As in the larger Sierra Foothills AVA, winemaking in Calaveras County was born during California’s legend-rich Gold Rush. The first gold might have been found in 1849 two counties to the north, in El Dorado, but Calaveras offered the tantalizing prospect of instant wealth as well, and attracted a full slate of miners, including its share from southern Europe—Italy, Spain, and France. Panning for gold by cold streams was no picnic, and many of the immigrants from Old World winemaking countries saw more promise in the familiar landscape of the warm foothills for growing wine. And they had the experience to turn to vineyard work and production. The first 1,000 vines were planted near the lower Calaveras River in 1851. By 1866, the region was home to 515,049 vines—well on its way to becoming California’s fourth largest-producing wine region, behind Los Angeles, Sonoma, and El Dorado. One notable grower was Prentiss M. Trask, who planted 25,000 vines during the heart of the Gold Rush (the terraced hillside is still visible today), and is credited with introducing dry farming techniques to the area.
By the mid-1870s, however, fortunes began to wane. Mining populations dwindled, and commercial business along with them. A severe economic downturn hit the region, and by the early 1900s, winemaking had declined too. Prohibition—the restriction of commercial winegrowing and winemaking starting in 1920 until Repeal in December 1933 —was simply the last straw. There were virtually no viable wine operations in Calaveras County until the 1970s.
The turnaround in Calaveras winemaking—a movement that has been called a “wine renaissance”—can be traced to Barden Stevenot, a descendant of a local pioneering family who in the 1970s planted vineyards on his ranch property near the historic town of Murphys and had wine made under his name for many years. The Stevenot operation, as it turned out, seeded the local industry with pioneering winemakers, many of whom are still producing to this day. Steve Millier, a former Stevenot winemaker, went on to open his own Millaire Winery, then Black Sheep Winery (with Dave and Jan Olson), formerly Chispa Cellars, which in 1976 was the first winery facility in Murphys to open in about 40 years. Chuck Hovey, also once Stevenot’s longtime winemaker and partner in constant improvements to winegrowing and winemaking, launched his own namesake winery. Beyond those talents taught by Stevenot, many others were influenced by him. The region’s largest winery, Ironstone, which produces hundreds of thousands of cases a year, now multitasks as a Gold Rush museum, where visitors can pan for gold (and where Steve Millier is the longtime winemaker). But even its history goes back to a ranch that has been in president Stephen Kautz’s family since 1940.
In short, history is quite visible still in Calaveras today. What’s believed to be the oldest Zinfandel vineyard in the state, the Grandpère Vineyard in Shenandoah Valley, has been found here and revived. And now nearly 40 producers take advantage of the diversity of the foothills—microclimates created by elevation and aspect—to grow a wide range of varieties, especially Rhône (Syrah), Italian (Barbera), and Spanish (Tempranillo), plus a core of Cabernet Sauvignon and old vine Zinfandel, which represents an unbroken line of continuity from the late 1800s to the modern era.