Sierra Foothills History

When the Gold Rush began in 1849 there was a legitimate fine wine business beginning in Sonoma under the tutelage of Mariano Vallejo, there were just remnants of the Missions’ religious wine effort (1770’s to 1820’s) throughout the Central Coast, and the primitive first secular vineyard of Jean Louis Vignes on the Los Angeles River was about to be expanded by German and (yes) Mormon settlers in Southern California. But there really wasn’t any market of which to speak. Then, overnight, hundreds of thousands of thirsty, hard-working men from all over the planet started arriving each year, and hustling up into the Sierra Foothills. Even if attractive wine from Los Angeles, Sonoma, and the Central Coast had been available, much less from Europe, the transportation difficulties (wine is very heavy) would have been almost insurmountable. Planting began in the Foothills immediately.

By 1860 newspaper reports were commenting regularly that any miner with a couple hundred grapevines planted around his cabin had a much greater chance of getting rich from wine sales than he did from gold.  Sophisticated individuals remarked that grapes grown in the fertile loam of the Central Valley produced bigger crops, but the “red soils of the Foothills yield superior quality and keeping ability.” There was even a controversy about irrigation. Placer miners (who used giant water cannons to move ore gravels through sluice boxes called Long Toms) were quite expert at channeling water to a specific destination. They could easily irrigate vineyards and orchards. But a prevailing opinion sprang up that dry farmed vineyards produced better wines (similar to a prejudice in South Africa in the 1990’s). Coincidentally Zinfandel is a vigorous vine that sends roots deep into the soil, thus making Zin less vulnerable to periodic drought conditions.

A large percentage of the farmer/miners were Frenchmen, Italians, and Germans. Many had passed through San Jose on their way to the ‘diggins,’ and had acquired grape cuttings from their fellow countrymen who ran big nurseries there. Many grape varieties were available, having been shipped around the Horn from botanical gardens in Boston, although colloquial names obscure the identities to researchers today. For instance, Black St. Peter was one of many names used for what we now call Zinfandel. James Marshall, the man who (as John Sutter’s employee) had actually discovered the gold at Coloma while constructing a sawmill, had (by 1860) an extensive vineyard with some 90 varieties of grapevines. Of course, the Mission grape (Criolla in Argentina, Pais in Chile. Black Palomino in Spain) was widespread. It remained more than 50% of grape plantings in California almost until the turn of the century (1900). Another very popular grape at the time was Catawba (a spontaneous cross of native American V. Labrusca and European V. vinifera), because this period coincided with the effort by Nicholas Longworth to establish a sparkling wine industry on the banks of the Ohio River. Longworth had ten years of success with sparkling Catawba, but eventually failed due to vine diseases (like mildew) in the humid eastern climate. Interestingly both Catawba and Mission grapes were known in California as ‘Natives.’ Mission grapes, although of the European species, had been planted in California 80 years before the miners showed up. While grapes like Zinfandel and Muscat were called ‘Foreign.’ Those two phrases were major promotional designations, the words painted in big print on the side of barns selling one or the other as wines, with an implied price differential.

By the census in 1870, grape growing and winemaking in the Sierra Foothills had exploded. Grapes were selling for $100 per ton (more than three times what they commanded in Sonoma). Vintners in Amador County claimed 10,000 gallons in storage. But the handwriting was already on the wall. In 1861 El Dorado County had 100,000 miners (read drinkers of the local wines). In 1873 El Dorado only had 30,000 miners. Quality in most instances was mediocre. With the market declining, it was hoped the Transcontinental railroad (1870) would open up a big eastern market. But 1867 had been a huge crop, and then an even bigger one occurred in 1870. Demand for barrels to store the wine skyrocketed. Coopers in Placerville made money hand over fist selling barrels made from un-aged pine staves. Retsina? The eastern market never developed, and undoubtedly quality was an issue. A further contributing factor was predatory pricing by the railroad monopoly. (Read Frank Norris, The Octopus, 1901.) They don’t call Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford ‘Robber Barons’ for nothing. The cost to ship wine even the short distance to San Francisco was reported in the Alta California newspaper to be as high as shipping it to Chicago.

