something my predecessors have done and it gives you more of an incentive, because you need to continue that heritage for future generations, including my children.”

“That’s why we want to maintain this and give it to our children,” Charlie Spinetta said. “It’s so exciting to have seen my grandfather and great-grandfather working the farm back then. I’m hoping it will go forward forever. Otherwise, what are we doing it for?”

(Jim Morris is a reporter for Ag Alert. He may be contacted at
Amador County
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"Farm Bureau" and the "FB" logo are registered service marks of American Farm Bureau Federation and are used by California Farm Bureau Federation under a license agreement between the two organizations.Charles Spinetta Winery, Spinetta Family Vineyards, Zinetta, and the CSW Logo are registered trademarks of Charles J. Spinetta. Unless otherwise specified, all images and copy contained within the domain are Copyright 1984-2019 Charles J. Spinetta. All rights reserved. Charles Spinetta Winery and Wildlife Art Gallery 12557 Steiner Road, Plymouth, California 95669, USA, telephone: (209) 245-3384, facsimile: (209) 245-3386