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Lauren Lindley

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How the Sierra Foothills’ Rich Wine History Drives Amador County’s Only Natural Winery

Chris Walsh returned to his hometown to bring back old-school winemaking techniques 

Dianne de Guzman is a deputy editor at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, upcoming openings, and pop-ups.

In 2008, when the recession began, winemaking wasn’t even on Chris Walsh’s radar. But unable to find work in the city as an architectural lighting designer, he took a job out of necessity: He became a runner and busser at a Manhattan wine bar specializing in organic, biodynamic, sustainable wines from Europe — a move that would eventually lead him into his current career as the only natural winemaker in Amador County. Today, the natural wine movement has grown exponentially, but Walsh’s time at this bar was well before natural wines dominated the zeitgeist. It was a style of winemaking that attracted Walsh even back in the late aughts. “They never said the word ‘natural,’ but that got me started down that path because I was just seeing that it was possible,” Walsh says. “It struck me more as this is the old way of making wine. If you could farm organic and make the wine without all these crazy interventions, why wouldn’t you?”

Walsh eventually became a certified sommelier, and as he began to realize many of the wines he liked came from California, he turned his sights back to his childhood home in Amador County. He was tired of the restaurant lifestyle in New York City after seven years of working there, so he made the move back west, becoming a harvest intern for Berkeley’s Donkey & Goat and taking winemaking classes at the University of California, Davis. He wasn’t looking to pursue a degree, but wanted to learn the winemaking process. “I had a professor basically tell me that natural wine was impossible, you couldn’t make wine that way,” Walsh says. “And I was like, ‘Wait, what? No.’”

Despite the false starts, Walsh set about learning more, working for other wineries including Shake Ridge Vineyard and Terre Rouge. Walsh knew the only place he could afford his own winery — and make wine his own way — was in the Sierra Foothills; plus, natural winemakers including Donkey & Goat, Arnot-Roberts, and Jolie-Laide were already using grapes from the region. Grapes have been growing in the Sierra Nevada foothills since just after the Gold Rush of 1849, more specifically zinfandel grapes, which came over with immigrants to the area, according to Wine Enthusiast. These days, Gold Country is home to dozens of wineries, with some 50 wineries situated in Amador County alone. The region has expanded beyond the zinfandel grape, but only in the last 20 years has a new natural wine scene been growing among already established wineries. Walsh, with his winery End of Nowhere, is the first to bring a natural wine element to Amador County — or rather to bring it back to Amador, if you consider the area’s longer winemaking history.

Winemaker Chris Walsh at his vineyard in Pioneer.
End of Nowhere

Walsh attributes some of his gravitation toward natural wine as a byproduct of being a history major. He was looking to create something more in harmony with nature and farming. He loved the idea of people falling in love with wine thousands of years ago, when wine didn’t require adding acid, or watering it back, or adding enzymes to the drink, he says. “The way I describe making natural wines at the tasting room is, you can have a homemade cannoli or you can have a Twinkie,” Walsh adds. “They’re kind of the same thing, but one is highly manipulated, and one is just the thing that inspired this highly manipulated thing.”

Tracey Rogers Brandt, winemaker and general manager of Donkey & Goat, recalls Walsh as eager to work with grapes from the foothills region and ready to establish his own vineyard. “He’s very insightful and is making wines from the position of the art and craft of it, and just all of that ethos [at Donkey & Goat] was instilled in him when he was with us,” Brandt says.

Walsh moved back to Amador County in 2014, working to establish a 20-acre vineyard on the property he grew up on in Pioneer. He purchases grapes from other organic vineyards as he waits on his vines to mature, mostly Rhone varieties such as syrah, garnacha, mourvedre, and viognier, to name a few, which he admits has been difficult given the vineyard’s high elevation and his use of no-till and dry farming techniques on the volcanic soil. Still, in 2015 he made his first vintage out of a 600-square-foot two-car garage before shifting production in 2020 to another building on the property, a former auto shop his father ran while Walsh was growing up, which had been shut down for 20 years before Walsh took it over.

The two-car garage setup.
End of Nowhere
End of Nowhere

Walsh says he always felt zinfandel had been pigeonholed, as if it could only be one thing — big, jammy, high-alcohol wine — and felt the grape could do so much more. He produces traditional zinfandels (more in line with wine from the 1970s that contain a lower alcohol content and retain the grape’s natural acidity), a zinfandel rosé, and a carbonic zinfandel to “showcase” the grape. Beyond the zinfandels, he also produces two types of pinot gris, both a red and white; a mourvedre; and a barbera, all with grapes sourced from vineyards in the foothills.

End of Nowhere wines have landed in a number of restaurants and wine bars in Northern California, including Ro Sham Beaux in Sacramento, Snail Bar in Oakland, and Blackbird in San Francisco. “In a perfect world, you represent the grape and the site,” Walsh says. “Having been a sommelier in wine bars, I like representing a place. There’s no designer yeast, it’s just whatever comes in on the fruit, so it’s trying to make wines that are clean and have a sense of place.”

End of Nowhere
End of Nowhere
Lauren Lindley

Walsh opened a tasting room in November 2018 in Amador City, but given the small size of the city he likens the space to more of a laid-back wine bar where residents and visitors can hang out. He hosts live music, welcomes guest chefs to sell food like burgers or pizza, and showcases local artists as a quasi-gallery space. There isn’t a natural wine scene in the region like in the Bay Area — especially since it’s just Walsh producing natural wines in Amador County — but he prefers the historical aspect of natural winemaking over the sceney side of things, anyway. “The way I view natural wine is, there’s a scene, and then it’s also history; it’s the old way of making wine,” Walsh says. “I definitely think there are people who are in it, who make natural wine, more for the scene. The scene might be a fad, but the way of making natural wine, the old ways, that’s not going to go away.”

Walsh would rather not have the word “pioneer” be used for him and his story of making natural wine in his home county. He’s quick to acknowledge the others who have produced natural wines locally before him. “I might be the first one based in Amador County that makes natural wine, but there’s definitely a lot of good people making low-intervention or natural wines [in the foothills] who have come before me,” he says. “If it wasn’t for people like that, I wouldn’t have been smart enough to know to come back home.”

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