California’s Sierra Foothills Wine Country: An Overview and History

In 1849, with the discovery of gold in the town of Coloma, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the wine industry was primed for a new direction.

Vineyards and small wineries were started mostly by immigrants seeking to make their fortunes. Mining camps were everywhere and this had everything to do with the popularity of the emerging vineyards and wineries.

200,000 vines were growing in the so-called “gold counties” of northern California by the 1860’s. Wineries there outnumbered those in other parts of the north. These were the first wineries in the state to forgo the common mission grape in favor of better varietals, such as zinfandel.

Eventually the gold supply slowly began to go away and eventually dried up altogether. The population in this area shrank. Following both Prohibition and the devastating “plague” of phylloxera, grape growing and winemaking pretty much disappeared.

The Sierra Foothills held only abandoned vineyards and wineries by the end of World War II. One winery, the D’Agostini Winery, later the Sobon Estate, was the only one that was able to remain in operation during this time. Located in Amador County, the family owned and operated Sobon Estate, is still in operation today.

Sobon Wine Family Estate

This winery has been designated as California State Historic Landmark #762. In 1989, Leon and Shirley Sobon bought each other the historic D’Agostini Winery, one of the oldest in the entire state, as their 30th anniversary wedding present. The first year of operation for the winery is listed as 1856!

This site was chosen not only for its historical winery, but also for its vineyards and vineyard land. The old vine Zinfandel land was retained, and the other vineyards replanted with the best varieties and clones.

The Sobon Estate launched the estate line of wines for the Sobon family – the best wines from their own grapes. These include Rhone varietals, vineyard designated Zinfandels, and dessert wines. Some other facts about Sobon are:

  • The grapes are all estate grown, and sustainably farmed.
  • The winemaking is using state-of-the-art techniques with 60+ years of experience.
  • The family is dedicated to producing rich, full flavored wines with maximum respect for the environment. Non-irrigated vineyards produce smaller crops, but great grapes!

The Sierra Foothill’s Unique Location

In the 1970’s an awakening began and today there are over 100+ wineries in the Sierra Foothills and more than 6,400 acres planted with vines.

The Sierra Foothills is a strip of eight remote counties stacked one on top of the next, going north to south. The capital of California, Sacramento, is to the west, and the Nevada border is to the east.

The two most important counties are El Dorado and Amador. The spirit of the old west lives here as well as a strong sense of community.

  • El Dorado: Mostly comprised of volcanic and granitic soils, El Dorado is a very mountainous region. Madrona Vineyards is thought to be the highest elevation vineyard in California. At an elevation of 3,000 feet it is among several of the highest-elevation vineyards in the state.

    Nights are very cool here, in part because of the breezes that sweep down from off the 10,000 foot Sierra Nevada.

  • Amador County: Warmer than El Dorado, Amador County is spread over the lower foothills composed of granite with some sandy loam (a soil composed of sand, silt, and a smaller amount of clay).

    Amador first become popular with big Zinfandels that most wine drinkers loved. The grapes were intense with flavor and most of the vines were from very old vineyards. These vineyards were pre-prohibition and kept in production for as a fruit source for home winemakers.

Madrona Vineyards

As mentioned above, Madrona’s exceptional mountain elevation vineyards offer the perfect growing conditions for the wide range of Rhone and Bordeaux varietals they grow here.

Well-drained soil and mild temperatures throughout the year produce grapes with mild acidity and optimal maturity.

This creates distinctive fruit for the making of Madrona’s unique family of estate grown and bottled wines.

Situated at 3,000 feet, Madrona consists of three family-owned vineyards: Madrona Vineyard, located in Apple Hill, Enye, and Sumu-Kaw Vineyards located in nearby Pleasant Valley.

These three unique vineyard sites are planted with over 26 varietals, carefully selected for their unique blending qualities and characteristics.

The wines include:

  • Hillside Wines: The Hillside collection includes estate grown, varietal wines crafted to compliment a wide variety of foods and perfect for every day and casual occasions.
  • Signature Wines: Elegant wines that showcase the finest fruit from the three vineyard properties, they are handcrafted to showcase each unique characteristic of each varietal.
  • Single Vineyard Wines: Special lot offerings sourcing distinctive fruit from each of their three vineyards. Each highlights the unique terroir and characteristics of the specific vineyard site from which the fruit is harvested.
  • Specialty Wines: Specialty wines are special bottlings of uncommon varietals, produced on a limited basis by their winemaker.
  • New-World Port: A blend of seven estate-grown Portugese varietals, their New World Port shows elegance and balance.

A visit to Madrona Vineyards for a tour of the winery and vineyard area is by appointment only.

Grape Varieties in the Sierra Foothills

A large number of grape varieties are planted in the Sierra Foothills. The best wines are almost always from red Mediterranean varieties. Zinfandels, barberas, syrahs, mourvedres and Rhone blends have an irresistible boldness.

Wineries of the Sierra Foothills

Sutter Home in the Napa Valley was the first wineries to realize the value of the older Amador vines. The first Sutter Home Amador County Zinfandel was released in 1971. The wonderful wine was made from grapes from what is now a highly regarded winery, Deaver Ranch, in the Shenandoah Valley.