Alta California Newspaper Building

Feverish planting of vines in the Foothills continued through the 1870’s even in the face of declining demand. Bay Area Regions, including Santa Clara and Santa Cruz (where land was cheap after redwood lumber had been harvested), were formidable competitors because they only had to cart their wine to a wharf, from whence it would travel cheaply to San Francisco, Sacramento, even Los Angeles. Then there was a worldwide industrial collapse, called the Long Depression, from 1873 until 1879. During that period ten states went bankrupt, grain prices dropped two-thirds, and cotton prices dropped 50%. The crisis had many causes, not least of which had been printing paper money to finance the Civil War, but the precipitating event was revelation in the newspapers of the Credit Mobilier scandal wherein owners of the Union Pacific Railroad and a gaggle of Congressmen defrauded the US Government out of tens of millions of dollars in construction costs for the western half of the Transcontinental railway line. That was the end for the Foothills wine industry, although one positive outcome was the disruption in Europe led to mass Italian emigration ~ many of whom became the heart of our early US wine consuming public. Lots of Foothills growers grafted vineyards over to raisin varieties. Others ripped their vines out and planted fruit or nut trees instead. Some wineries continued to operate until Prohibition, but never made much money.

The modern era for Foothills wine coincided with the Baby Boom population going off to college. In 1965 Amador County had 576 acres of grapes (75% Zinfandel; nearly 20% Mission). They were owned by cattle ranchers and walnut orchardists, who sold primarily to home winemakers. Table wine (< 14% alcohol) sales in the US had just passed dessert wine (> 14%, mostly labeled Port or Sherry), for the first time since Prohibition. In 1968 national wine sales increased 7.5 million gallons. The next year’s increase was 15 million gallons. In 1971 annual national sales increased 32 million gallons. Something was happening. It wasn’t just marijuana, Free Love, and opposition to the Vietnam War.

One home winemaker, named Charles Myers (now Harbor Winery in Sacramento), had bought a quarter-ton of old-vine Zinfandel from Ken Deaver in the Shenandoah Valley in the mid-60’s. Deaver’s vineyard had been planted in 1886 by John J. Davis. The vines bore only a small crop of scraggly clusters containing small, intensely flavored berries. Myers took a bottle of his wine to show Darrell Corti, whose family were the most prominent specialty grocers in Sacramento. Corti, in a manner now recognized as typical for him, publicly championed the Amador Zinfandel old-vines, and convinced his friend Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home winery to make a wine from Deaver Vyd which Corti then sold in his store. Other wineries, including Paul Draper from Ridge, didn’t have to be told twice. Soon there were Amador old-vine Zins sourced from Eschen Vyd and from Esola Vyd as well. The Revolution had begun. Cary Gott opened Montevina winery in Amador in 1973, as did Greg Boeger in El Dorado. Boeger began renovating the historic, terraced Lombardo-Fossati property which dates to the early 1850’s, and still has some of the original fixtures today. Bardon Stevenot began planting his beautiful Calaveras County property in 1974.

After the heady years of the 1970’s, the US wine market retrenched in the mid-1980’s, dropping per capita consumption 35% from 1986 to 1993. Zinfandel had never achieved broad quality recognition, being more of a cult favorite. In fact the first Zinfandel to command a double-digit price was a bottle of Storybook Mountain in 1994. In the mid-1980’s Zinfandel grapes were selling for less than $500 per ton, which barely covered farming expenses, especially on low-yield, old-vine vineyards. One of California’s greatest viticultural assets ~ some 5,000 acres of 80-plus-year-old Zin vines ~ was in danger of being grubbed out. Then cometh an unlikely savior, verily a White Knight, that uniquely American tipple, white Zinfandel. I blush to tell the tale.

