Wine grapes have grown in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada since just after the fabled Gold Rush of 1849. Would-be prospectors flocked to the region that year after news spread about the discovery of gold in the American River by James Marshall in January 1848.
Dozens of the towns that exist today were founded as encampments for the prospectors. Some struck gold and made their fortunes, while others found better luck in supplying the new population with mining equipment, food and clothing. It’s where Levi Strauss & Co. got its start.
The miners and would-be miners had a thirst for alcohol, and there was little supply at the time. Swiss immigrant Adam Uhlinger planted grapes in Amador County in 1856, which were the original vines in the Sierra Foothills, according to the regional AVA association.
Early vineyards were also planted north of Uhlinger’s original vines in El Dorado County. In 1860, Fossati-Lombardo was the first winery established in the newly incorporated town of El Dorado, the association says.
At its height in the late 19th century, more than 100 wineries operated in the Sierra Foothills, with Zinfandel believed to have been the primary grape variety. The “Original Grandpère Vineyard,” owned by the Deaver family in the Shenandoah Valley and documented as existing in 1869, is regarded today as the oldest Zinfandel vineyard in the state.
Read more in depth coverage of the Sierra Foothills in our companion feature above.
Like the rest of California, winemaking slumped as the 19th century ended. But the phylloxera plague that killed many vineyards spared some isolated foothills vines. Twenty years later, Prohibition nearly finished off the industry. Its revival in the 1970s was due in part to wineries in the coastal counties like Sutter Home and Ridge that began making remarkable wines from Deaver Vineyards and others.
Young winemakers like Greg Boeger then looked around the foothills and went to work. He and his wife, Sue, bought the historic Fossati-Lombardo property in 1972 and founded Boeger Winery, the first new producer in El Dorado County since Prohibition.
In more recent decades, the Trinchero family of Sutter Home winery built a high-quality winemaking facility, Montevina/Terra d’Oro, which is the largest in the area. Bill Easton and Jane O’Riordan founded critically acclaimed Terre Rouge for Rhône-style wines, and Easton for Zinfandel. Ironstone has also drawn attention to the area with its big outdoor concerts and the world’s largest crystalline gold leaf specimen.