Wineries of the Sierra Foothills, Sobon Wines

Paul Sobon. | Johan Martin

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the second edition of the popular guidebook “Wineries of the Sierra Foothills: Risk-Takers & Rule-Breakers” available now on Amazon. All sales support Tahoe Weekly.

Leon and Shirley Sobon gave each other what must be one of the most unusual 30th wedding anniversary gifts ever – a second winery. This winery, now known as Sobon Estate, joined their holdings in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County and added not only vineyards and vineyard land for further grape growing, but also added lots of history to the family-owned Sobon wines enterprise.

In 1989, when they purchased the historic D’Agostini Winery, the Sobons knew it was one of the oldest in the state of California. The winery, founded in 1856, is designated as California State Historic Landmark #762. The vineyards contained old-vine Zinfandel and a lot of potential. This was the acquisition that launched the Sobon Estate label, featuring the best wines from its own grapes: Rhone varietals, vineyard-designated Zinfandels and dessert wines that can only be purchased in the tasting room.

Sobon Estate is located a mere 3 miles from Shenandoah Vineyards where Leon and Shirley got into the winemaking business in 1977. Shenandoah Vineyards was one of the first wineries established in what is now the well-known Amador County appellation that lies between the forks of the Cosumnes River and Big Indian Creek, the Shenandoah Valley AVA.

The Sobon’s decision to enter the grape-growing and winemaking business was well researched. Leon was an established senior scientist with Lockheed Research Lab in Silicon Valley. He’d discovered his gift as a winemaker through home winemaking and yearned for a career doing what he loved most. He and Shirley did their homework on the Shenandoah Valley area and sensed that on this terroir they could grow rich, intensive fruit that would produce unique wines.

When the family, which included six children, made the move in 1977 it was to the old Steiner Ranch outside of Plymouth. They planted the vineyard and converted the old, stone garage of the ranch into the Shenandoah Vineyards winery. There were some rough patches.

“We were six kids in a big, old ranch sharing a bath and a half,” remembered Paul Sobon, the current winemaker. “Dad did a lot of things himself: managed the vineyard, sold wine, fixed the plumbing, fooled with electrical wiring.” In the first year, they produced 1,200 cases of wine, and the sales strategy was to load up the station wagon and not come home until it was all sold.

Paul saw the winery grow and its strategy change over the years. He started working in the family business as a teenager. When he graduated from high school in 1980, he decided to travel extensively in wine-producing regions in Europe and Australia studying Australian, Burgundian and Bordelaise techniques of winemaking and grape growing. He was tutored in situ by some of the best in the business: Vincent Fabre of Chateau Lamothe Cissac in Bordeaux, France, and Stuart Anderson of Balgownie Winery in Southeastern Australia. In 1983, he started full time in the family business, with coursework at UC Davis’ Enology and Viticulture Extension programs under his belt. Production was 22,000 cases at the time.

Other family members joined the business they’d grown up around and have grown to love. Robert Sobon applies his college degrees in accounting and business applications as the manager of the accounting and computer operations for the wineries and Tasting Room and oversees other day-to-day operations. Tom Quinn, son-in-law, handles sales and marketing. Leon has taken on the role of consulting winemaker and Shirley guides business operations.

Paul’s daughter Camille joined her father in opening a nearby winery, Paul J Wines.

Sobon and Shenandoah Vineyards now produce 55,000 cases of wine yearly. Another 72 acres of vineyards were added in 2013 with the acquisition of a property in Jackson Valley located in nearby Ione/Buena Vista.

Sobon Estates is known as a premier Zinfandel producer in the area, and its fruit-forward, low-tannin wines are made with Sobon’s own sustainably grown grapes. The single-vineyard Zins use some fruit from vineyards 70 and 100 years old and feature an earthy, peppery, spicy quality that is reminiscent of Old World wines.

There is something for everyone at Sobon and that is purposeful.

“We want to de-mystify wine,” said Paul. “There are no wrong answers when it comes to enjoying wine. We tell our tasting room guests to take an extra second and enjoy the aroma of the wine and enjoy the wine with food or as an aperitif.”

The tasting room is open by appointment only. | (209) 245-4455,