Kushman on wine

DRINKING IN SUMMER IN SIERRA FOOTHILLS

WRITTEN BY RICK KUSHMAN
ILLUSTRATION BY HANS BENNEWITZ

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Summer is golden time for tourism and travel, and that’s particularly true for California wine country. Napa and Sonoma tasting rooms are packed in July and August. The coastal regions and even Lodi get big summer spikes.

That’s not true for El Dorado and Amador counties, the two most prominent regions of the expansive Sierra Foothills. Both struggle through the summer when wine tasters seem to head, well, almost anywhere else. That makes summer a terrific time to visit.

Fuss-free foothills

Before we get to why summer is such a great time to visit the foothills, here’s why they struggle.

Summer foothills days inspire dreams of rivers and trees, not the red wine those regions do so well. On the other hand, Paso Robles, just minutes from the shore, produces many of those big reds … and it’s crazy busy in summer.

Which gets us to the second reason: food and lodging, or, rather, the shortage of both. Paso Robles is a foodie town and a Central Coast way station. Both make it a huge draw for wine travelers.

Wine-tasting trips cry out for evenings of strolling, eating, and, of course, drinking wine. The foothill regions that draw summer wine tasters have those things — places such as Nevada City, Grass Valley, and Murphys in Calaveras County, with its Disneyland-of-wine-tasting atmosphere along its Main Street.

There are some restaurants and B&Bs in Amador and El Dorado counties, notably in Placerville or Sutter Creek, where a number of winery tasting rooms have gathered. Both could use more, as well as lots more of the wine-country-style nightlife.

That adds up to quiet summer tasting rooms in such places as Fair Play or Shenandoah Valley above Plymouth. It also makes summer a terrific time to visit those two counties, especially for day trips. Visitors get loads of attention, the feeling is relaxed, and tasting room staffers — who often include winemakers during their summer slow periods — are more likely to pull corks on special wines. Besides, great red wine tastes good in any weather.

And now that you’re going wine tasting, here are a few summer tips:

• Huge, most important tip: Take a cooler and ice. Wine likes heat less than you do. Any wine you buy will cook if it hits 80 degrees, which happens quickly in a parked car. (If the cork looks like it’s popped out a bit, that’s a bad sign.)

• Start in mid-morning. Most tasting rooms open at 10 a.m. Our palates actually are better in the morning, and even those hot days still will be mild in the morning.

• Beat the heat with an early lunch. You started early; you’ll be hungry. And thirsty.

• Pack your lunch. Only a few foothill wineries sell food, and most stores and delis are a good distance from those perfect picnic spots under a tree with a vineyard view. Plus, you took a cooler.

• Go easy on the sunscreen or every wine will smell like Coppertone. Think hat instead.

• Try wineries you don’t know. This always is a good idea, but summer, when the traffic is easy, is a great time to explore.

Rick Kushman is a New York Times bestselling author, the wine commentator for Capital Public Radio, and the creator and co-host of the radio show Bottle Talk with Rick and Paul. To reach him, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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