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Vineyards in Napa and Sonoma may be more famous, but the Sierra foothills area is regaining its identity as a premier winemaking destination.

The counties part of this viticulture self-discovery are Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Nevada and Placer. The area is called “Gold Country” – not “Wine Country.” While carrying pickaxes, mining pans and shovels in their packs, people from around the world hoping to strike it rich would also bring their home country’s grape vines with them.

This would kickstart an internationally fueled wine growing period in a pocket of the Sierra Nevada foothills’ rich volcanic soil.

With all its different elevations, micro-climates and terrain, this region can produce several varietals, like old vine zinfandel, barbera, sangiovese, syrah, viognier, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

Amador County

Once the center of grape growing in California, Amador is home to the oldest Zinfandel vines in the country. These vines were planted four years after the end of the Civil War, according to Amador Winegrowers.

Wineries using this historical grape include Andis Wines, Scott Harvey Wines and Vino Noceto.

Although there are around 40 wineries throughout Amador County, the most renowned winemaking area within the county is the Shenandoah Valley, where there are about 3,500 planted acres of grapes.

What was once the center of the state’s winemaking industry now only makes up about 1% of the wine grape businesses in California. However, that has not kept this tiny winemaking region from striving to achieve excellence. Amador Winegrowers said 30% of medals won in California wine competitions have been made with grapes from Amador County.

Calaveras County

Calaveras County dates its viticulture history back to 1851 when 1,000 vines were planted on the lower Calaveras River. It is believed that these grapes were Mission Grapes, which date back to Old World grapes from over 500 years ago.

The Calaveras Heritage Council notes that the source of these grapes may have been Mission San Jose, Charles Weber’s Campo de los Franceses in Stockton, Sutter’s Hock Farm or Steve Burge’s ranch in Placer County.

As settlers from the East Coast made their way to California they brought along dozens of grape vines that ended up being planted in the rich soil of Calaveras County.

According to the Heritage Council, one of the predominant growing areas in the county was Mokelumne Hill as it was the county seat and had a diverse population of people from around the world with collective knowledge of winemaking.

Within 20 years the county was producing more than 49,000 gallons of wine from 64 winemakers and 112 growers on 312 acres.

In 1890, the county dropped from fourth in statewide wine production to seventh. However, wineries located on Mokelumne Hill still produced around 17,000 gallons of wine a year.

Prohibition would cause the county to see a reduction in winemaking but this slump would only last for about 30 years, as by the early 1970s the industry was rekindled. In 1976, Bob Bliss and Jim Riggs opened the first new winery in the county and kickstarted the modern winemaking industry the county has today.

Calaveras County today has 37 wineries and grows 725 acres of vines, 14% of which are Cabernet Sauvignon.

El Dorado County

When James Marshall discovered gold in John Sutter’s sawmill in the El Dorado County town of Coloma no one knew that it would start the first winemaking renaissance in the Sierra Foothills.

Like its neighboring counties, El Dorado saw a rapid growth in its winemaking industry. By 1870 it was the largest winemaking region in the state, only being beaten by Los Angeles and Sonoma counties.

This prosperity lasted until the turn of the century with around 2,000 acres of vines being grown throughout the county. However, as the gold dried up, populations dwindled, economic conditions worsened and prohibition began, the winemaking industry in El Dorado county just about disappeared.

As the winemaking potential in the Sierra Foothills was rediscovered, El Dorado would see several experimental vineyards open in the 1960s. In 1973, Boeger Winery opened its doors.

Now, 50 wineries and more than 2,000 acres of vines dot the rich landscape of El Dorado County. In 1983, El Dorado was designated as an American Vinicultural Area (AVA) within the larger Sierra Foothills AVA.

Nevada County

Winemaking in Nevada County dates back at least to 1862 when a saloon on Broad Street was found to be serving locally crafted wines.

Several hundreds of acres of grapes made up of around 450,000 vines could be found in the county by 1870, which was already known for its award-winning Zinfandel made by Francis Seibert.

This golden age would not last forever in California’s most populous county at the time, much like the surrounding foothill winemaking areas. But in 1974 John Callender began his Little Wolf Vineyard and brought wine back to Nevada County.

Today there are 20 wineries and hundreds of vineyards in this historic Gold Rush county.

Placer County

Placer County’s wine growing predates the Gold Rush with Claude Chana planting the first grape vines along Auburn Ravine in 1848, the same year James Marshall found gold in Coloma.

There is not much published history on the winemaking industry in Placer during the Gold Rush and before Prohibition. By the time of Prohibition, Placer grape growers decided to tear up their vines and replace them with fruit trees.

The vast quantity of plum, pear and citrus orchards would gain the county’s identity as “the nation’s fruit basket” and would stay that way until the 1960s.

Placer’s return to winemaking has been slower than its fellow counties in the Sierra Foothills AVA, but it still hosts 20 wineries with more on the way.