Murphys Hotel in Calaveras County

Visitors to winery Tasting Rooms, where wine is poured for free (as most Tasting Rooms operated in 1985) often feel obligated to buy something. Visitors to the Sierra Foothills at the time were often retirees or travelers from the Midwest. The thing they wanted to buy was an inexpensive wine with some residual sugar (remember Americans drink 50 gallons per capita annually of soda pop). Zinfandel which had been pulled off the skins after only an hour or two in the fermenter fit the bill perfectly. That it is easier to tell the sex of baby whales by watching them from the beach, than it is to tell white Zins apart, is immaterial. That no one in the world drinks white Zin except Americans, also of no consequence. That Americans sometimes exclaim, when poured a Zinfandel, “Oh. It’s red!” Well, that’s shameful. Nevertheless, white Zinfandel did save some of the most extraordinary vineyards we have today. There’s really no debate about that.

Today the Gold Country, as always, represents hidden treasure. The Foothills have a rich history, on display in renovated buildings and antique shops throughout the region. It is a longer trip from the major urban centers, but overnight accommodation is reasonably priced and charming examples are worth seeking out. While there are many amateurish winemakers, there are several extraordinarily talented ones as well. You have to shovel gravel to find nuggets of gold. The wines are modestly priced, and the best ones are every bit as good as competitors from anywhere in the world. Moreover, the potential for unique wines is very realistic, and may be near at hand.

The hardest thing for the Sierra Foothills to overcome is going to be competitiveness within the group. Marketing is a primary issue. All the Gold Country districts need to hold hands, and move forward together with campaigns which promote the entire Region. Right now there isn’t one wine drinker out of ten in the San Francisco Bay Area that can tell you the difference between Amador and El Dorado (hint, it’s elevation). Yet the wineries in those two districts fight against each other like six-year-olds in the back seat of the car on a very long trip. What they need to do is pool their resources, embrace the title CA Mountain Wines, and do some public events in places like Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington DC, and Atlanta. Until then most Foothills wineries are going to be stuck selling wines at bargain prices. And it is really hard to do artistic things with wine when you can’t command enough money to make a decent living.

(Vinobo is indebted for much information above to the books of historian Eric J. Costa.)


Located in the Central Valley, but neither as hot as the northern nor southern sections, the Delta does not give the visual impression of dry farmland stretching to the horizon. The Delta is a maze of waterways. They are called sloughs (pronounced ‘slews’) and represent the historical topography, i.e. a giant marshy lake. The parcels of land surrounded by these sloughs have all been diked, with levees around their perimeter, and the marsh water pumped out, much like the reclaimed land of the Dutch polders, or the land the Dutch reclaimed along the estuary in Bordeaux. Although farming on these islands can be very productive, winter storms perennially threaten to rupture the levees. Road building in this environment is very difficult, which contributes to the Delta’s sense of separateness. Most Californians know where it is, but very few have actually been through it.

People are surprised to learn the Central Valley cities of Sacramento and Stockton are deep water ports. Today ocean-going vessels reach them via dredged channels. In 1850 it was easy to sail right through the Delta. So Sacramento and Stockton grew large as natural points of disembarkation and re-supply for prospectors. A majority of the great fortunes of that era were made in those cities from the provision and transportation businesses; not in the mines. But one of the unique inventions of the Gold Rush changed the Delta dramatically before being outlawed in 1870. Placer mining was the technique of impounding water high in the mountains, then dropping it hundreds of feet to a decreasing diameter nozzle in order to form an amazingly powerful instrument of hillside destruction. In one day two men using a cradle in a stream might wash about a cubic yard, say one ton, of gravel in order to extract the gold flake. Those same two men, using a nine-inch nozzle which passes 30,000 gallons of water per minute, could drive 1,500 tons of gravel through a sluice box each day. Six hundred-foot deep valleys a mile wide exist today in the Sierras which were not there until the hydraulic gold miners created them. The amount of material washed out of the mountains raised the normal level of the Sacramento River seven feet and nearly filled in San Francisco Bay. Today the Bay is 300 feet deep underneath the Golden Gate where the tide rushes in and out twice every day, but averages only 12 feet deep throughout the rest of its surface area. Even sailboats need to stay in dredged channels.

