History of Wine Country in California

By Benjamin Bicais


Napa Valley, California Vineyard

Napa Valley, California Vineyard

It is impossible to study the history of wine country in the Sierra Foothills and the Delta without knowledge of the broader economic forces that have shaped the region since the mid-nineteenth century.

Years Before the Gold Rush

Until the Gold Rush, Stockton and Sacramento were natural deep water ports. The subsequent mining during the Gold Rush filled the riverbeds with debris. These cities are still deep water ports, but only because a path through the Delta is dredged.

The early economy revolved around the transport of goods to and from these regional centers. However, the population was relatively small and did not support a significant wine industry.

The Independent Miner: Impact on Wine Country

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the American River. When news got out, a flood of young men raced to the region to seek their fortunes.

Gold Panning

Gold Panning

For a few years, miners searched streams throughout the Sierra Foothills for surface placer. It was during these early years of the Gold Rush that the romanticized notion of the self-sufficient miner emerged. The mythological independent miner is a part of California’s identity to this day.

These miners had an incessant thirst for alcohol. This demand led to the birth of the Sierra Foothills Wine Country. In 1856, Swiss immigrant Adam Uhlinger planted grapes in the Shenandoah Valley. These were the original vineyards in the Sierra Foothills and were located in Amador County.

The wine industry boomed in the following years to satisfy the need for alcohol amongst the miners. Despite the inhospitable soils, rugged entrepreneurs continued to seek out new locations to grow grapes and make wine.

Early vineyards were also planted to the north of Uhlinger’s original vines in the more elevated El Dorado County. In 1860, Fossati-Lombardo was the first winery established in the newly incorporated town of El Dorado.

At the height of the Gold Rush, there were over 100 wineries in the Sierra Foothills. All evidence points to Zinfandel as the primary varietal at the time. Wines were extremely rustic, naturally very alcoholic and often fortified.

Industrial Mining: Impact on Wine Country

After the surface placer was discovered and mined, large-scale operations took over. The idea of independent miners striking their fortunes is largely a misnomer. It was true for the first few years, but as with any major business opportunity in a free market society, capital was rapidly pooled to profit from it. The Pacific Stock Exchange was the epicenter of concentrating the capital needed to undertake these massive operations.

Entire rivers were diverted with wooden flumes in an effort to scour the dry riverbeds for gold. The scale of these operations was monumental.

The mining industry also began to delve deep into the earth through the practice of hydraulicking. Using Hydraulics was the process of literally blasting away mountainsides with pressurized water. This tactic had immediate as well as long-lasting implications for region’s wine country, environment and economy.

To this day, there are man-made canyons that are hundreds of feet deep in the Sierra Foothills from this process. Debris washed downstream to the Delta and caused massive flooding and devastation at the time. They also formed a base of silt which is partly responsible for the current region’s remarkable productivity. However, the immediate economic benefits were felt in the emerging metropolis of San Francisco.

The industrial and real estate fortunes of San Francisco were tied not only to the actual gold of the Sierra Foothills, but also the frenzy created by gold fever. A handful of wealthy San Franciscans owned factories located south of Market Street that produced the machinery needed for hydraulicking. They also owned much of the real estate north of Market Street. They completed their highly profitable cycle by using newspapers and magazines to advertise the potential for vast riches to anyone who moved to the area.

Large numbers of people moved to San Francisco and the surrounding areas to claim their piece of the windfall. The population increase sky-rocketed their land values and provided an abundant and cheap labor force to extract more gold. The burgeoning San Francisco skyline was a direct result of the inverted skyscrapers that were the mines in the Sierra Foothills.

The gold from these mines literally financed this urban prosperity. It was unbelievably lucrative for a select few. The immediate collateral effects of the whole process were the devastated farmlands (including wine country) in the Delta. Flooding was so common that the region became a shallow extension of the San Francisco Bay for much of the year. Ships could barely navigate the mud-choked waters of the once pristine Bay.

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