Grapes of quaff: California’s smallest city has become a big player in the wine world

  • Amador City is where modern California began, thanks to the gold rush
  • Winemaking has taken hold in surrounding Amador County, finds Ruaridh Nicoll 
  • READ MORE: Inside the secret treasure-trove museum at British Airways’ HQ

Amador City is so small that ‘you can put your arms around it’, says Kevin Carter, who owns its bar. At just 0.3 square miles, it is California’s most bijou incorporated city, but it has a big history: it’s where modern California began.

In 1849, gold was found in them these hills, and 300,000 dreamers flocked in, creating the stock from which California’s otherworldly population would grow.

Amador City, and its synonymous county, lie two hours’ drive from San Francisco, at the edge of the High Sierra.

Between 1846 and 1852, San Francisco’s population would grow from 200 to 36,000. In the last century Amador City’s fell from highs of 1,000 to 200.

I’d driven from Yosemite, only 90 minutes away, a route that brought me over the High Sierra, dropping down through pine forests. Now, as I sweep past the hamlet of Fiddletown, named for the goldminers’ love of dancing, trees give way to vineyards.

Ruaridh Nicoll visits Amador City, ‘California’s most bijou incorporated city’. It lies in Amador County, a place where winemaking been prevalent for three decades 

In the past three decades, winemaking has taken hold of Amador County. At Rest, a boutique hotel in the quiet town of Plymouth, I am handed a glass of Zinfandel as I check in. It feels like I’m in Napa or Sonoma, California’s famous wine regions — only 30 years ago.

Almost all the 45 vineyards here survive by selling wine to visitors, who then continue to order for years after heading home. 

The slopes are famous for barbera, a rich red grape variety that needs a lot of time on the vine to overcome its natural acidity, something the best small vineyard owners achieve. 

Above is Rest, a boutique hotel in the quiet Amador County town of Plymouth

Amador County boasts 45 vineyards 

I could spend the whole day sipping my way through these vineyards — in Napa and Sonoma a single tasting can cost $40 (£32); here it’s $5 (£4) — but instead I head over to Amador City and pull up at the Small Town Wine Bar for a bowl of mushroom soup. 

Ginger Budrick has been running it with her husband Matt for six years. ‘When we first moved in, it was kind of a ghost town. We would joke about how maybe we were ghosts, too, but just didn’t know it.’

Now there is a line of sweetly original shops, such as 3 Fish Studios, where I buy a woodcut of a sequoia.

The biggest change is being forged by Kevin Carter. He has built a brewery, the Break Even, and converted the tavern into its tap room.

His latest move is buying the Imperial Hotel. Kevin walks me down Main Street towards its olde-west facade. Inside is an old miner’s bar. The crystal globe lights that hang from the ceiling would be the perfect target for an old gunslinger. Indeed, Amador should be a target for anyone touring California.


Double rooms at the At Rest boutique hotel, Plymouth, from $186 (£150, See and 

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