The discovery of gold in 1848, at John Augustus Sutter’s mill on the South Fork American River, forever transformed California. Would-be miners flocked to the Sierra Foothills, as did people who sought to cater to the miners. Within just one year of the formal, public announcement that gold had been discovered, the “European” population of the future state grew by roughly 600%.
The region that become Placer County was in the heart of the Gold Rush, and wine-production was one of the first, supporting industries to start there. The first grapes, the Mission variety, were planted by a miner in 1848. Frenchman Claude Chana was a barrel-maker at Fort Sutter (now a State Park in the city of Sacramento) when gold was discovered at the mill, about 35 miles (56 km) away.
Making his way slowly to the mill in mid-1848, Chana became the first to find gold in Auburn ravine. He set up a mining operation there. He also planted grapes and, ultimately, other fruit. He made wine from the grapes himself. As gold extraction waned, Chana became one of the area’s first, large-scale fruit producers.
Further mining development in the area by others soon led to the establishment of Auburn, then just a large camp, in August 1849. Auburn soon developed into a more structured settlement and was designated the county seat when Placer County was established in 1851. Today, the atmospheric Alpine town’s population is approximately 14,000.
Wine growing and production ended in Placer County with Prohibition. Though new vineyards have been established over the years post-Repeal, the wine industry remains very small. The producers, mostly located in the western part of the county, toward Sacramento are family-operated and make only boutique-level volumes. Growers and wineries founded associations in 1989 and 2010 to promote the industry.
1848 (January) - Gold discovered on the American River near Auburn
1848 - Cooper-turned-miner, Claude Chana plants Mission winegrapes
1851- Placer County established (from Sutter and Yuba County lands); Auburn named county seat
1854 - First commercial wine production in Placer County
1855 - Zinfandel planted in Placer County
1880s - Gold mines mostly played out; the economy shifts to other industries
1908 - Southern Pacific Railroad locates its switching yard in Roseville, Placer County
1920 - Prohibition begins and many vineyards are converted to orchards. Non-winegrapeslead the county’s economy until about 1960.
1939 - Sugar Bowl ski resort opens
1960 - Squaw Valley hosts the Winter Olympics
1999 - Placer County Wine & Grape Association founded
2010 - Placer County Vintners Association established