Zin's Frontier Roots 

Old vines in the Sierra Foothills produce intoxicating winners.

Sonoma's Dry Creek and Russian River valleys may get credit of late for producing the state's most elegant Zinfandels, but it's the lesser-known Sierra Foothills appellation, particularly Amador County, that has history on its side. With grape growing dating back to the Gold Rush, Amador's vintners have the benefit of working with some of the state's oldest vines, and the region is practically synonymous with the old-vine Zins it produces. The best examples — deep, inky bursts of ripe berry — have been critically recognized as giving Sonoma a run for its money, with Sobon Estates in particular producing award winners year after year.

Our Token Winemaker spent four years making Chenin Blanc, Barbera, Sangiovese, and of course Zinfandel in Amador, but he wasn't aware that he was sipping the wines of his former neighbors at this tasting. He did correctly identify the two Zins as Zins, and his favorite came from none other than Sobon Estates: the 2005 Shenandoah Vineyards Zinfandel ($9), notable for its delicate flavors of strawberry, boysenberry, stewed prunes, and tomato, and its clean finish. Earlier this year, we praised the 2004 vintage of this wine for its "deep, intoxicating aroma of violets," and once again I loved the aroma here — this time finding it more reminiscent of crushed berries.

I had a slight preference for the 2003 Montevina Zinfandel ($8.99), which was a bit lighter than your average Amador Zin and therefore more food-friendly. With a super-fruity taste just shy of tart, it would pair nicely with a steak or something spicy. Our Token Winemaker tasted raspberry and strawberry and found it a bit hot and alcoholic — though in truth the Montevina had only 14.2 percent alcohol, compared with the whopping 16 percent some Zins creep up to. Incidentally, Montevina is housed in Amador's lone wine chateau, courtesy of corporate parent Sutter Home. It's an impressive if anachronistic sight in an area that's more than a little bit country, amid wineries that mostly emanate an Old-West, hayseed vibe.

Our third wine was something of a mystery: The 2003 Easton "H" House California Red Wine ($8.99). Easton House is one of two labels (the other being the more Francophile-friendly Terre Rouge) of former Solano Cellars owner Bill Easton, and here he has produced a full-bodied red blend of something — but neither the label nor our inquiring palates could determine what. We both smelled cedar pencil shavings and felt that the Easton House's strong tannins and smoky spiciness bordered on overpowering. "A knock-your-socks-off Zin" was my appraisal, while our Token Winemaker guessed Merlot or a non-U.S. Malbec. We were both wrong: Easton's web site revealed that this was a Cabernet-Syrah blend — which the site further described as, among other things, "a skiing wine." Please make that après ski

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