Winemaking in El Dorado is inextricably linked—more than in any other region in the state—to California’s Gold Rush history. In 1848 James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s mill on the South Fork of the American River, in what would later become El Dorado County, and the rest is history, as they say. Prospectors intent on metallic riches rushed to the Sierra Foothills from across the country and around the globe, including from Europe. Panning for gold in cold rivers was arduous, thirsty work, though, and some of the immigrants from Old World winemaking countries perceived a ready audience for wine and the potential for growing it well on the warm hillsides, and they put their homeland know-how to work, planting vineyards and supplying the demand.
It was the population influx of the Gold Rush, in fact, that catalyzed the wine industry throughout Northern California, creating huge demand. Profit from the sale of grapes became a sort of second mother lode. Even the pioneers associated with gold’s initial discovery—John Sutter and James Marshall—planted vineyards and made wine.
While mining country in the Sierra Foothills was much farther east in the state than the line of missions the Spanish Fathers had built along the more coastal El Camino Real, the missions played an integral part in the burgeoning wine industry up in the hills. One of the main routes incoming prospectors took from San Francisco to El Dorado ran around the southern tip of San Francisco Bay and by Mission San Jose. Travelers took cuttings from the mission’s vineyards, and prospective vintners returned to other missions as well, to collect cuttings for Foothills vineyards. This ensured that the most widely planted variety across the region was the Mission grape (also called the “native” or “Los Angeles” variety—País in Chile and Criollo in Argentina) introduced by the Spanish padres. As it turned out, dry table wines made from the Mission grape weren’t superb, but the variety did become the base of California’s historic Angelica, with brandy added to the juice, or partially fermented wine of the Mission grape, then aged. The beverage was popular through the Gold Rush. Beyond the Mission grape, other varieties began coming in during the last half of the 1800s, transported around the Horn from nurseries in New England. These included Zinfandel, which became a cornerstone of early California winemaking, and is the closest to a native grape the US can claim.
As potential for discovering gold waned, ever more prospectors turned to growing and making wine. By 1870, El Dorado County was the third largest wine-producing region in the state, behind Los Angeles and Sonoma Counties. Come the turn of the century, there were some 2,000 acres (809 ha) of vines in the region. Fortunes in the Foothills began to decline, though, as population numbers fell. Then came Prohibition, restricting the making of wine for commercial sale from 1920 until 1933. The local wine industry was decimated, and agriculture turned to tree fruits, especially pears. By 1966, a scant 11 acres of vines remained in El Dorado.
In a further turn of fate, though, the main agricultural product through those years—pears—suffered serious decline, on account of disease, making way for attention to return in El Dorado to the potential for wine. A couple of local agricultural officials, with the encouragement of viticulturist A.N. Kasimatis of UC Davis, planted several experimental plots, which provided ample evidence that the microclimates and the soils in the region were very promising for producing exciting wine. One test vineyard, planted by a German teacher at the local high school, contained no less than two dozen varieties, offering evidence of success that launched the diversity of wine production in El Dorado. (It also didn’t hurt that this coincided with a time when Americans began drinking more dry table wine.) The first commercial vineyard in the area was 20 acres of Barbera, planted by George and Marion Ritchie. And in 1973 Greg Boeger opened Boeger Winery, setting in motion the modern success of wine in El Dorado. (The winery still produces a popular Barbera from the Ritchies’ vineyard.)
In 1983, El Dorado was officially designated an American Viticultural Area. And today, the region is planted with more than 2,000 acres (809 ha) of vines -- interestingly enough, about the same acreage it boasted at the turn of the last century -- with more than 50 producers of acclaimed wines.