On September 11, a group gathered in front of 305 Broad St., the site of Novak’s Clothing Store in Nevada City, to commemorate that spot with a historical plaque. The event was sponsored by The Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission.
The plaque being unveiled honored the location of the county’s first commercial winery dating back to 1860.
Bernie Zimmerman chairs the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission (nevadacountylandmarks.com). It was originally formed by the Board of Supervisors in 1969 to preserve and promote local history.
Zimmerman, a home wine maker, explained, “a few years back, while editing Exploring Nevada County, I noticed we had landmarks for several breweries active in Gold Rush days but nothing for wineries. I knew there were vineyards planted in Nevada County in the early 1850s. I decided to find the first commercial winery.”
“Searching newspapers and maps available online and with help from Pat Chesnut at the Searls Historical Library, I concluded that 305 Broad Street housed the first winery. In the late 1850s, Augustine Isoard operated a wine and liquor store there. On June 1, 1860, he advertised in the Nevada Journal ‘I have on hand a few gallons of wine manufactured from the grape, by myself, in this city’.”
A review from the Nevada Transcript at the time stated “Judges of wine who have tested Mr. Isoard’s manufacture, pronounce it superior to any imported article brought to this market.”
The search, Zimmerman said, took four years. “Using the California Digital Resources Library I was able to run searches using terms like wine, winery, and grapes. That is how I zeroed in on Isoard. Determining the exact location was tricky. Fortunately, local historian David Comstock knew where that store was.”
The next problem had to do with the devastating fire of 1863. In rebuilding the town some addresses were changed. “I had to make certain that the building I had identified as of 1860 was the same building that exists today. I was able to do that with the help of an 1869 map from Searls Library.”
Isoard was not the only one making wine. Grapes were grown in French Corral, the San Juan Ridge, Nevada City, Grass Valley, Chicago Park and Rough and Ready.
In 1866 the Assessor reported there were 124,000 vines and 10,000 gallons of wine produced. In 1869 Frank Siebert of Nevada City produced a Zinfandel that was one of the first to win a medal in a California wine competition. By 1870 there were several hundred acres of grapes. In 1880 Nevada City Winery commenced, in part to process all those grapes.
In 1887 there were 17 grape growers, 10 producing their own wine.
To put things in perspective, Buena Vista, Sonoma County’s first winery, dates to 1857. John Patchett opened Napa Valley’s first commercial winery in 1858.
Clearly in 1860 Isoard and Nevada County were at the forefront of winemaking in California.
While Napa and Sonoma have continued to be wine production leaders, history has been less kind to Nevada County. While beginning at essentially the same time Nevada County and Napa/Sonoma travelled in vastly different directions. What happened?
California, and its first wine production wave, happened simultaneously and overnight. Between 1849 and 1850 San Fransisco grew from 1,000 to 25,000 people. Sacramento and Marysville became instant towns and settlements mushroomed throughout the Gold Country.
Wine was local, produced to supply each local population. Throughout the second half of the 19th century the local wine industry survived meeting the needs of the community.
But the population of Nevada County wasn’t growing so there was no need for wine production to grow. Overproduction created a surplus, demanding price cuts, resulting in vines not being planted or even ripped out.
Nevada County was too remote from the growing Bay Area population centers to compete there. Besides there were much closer wineries in Santa Clara, Sonoma, and Napa supplying their needs.
Phylloxera, a root louse that kills grapevines also played a role. Phylloxera, native to the United States, travelled to Europe in the 1860s. In two decades it killed 90% of vinifera vines in Europe creating a wine shortage. Newly planted California north coast vineyards, not yet troubled by phylloxera expanded rapidly, happy to fill the void. Again, Nevada County was too far away to get in on that.
Here’s the double whammy. Phylloxera eventually ravished North Coast vineyards and growers were forced to uproot and replant. Zinfandel was already widely planted but now Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay replaced the inferior Mission grape that dominated early California vineyards.
Nevada County never got phylloxera. Growers were never forced to replant. At the turn of the century, while Napa was growing Cabernet, the Blum Family in Chicago Park was typical of many. They grew Alicante, Zinfandel, Mission, Rosa Perouse, Black Muscat, Sweetwater, Maliga, Sultana, Black Manuka, Tokay, and Thompson grapes.
Ted Blum recalled “we would pick everything on October 10 mixing all the grapes together to make one wine. Sometimes we would make another wine mixing grapes and apples.” Whereas Nevada County has the capacity to produce great wines, it’s difficult to compete against Cabernet Sauvignon with grapes like Sultana or Rosa Perouse in your mix.
Over a hundred years later Nevada County is still struggling to catch up but its fun to remember those golden days. Thanks Bernie for reminding everyone that Nevada County was there from the very beginning.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-802-7172.