The Delta receives cooling marine airflow through the Golden Gate along its low waterways. It is more humid than most CA grape growing districts, which means fungal diseases can not be effectively controlled by weekend farmers. Soils are often peaty, and it is not hard for vine roots to reach the water table. The center of northern Delta grape growing is at Clarksburg. It completely encloses Merritt Island AVA, which has no good reason to exist separately. Both can be thought of as tracts of land in the Sacramento River’s geological channel. Productivity is very high in these clay soils with their peat-like, high organic content. Growers here have the opposite of an irrigation problem. The water table is so high, they must imbed tile drains in the vineyard. Then, when they want the grapes to ripen up quickly, they pump water out of the vineyard.

Chenin Blanc and Petite Sirah are two varieties which achieved artistic notoriety here in the 1980’s, but were overwhelmed in the marketplace by ‘fighting varietal’ priced Chardonnays and Cabernets. Today they are making tentative comebacks due to young artisan winemakers. The fruity aroma of Clarksburg Chenin Blanc is unusually pronounced. Noted wine journalist Gerald Asher (Gourmet magazine) calls the region “California’s Vouvray.”


The eastern part of the Delta is an approved AVA centered around the sleepy valley towns of Woodbridge and Lodi, and the Mokelumne (pronounced moh KELL hum neh) River. The western boundary of the AVA is Interstate 5. It was chosen for both the highway and the AVA boundary because it is the location where the land starts to elevate toward the Foothills, thus providing solid footing (instead of sand) for the roadway.

Grape-laden trucks lined up at Liberty Winery in 1955. (Photo courtesy of Lodi historian Ralph Lea.)

During Prohibition Lodi was the most prosperous grape growing district in the US due to the brilliantly colored Flame Tokay table grape, which never achieved the same color intensity anywhere else. The key was a site on a particular soil series deposited by the river and known as Hanford clay loam. Seedless grape varieties were the competitive end for Flame Tokay.

All around Comanche Reservoir (which impounds the Mokelumne River just east of Lodi AVA) the soil is thick with new potato-sized round rocks. They were washed down by the placer mining, and have been rounded by tumbling in the stream, but have dropped out of the stream (because they are heavy) at a higher gradient than the Hanford clay loam (smaller particles). Historically this land was not planted because farmers figured why bother with rocks when you could plant on friable top soil. The southern Rhône Valley (and the Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand), however, have shown us enormous advantages of well-drained sites for high-end wines. Growers in the Lodi area may be coming to realize this asset in the near future.

Today there are over 600 grape growers in the Lodi region farming 45,000 acres of grapes. These growers are noteworthy in the absentee owner-, agricultural syndicate-dominated environment of CA’s Central Valley because they are mainly small acreage, hands-on, mixed crop farmers. They average less than 100 acres apiece, making a living on cherries, almonds, row crops (like tomatoes), and grapes. Dating back to the 1880s, they traditionally formed themselves into cooperative wineries, when they counted many German Socialists amongst their ranks. They were a main source of resistance to the depredations of the railroad monopoly, and they made a serious candidate for California Governor out of Upton Sinclair in 1934. If you look at the huge former co-ops on a map, you will notice they are all in a line about one mile east of Hwy 99. That is the railroad. It hauled all those inexpensive jug wines to the East Coast markets.

The consolidation of distribution channels in America, and the need for innovative marketing, rendered the winery co-ops obsolete by the end of the 1970s. They just weren’t nimble enough to keep up with promotional changes. Gallo bought the Liberty Co-op, Robert Mondavi bought the Cherokee Co-op, Sebastiani bought the Woodbridge Co-op, and Canandaigua (now Constellation Brands) bought the Guild Co-op.

Lodi is best known for Zinfandel. In the late 1960’s and early ’70s Ridge Vyds and David Bruce Winery brought considerable attention to the Lodi area by making massive Zinfandels which beat consumers about the neck and shoulders with opulent, ripe berry fruit. The wines were too alcoholic and extractive to appeal to a mass audience, but nobody who tasted one ever had any trouble recognizing Zinfandel aroma afterward. The gargantuan structure of those wines accurately reflected the stature of the vines themselves. Trunks with 30-inch circumference are common. Zinfandel comprises 35 percent of the planted acreage in Lodi, but much of it goes into white Zinfandel these days. During the 1990’s a great deal of acreage was added in the AVA with grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Merlot. Producing up to 10 tons per acre, these vines make reliable commercial wine.

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