As much County Fair as Wine Festival

Thirty years ago, Amador County grape grower Ken Deaver had a line that brought a smile to his face and a twinkle to his eyes no matter how often he repeated it.  Whenever someone said that Amador County was being discovered for its wine, Deaver gently corrected them, saying Amador County was being rediscovered for its wine.

“An amazing food and wine culture is developing here…”

His point was that grapes have been grown and wine has been made in Amador County since the Gold Rush, but that few people seemed to know that history.  On his Shenandoah Valley farm, Deaver himself was tending vines that dated from the 1860s.

His heirs continue to cultivate that vineyard, and Amador County continues to be discovered – or rediscovered – for its wine. The county is saddled with that heritage: It is one of California’s older and more historic fine-wine regions, yet it isn’t widely known, despite its proximity to such wine-savvy cities as Sacramento and San Francisco.

But next spring, wine enthusiasts will have a chance to learn what the Amador County wine scene is all about when the most varied and ambitious festival on its behalf is staged.

Amador Four Fires, to be on May 2 at the Amador County Fairgrounds in Plymouth, gateway to Shenandoah Valley, is to be as much county fair as wine festival, says one of the event’s principal organizers, Deirdre Mueller, instrumental  in orchestrating the county’s hugely popular Barbera Festival the past three years.

Instead of carnival midway here and livestock barn there, however, the fairgrounds will be partitioned into four zones, each to recognize a wine region that has inspired the rich range of grape varieties and wine styles that characterize Amador County. There will be the Iberian zone for wines like tempranillo and albarino, the Italian for sangiovese and barbera, the French for such Rhone Valley varietal wines as syrah and grenache.

The “Heritage California” zone will pay tribute to the county’s most enduring grape varieties, zinfandel and mission, with which it remains most closely identified.

In each of the four, cooks will replicate open-flame foods associated with the regions – paella for Iberia, Santa Maria beef for Heritage California, and so forth.

Dessert wines will have their own area, a series of rapid-fire seminars on such varied topics as the role of sommeliers and the impact of terroir will be in an exhibit hall, and a “Homecoming Tent” will be devoted to wines made with Amador County grapes by wineries from outside the area.

The wines of some 40 Amador County wineries are to be poured. In a novel twist on the typical wine tasting, however, the wines to be sampled will have been selected by a panel of experienced judges and sommeliers directed to choose only the finest examples of what Amador County produces.

The festival’s overall intent is to showcase not only Amador’s wines but the county’s rising esteem for the diversity and quality of its foods. Acclaimed and popular local restaurants are to participate, along with producers of locally made baked goods, olive oils, cheeses, honeys, ciders and beers. “An amazing food and wine culture is developing here,” Mueller says.

Besides raising awareness of Amador’s food and wine scene, festival organizers hope to raise funds for the Amador County Fair Foundation, which is working to preserve, maintain and enhance the local fairgrounds. Since the traditional source of revenue for the state’s county fairs has been terminated – pari-mutuel horse-race betting – fairgrounds, including the Amador facility, have been trying to reinvent themselves as self-sustaining event centers.

Ken Deaver, who died several years ago, could identify with that. He and his family raised their own beef, put up their own vegetables, ground their own grain for flour, and  milked their cow for their ice cream. No Amador County farm likely is doing all that these days, though several continue to grow grapes and make wine, just waiting to be discovered, or rediscovered.