Following the discovery of gold in 1848, a wave of prospectors, many from Europe, descended upon California’s “Gold Country.” This area, also known as the “Mother Lode,” lies in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. As a result of the Gold Rush, transportation routes were built to connect Gold Country with larger cities. California’s first railroad traveled through Gold Country, giving Amador and nearby counties a leg up when it came to getting their wines to larger cities.
Amador County was created in 1854 with territories taken from El Dorado and Calaveras counties. The area is named for José Maria Amador, a soldier, rancher and miner who, in 1848, worked alongside Native Americans to establish a gold mining camp in Gold Country. “Amador” in Spanish means “one who loves,” and in the context of Amador County has no connection with the potential alternative “amor al oro,” meaning “love of gold.”
With so many prospectors flocking to the area, it followed that some entrepreneurial spirits would begin making wine as a means of quenching prospectors’ thirsts. Today, Amador boasts some of the oldest vines in California, with the historic planting of Zinfandel in the Grandpere Vineyard, dating back to 1869.
After the gold began to dry up, many settlers opted to stay in Amado, and began their own wineries. By 1900, over 100 established wineries existed in Amador, some of which remain active today.
Prohibition ended any real growth in the Amador wine industry and was responsible for many wineries lying dormant for years. When the last surviving gold mines closed in 1942, it seemed unlikely that there would be any real economic future for Amador. A few wineries stayed put, but overall there was little interest in Amador and its wines, outside of bulk grape production.
Things began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. With the rising costs of vineyard land in Napa and Sonoma, people began to seek out alternative locations. As the cost of land in Amador had remained low, there had never been a need to rip up vines, even after wineries shut their doors during Prohibition. The presence of extremely old vines, plus sunny, warm days, cool nights, and unusual sandy, granitic, volcanic soils lured people back to the area. Zinfandel quickly became synonymous with Amador County, but quality at the time was inconsistent.
The landscape in Amador is very different today. While Zinfandel remains the most widely planted and important grape variety, local wineries have been experimenting with Italian varieties and southern Rhône varieties with marked success. Production of Barbera, Grenache, Syrah and Viognier is on the rise, and there remains constant trial and error to see what other grapes might thrive here.