Gold dust, red dirt – How the wine industry has evolved in Nevada County |

Gold dust, red dirt – How the wine industry has evolved in Nevada County

Second of three parts

In order to understand the history and development of wine in Nevada County in the 20th century it is important to first look at the big picture. As the 19th century came to a close, the state of California and its new wine industry were just 50 years old.

In that short time span the California industry had experienced both worldwide acclaim and disaster. By the end of the century California had long since passed Ohio, New York and Missouri, the previous leading wine producing states. California was growing more grapes than all the other states combined.

It is impossible to tell the history of this time without mentioning phylloxera, a tiny aphid native to the eastern United States. Native eastern American grape varieties were resistant to it but it had a devastating effect on vinifera wine grapes, from which all the great wines are produced.

It slowly chokes the vine, decreasing productivity until the vine finally dies. Phylloxera traveled to France on American vines in the 1850s. There it spread – rapidly thriving in the moist and humid summer weather. It came to California during the same period and was first identified in Sonoma Valley in 1873. The dry heat of California summers slowed its spread but didn’t stop it.

The decline in production of French wine led to increased demand for California wine. The short-term benefits were huge. It put California wine on the map.

It took most of the rest of the century to find a solution to phylloxera but eventually the French learned first to cross vinifera grapes with native American varieties then ultimately to graft vinifera vines on to native American rootstock. By the end of the 19th century France was finally climbing out of its problems while California was burrowing deeper in.

Dark clouds are rippled with silver linings. Left to their own, winegrowers are not quick to uproot and replace vineyards. It’s costly and you lose production. But phylloxera forced their hand.

Sonoma, first with the problem, was first to replant. Winegrowers took this opportunity to replace the inferior Mission variety with superior vinifera varieties. Zinfandel was already widely planted but now Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay were added to the mix.

Napa was slower to get infected – and therefore slower to replant – but ultimately replaced their vineyards with superior varietals.

What does this have to do with Nevada County? Our local vineyards were never destroyed by phylloxera and consequently never replanted.

As the new century dawned, the original varieties planted in the years following the Gold Rush, Mission, Muscat and Tokay, were still being grown. As money flooded in to replace California’s diseased vineyards it centered on the wine regions of Sonoma, Napa and Santa Clara. Nevada County was too rural and too far away. Transportation was too expensive.

As the 20th century dawned, Nevada County was left in the dust. Had it not been for another population influx around the turn of the century Nevada County might have had no wine at all.

It was an influx of Italians and Germans that saved the wine. Laurence Personeni was born in Nevada County in 1921. His father, Andrew, arrived in 1906 and purchased a ranch on Jones Bar Road. He raised chickens, grew apples and pears, and grew grapes including Zinfandel, Mission and Alicante Bouschet. It wasn’t a business. It was a way of life. Instead of cream, Andrew would have a dash of wine in his coffee in the morning. In those days it wasn’t a winery, Andrew just made and sold a little wine to his neighbors. Bring a bottle over and fill it from the barrel.

Ernie Bierwagon grew up in Chicago Park. He remembered a vineyard with a couple of acres of Zinfandel that had been planted in the 1890s.

Ted Blum was born here in 1921. He told me his grandfather had a vineyard out on You Bet Rd around 1900. He used to sell grapes to Basques who came over from Reno. The county was full of grapes. There were vineyards in Rough and Ready, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Bitney Springs and San Juan. During the first two decades of the century, other than the Basques, the wine industry that existed was local. It was the neighbors of the growers who were buying the wine.

Ted Blum’s stories are probably typical of many. His family grew Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel, Mission, Rose of Peru, Black Muscat, Sweetwater, Malaga, Sultana, Black Manuka, Tokay and Thompson grapes. They used to pick on Oct. 10 every year, his mother’s birthday. It took 14 lug boxes to make one barrel. They would mix all the grapes together, red and white, to make wine.

Sometimes they would make another wine where they took about 40 percent grapes and 60 percent apples. Ted remembered it tasting like cream soda, but with a powerful kick. Whereas they made a little wine themselves, they didn’t have a winery. They sold the grapes. When I asked who the market was Ted answered, “every wine drinker in the county.”

Adolf Locatelli told me his father, Adolfo Locatelli, arrived in Nevada County in 1919 in the area we now call Chicago Park. At that time it was referred to as Colfax although it was recognized as being different than the city of Colfax across the Bear River in Placer County. He had worked as a blacksmith and cooper at a winery in Hollister, Calif. and was familiar with grapes and wine.

The property he purchased had some grapes already growing there including Zinfandel, Alicante, Mission and Mataro. Immediately he produced a little wine and a little brandy. He owned his own property and was looking towards the future.

The next year brought Prohibition.

One final note. For a recap of the Gold Rush era of wine in Nevada County go to and search for Gold Dust and Red Dirt.

Part three will run March 3.


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 or by phone at 913-3703.

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