Gold dust, red dirt – Nevada County’s wine industry has a storied past
January 31, 2005
Is this, at the dawn of the 21st century, a golden age of winemaking in Nevada County?
During the last several years we have had an explosion of vineyards and wineries. A recent head count totaled 500 acres and 15 wineries, with more in the works. In 2000 we had seven wineries. In 1979 we had none. The first modern vineyard was planted in 1974.
What came before?
I knew that the original Nevada City Winery had been located in the area behind Nevada City’s National Hotel during the 1880s. I had a picture of it.
Nevada County’s original golden age of wine started with a bang with the onset of the Gold Rush. Suddenly the world rushed in. For one brief shining moment in 1851, Nevada City was the largest city in California; Nevada County the most populous county in the state. California itself was 1 year old. When those original intrepid miners came, they brought grape vines with them. Nevada County’s first vineyards date back to 1852.
Prior to that, at the dawn of the 18th century, California, ruled by Spain, was a pretty sleepy place. The Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500s and other than claiming California as Spanish territory, never much bothered with it. Evidently there was enough gold, silver and chocolate holding their attention in Mexico that they didn’t feel compelled to look further north. Eventually the Spanish decided it was time to lay claim to their turf. In 1769 they dispatched Franciscan friars north to occupy California, among them, Father Junipero Serra. That was the start of the Californian Mission system, ultimately totaling 21, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma.
In Alta, the missions became the center of life – partly military, partly religious and partly social. At the center of every mission were grapes and wine.
The friars planted the Mission grape, originally brought by the conquistadors from Spain. Easy to propagate, easy to cultivate, drought tolerant, it was the perfect grape for an arid Southern California. That’s how it started. As the mission system grew, vines spread.
The start of the 19th century brought Lewis and Clark. American settlers began arriving, bringing other grape varieties with them. According to noted California wine historian Charles Sullivan, it was during the 1830’s that Zinfandel first appeared in California.
Then came the Gold Rush.
San Francisco was the port of entry for tens of 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, passing through Mission San Jose. It became a common sight to see miners heading east with cuttings of Mission vines sticking out of their saddlebags. Another favorite stopping spot was Smith’s Pomological Gardens on the American River in Sacramento, where they picked up Zinfandel cuttings. That was how both Mission and Zinfandel grapes were propagated in early Nevada County vineyards.
In 1862 Mr. Isoarde, a saloon owner on Broad Street, was serving wines produced from local grapes. In 1866 the assessor reported there were 124,000 vines and 10,000 gallons of wine produced. It was thought that was under reported, because of a recently imposed taxed, and as many as 20,000 gallons or 8,500 cases had actually been produced. In 1869 Frank Siebert of Nevada City produced a Zinfandel that was one of the first ever to win a medal in a California wine competition. Grapes were grown in French Corral, the San Juan Ridge, Nevada City, Grass Valley, Chicago Park and Rough and Ready.
Some wines were selling for as much as $2 a gallon, a very respectable price. By 1870 there were 450,000 vines in the county representing several hundred acres of grapes. E. G. Waite produced a wine thought to be comparable to the Clarets of France. It was heady times for wine in Nevada County.
Just when your britches are bursting, the wine industry has a way of bringing you back to earth. California wine is a story of boom and bust. The 1870s were one of the busts. There was a depression in the post Civil War years and an economic downturn. Nevada County had 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. The wineries couldn’t sell all the wine they produced. It was around that time that the original Nevada City Winery first appeared, evidently, as a cooperative, helping growers who were having difficulty on their own.
Boom. That was followed by the vineyard growth of the 1880s, strangely not dissimilar to the vineyard boom of our 1980s. There was a demand for wine and it became fashionable to grow grapes, a time of gentleman farmers planting vineyards.
It was about that time that Mr. Waite, of the Nevada Journal, issued his statement that someday Nevada County’s wine would become more valuable than gold. There is mention of grapes being sold to Napa. In 1887 there were more than 200 acres of grapes and some 17 grape growers, 10 of whom produced their own wine. In 1889 Nevada City Winery produced 8,000 gallons of wine.
Bust. There was a severe national depression in the 1890’s. Money and markets dried up. Sonoma, Napa, Santa Clara and San Jose had all developed their own wine regions during the same time as Nevada County. As California climbed out of the Depression of the 1890’s, financiers were more willing to spend money closer to home, closer to the increasingly large market of San Francisco. The Sierra Foothills and Nevada County were a long way away.
The dawn of the 20th century brought new energy and promise to California. But could a wine industry survive in Nevada County?
To be continued.
One final Note. Oral History.
Everything I know about the 19th century is from recorded sources. Everything I know about the wine history of Nevada County in the 20th century is from oral sources. If you have a story to tell or a picture to share I would love to know.
Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at wineonpine@ sbcglobal.net or by phone at 913-3703.