More wines that have gained the quality distinction and they deserve are:

  • Domaine de la Terre Rouge: Specializing in Rhone style wines, consistently some of the highest rated wines in the area by Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast
  • Terra d’Oro Winery: The name translates to “land of Gold” and offers a taste history with its Deaver Zinfandel made from a 130-year-old vineyard.
  • Skinner Vineyards: Scottish gold miner James Skinner founded the first Skinner winery in 1861 in Rescue, CA. The original cellar still exists. Located in tiny Somerset, the winery prides itself on its family legacy and history. The latest stage of the family legacy is the highly acclaimed “Skinner Vineyards and Winery”.

Visiting the Sierra Foothills

Wine enthusiast magazine suggests a few “not-to-miss” Sierra Foothills destinations.

  • Sutter’s Mill: California’s first gold strike in 1848 took place at the Northern end of this wine route, where Sutter’s Mill once stood. The historic locale is now part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where visitors can still pan for gold.
  • Renwood Winery: One of the biggest and best wineries in the foothills, Renwood offers an extensive tasting menu, snack options, and comfortable indoor-outdoor areas.
  • Taste restaurant and wine bar: This restaurant in Plymouth serves what some say is the best food in the Foothills. It’s also a convenient stop after a tour of wineries in the Shenandoah Valley.
  • Columbia State Historic Park: The rustic Gold Rush ambiance is evident in the historic business district of Columbia. Merchants are often dressed in 1850’s clothes. A ride on a 100 year-old stagecoach is also not out of the question!

Fair Play

Fair Play is located in the southern part of El Dorado County. It is filled with meandering roads that lead to award-winning wineries, ranches, and Christmas tree farms.

The friendliness (apparent in all of the Sierra Foothills), is alive here as well as wonderful scenic beauty.

The communities that make up the southern El Dorado County area in addition to Fair Play are:

  • Somerset: Somerset offers a variety of terrains from lush open pasture land to tall mountain tops with amazing views of beautiful vineyards. Weekends are full of people escaping the city and visiting the many small wineries the region has to offer. Each winery offers fun-filled specials from firehouse chili to corking the barrels!
  • Mount Aukum: Mt. Aukum’s elevation and temperature variations attract growers seeking to develop a very specific fruit profile.
  • Omo Ranch: Omo Ranch is named for a Native American village. It sits 1,101 meters (3,612 feet) above sea level.

During the gold rush, Fair Play was a prosperous mining town with several stores and hotels. Today there are Alpaca and horse farms as well as trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables, and vineyards.

More than 20 award-winning wineries make up this lovely area.

Some Wineries to Note

  • Windwalker Vineyards: Large tasting room, warm and friendly. Zinfandels and many dessert wines deserve a look and taste here! Enjoy lunch on the beautiful, shady deck.
  • Perry Creek Vineyards: Perry Creek Vineyards offers 14 varietals. Great place for a picnic nestled among the pine trees.
  • Toogood Estate Winery: Located in a cave, the wine cave rocks are a must-see. Regular tastings are offered but barrel tastings are also available upon request. Interestingly distinctive labels and of course a friendly atmosphere are just some of the others reasons for stopping by!

Special Events in the Area

  • El Dorado Passport: 25+ wineries share the innovative spirit by providing awesome food and wine pairings and engaging the participant in their unique stories.

The event is focused on the often unexplored side of winemaking and creative expression. The Sierra landscape is such an inspiration in the dynamic agriculture of this beautiful mountain region. These El Dorado wineries draw on, not only the terroir of their awesome area, but of course their great wine-making experiences. This event is full of historic tours, live music, art demonstrations, and winemaking insights.

  • El Dorado County Fair: Four stages of live music, wine, spirits, beer, carnival rides and kids activities make up this fun event.
  • WINEderlust Renegade Wine Festival: El Dorado’s most creative and pioneering winemakers, brewers, musicians, and artisans make up this full fair, concert, and beverage bazaar. Held on Middle Main Street in Placerville, also known as Old Hangtown, every wine featured is made from El Dorado grown fruit.

    The event emphasizes locals with all bands being local people, and the art and food vendors are native to the region. Local food trucks and games such as flower crown making are part of the fun when visiting this event.

  • Motherlode Beer and Music Festival: A new event for this area, the Motherlode Beer and Music Festival is dedicated to the breweries in and around the Motherlode with a fun and entertaining selection of local and touring bands. This is a “zero-waste” event that promotes beer education. Fun interactive beer-related activities come together as well. This is a two day celebration.

Hiking in El Dorado County: Bring Wine!

Most hikes here are rated easy to moderate, so in addition to visiting the spectacular wineries, bring the family (and a bottle of wine) and try out some spring hiking.

  • Bassi Falls: located in El Dorado National Forest off Ice House Road near Placerville, this 100+ foot waterfall is worth the short hike.
  • Horsetail Falls: Horsetail Falls offers a dramatic 800-foot waterfall flowing down glacier-carved granite of Desolation Wilderness. There are beautiful views along granite fields on the first part of the hike that takes you to the base of the falls. The second part is for experienced hikers as the trail is not clearly defined.
  • Eagle Falls: Waterfall lovers will want to head to Emerald Bay, where a short hike results in the spectacular Eagle Falls, which feeds into Emerald Bay.
  • Cascade Falls: Another waterfall hike, Cascade Falls promises views from the top of the rushing 200 foot falls with views of Cascade Lake below and Lake Tahoe beyond.