An Introduction to the Sierra Foothills

The Sierra Foothills
Photo by Meg Baggott

Even without its gorgeous vineyard vistas and increasingly excellent wines, the Sierra Foothills region beckons as a rich travel destination. These hills, which rise from the flat farmland of the San Joaquin to the soaring Sierra Nevada mountains, held vast treasure long before any wine was made.

James Marshall discovered gold in the gravel bottom of the American River at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. By the next year, tens of thousands of would-be miners known as the Forty-Niners converged on the region to stake claims and seek riches. Ramshackle encampments along every river soon became Wild West-style towns with crowded hotels and saloons.

While a few prospectors did get rich, others realized there was more reliable money in selling the miners supplies, food and drink; Levi Straus & Co. launched during this time, as did many local vineyards.

Located 80 miles inland from San Francisco, the Foothills wine region is vast. Eight counties stretch 120 miles roughly north to south along the scenic and aptly numbered Highway 49. The preponderance of top wines come from Amador County, Calaveras County and El Dorado County. Although the region holds about 225 bonded wineries, only 6,000 acres of vines are planted.

Visitors can find time-travel opportunities like panning for gold or climbing aboard a restored rail line.The area also offers outstanding river rafting, kayaking, hiking and rock climbing. Recently, luxury lodging and more creative cuisine have injected some welcome energy into these historic hills.

Top Grapes of the Sierra Foothills


The best-known wines of the region are full-bodied but rarely tannic. Zinfandel is oozing wild berry and cedar flavors, they feel soft and silky on the palate.


Fruity, mild in tannins yet high in acidity, this fresh, food-friendly wine originated in northern Italy. Increasingly, Barbera is considered a Foothills favorite.

Petite Sirah

Wine rarely gets more robust than this. Petite Sirah is almost black in color, it tastes like crushed black pepper and blackberry jam, packed with fine-grained tannins.

Sauvignon Blanc

Crisp, floral and creamy, this grape shows flavors of pear and melon through much of the region. Balanced minerality makes Sauvignon Blanc an outstanding match with food.


This is a wine of great body, richness and mouthfeel. Viognier offers honey on the nose followed by lime, Meyer lemon, apricot and peach flavors, with a slight taste of stone.

Published on June 6, 2017
Topics: California
About the Author
Jim Gordon
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Jim Gordon has been covering the wine industry as an editor and reporter for more than 30 years. In 2006 he became editor of Wines & Vines, the media company for North American winemakers and grape growers. He directs the editorial content of Wines & Vines in the monthly print magazine, digital and social media. Gordon is also a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and past director of the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. He was editor in chief for two books by publisher Dorling Kindersley of London: Opus Vino, and 1000 Great Everyday Wines. Gordon was managing editor of Wine Spectator for 12 years, and editor in chief of Wine Country Living magazine for four, during which time he helped create Wine Country Living TV for NBC station KNTV in San Jose. He lives in Napa, California. Email:

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