The towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City still have an energy that reaches back to their roots at the heart of the California Gold Rush. In 1850, miners discovered a huge strike of gold-bearing quartz and started a boom that made Grass Valley and Nevada City two of the most important mining towns in the state. When the original miners came, they brought grape vines with them. Nevada County’s first vineyards date back to 1852. Rod Byers
Visiting any of the Tasting Rooms in Grass Valley and Nevada City is a not-to-be-missed experience!
“I’ve traveled to many many many wine regions and have found no other like this one. The wines are varied. The people are incredibly friendly. There is a downtown area with tasting rooms if you don’t feel like driving around, plus lots of places to eat and unique art within the shops. But if that isn’t your speed, there are places like Naggiar and Lucchesi with beautiful properties to enjoy the view with lunch or music or movies on a weekend. All this virtually in our backyard.”…..Jerry B., Santa Rosa
“In California, the Missions were partly military, partly religious and partly cultural, but intrinsic to all of them were grapes and wine. The grape they selected to plant ironically enough was the Mission grape. Clearly, of vinifera origin, it had already been cultivated in the new world in both Chile and Argentina for 250 years before it was brought to California. It was easy to propagate, easy to cultivate, requiring very little if any water and produced a strong, often sweet red wine. The trouble was, it just wasn’t very good.”
Gold Dust and Red Dirt
By: Rod Byers, Certified Wine Educator
Prior to the discovery of gold California was a pretty sleepy place, still ruled by Spain. The Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500’s and other than claiming California as Spanish territory they never much bothered with it. Evidently, there was enough gold and silver holding their attention in Mexico that the Spanish never felt compelled to look further north. But by the mid-1700’s there was an increasing number of people bumping about, and the Spanish decided it was time to lay claim to their turf. In 1769 they dispatched a bunch of Franciscan friars north to occupy California, most notable among them, Father Junipero Serra, and with that, the Californian Mission system was born. Eventually, there were twenty-one in all, stretching ultimately from San Diego to the town of Sonoma. Just to make a short historical footnote: 1769 is an intriguing date because that was the same year Thomas Jefferson first started trying to establish vinifera vineyards on America’s east coast.
In California, the Missions were partly military, partly religious and partly cultural, but intrinsic to all of them were grapes and wine. The grape they selected to plant ironically enough was the Mission grape. Clearly, of vinifera origin, it had already been cultivated in the new world in both Chile and Argentina for 250 years before it was brought to California. It was easy to propagate, easy to cultivate, requiring very little if any water and produced a strong, often sweet red wine. The trouble was, it just wasn’t very good. The noted wine author Hugh Johnson referred to the Mission grape as “an early maturing, dark-skinned bag of sweet juice, no more.” But it made wine and thanks to the Franciscans it was quickly spreading through out California. Conversely, in the same time span, by the start of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson was still importing European grape cuttings every year to replace the vines that continued to die in his vineyards each year.
That’s how the California wine industry started, with the first settlers traveling from Mission to Mission transporting grape cuttings and establishing vineyards in new areas. Little by little California was growing. By the 1830’s folks were starting to arrive in increasing numbers from the east coast and some brought grape cuttings of other varieties with them. One of the standard collections of the day was the New England collection of which Zinfandel was a part. The mission grape was by far the most widely planted, but the early vineyard-ists quickly recognized the superior quality of the Zinfandel grapes for producing red wine.
Then came the Gold Rush and California changed overnight.
San Francisco was the port of entry for thousands of people all heading east to the gold fields. There was, of course, no Bay Bridge. Many took the southern trek around the Bay. One of the places they passed through was Mission San Jose. It became a common sight to see intrepid miners heading east with cuttings of Mission vines sticking out of their saddlebags.
Another favorite spot was a nursery in Sacramento where they picked up Zinfandel cuttings. That was how both Mission and Zinfandel grapes dominated the early Nevada County vineyards.
Nevada County’s first vineyard was planted in 1852, but there are few wine references to grapes or wine in the 1850’s. But by l862 a saloon owner on Broad Street was serving Nevada County wine by the glass, and the barrels started rolling. From that time on there are numerous references to grape growers, even records of the numbers of vines planted. In 1869 Frank Siebert of Nevada City produced a Zinfandel that was one of the first wines ever to win a medal in a California wine competition. By 1870 there were 450,000 vines in the county representing several hundred acres of grapes. But throughout time, the wine industry has been a cycle of boom and bust, and the 1870’s were one of the busts. There was an economic downturn creating a depression in the post Civil War years. In Nevada County, there was simply a surplus of grapes. In 1871 the county’s seven distilleries produced a record 4,000 gallons of brandy. Four times as much fruit went unpicked and growers couldn’t sell all the wine they produced. It was around this time that Nevada City Winery first appeared, operating as a cooperative, taking in grapes from many local growers who were having difficulty on their own. But then came the vineyard boom of the 1880’s. There was an economic upturn. It became fashionable to grow grapes. It was a time of the gentleman farmer where landowners planted vineyards. It was at this time that E.G. White was quoted as saying that someday, “Nevada County’s wine would become more valuable than gold.” In 1887 Nevada County contained seventeen grape growers, ten of whom made wine. There were 220 acres of grapes. In 1889 Nevada City Winery produced 8,000 gallons of wine.
Boom and bust. The high times of the 1880’s were quickly followed by a very severe depression in the mid- 1890’s.
The bottom fell out. The price of both grapes and wine shrunk to nothing. It was here the trail turned cold. All the records disappear, and there is no further mention of anything grape related including Nevada City Winery. If wine was being
produced it wasn’t recorded; it was either being sold to the neighbor next door or the fruit packing plant in Newcastle. What happened?
We’ll follow the trail in the next issue. To be continued . . . Rod Byers
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Read Uncorking History, Page 46