California’s Liquid Gold Rush

Not long after James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, on the south fork of the American River in Coloma in 1848, legions of people flocked to California to claim their fortunes.

The Gold Rush was on, and with it, the planting of numerous vineyards for growing winegrapes.

By 1870, El Dorado County was among the largest wine producers in the state, trailing only Los Angeles and Sonoma counties. The local wine industry flourished until just after the turn of the century. It then began a gradual decline, brought about by poor economic conditions and a diminishing local population. Prohibition was simply the last straw.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that winegrowing made a comeback. Following the development of several experimental vineyards, it became apparent that both the climate and soil of El Dorado County were ideally suited to the production of high-quality, dry table wines. With the opening of Boeger Winery in 1973, El Dorado was once again on its way to becoming an important winegrowing region.

I’ll never forget my first visit to Boeger, not long after I’d caught the “wine bug.” I was roaming around El Dorado County, and happened upon the Boeger tasting room in Placerville.

Up to that point, I’d been concentrating mainly on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, because the only other “wine country” I’d been to was the Napa Valley. But in El Dorado County — and especially at Boeger — another variety was king: Zinfandel.

And since Zin is so different from other varieties — it’s one of those varieties that, with not a whole lot of experience, one can immediately identify in a wine glass — my nose and tasebuds and mind had been awakened to a whole new kind of hedonistic vinous experience.

Today, the county contains more than 2,000 acres of vines and is home to approximately 50 wineries… but for me, Boeger will always be the first, and you never forget your first.

Established in 1983, the El Dorado American Viticultural Area includes those portions of El Dorado County located between 1,200 and 3,500 feet in elevation, bounded on the north by the middle fork of the American River, and on the south by the south fork of the Cosumnes River. It is a sub-appellation of the 2.6 million-acre Sierra Foothills AVA.

El Dorado’s mountain vineyards receive cooling breezes off the Sierra Nevada, and the mountainous topography creates a diversity of microclimates and growing conditions not found in other areas.

These microclimates provide ideal locations for growing a wide variety of grapes. El Dorado grows approximately 50 different varieties, ranging from Gewurztraminer, which does best in the higher and cooler portions of the county, to Barbera and the now ubiquitous Zinfandel, which ripen perfectly in warmer sectors.

El Dorado is cooled by elevation rather than by the fog that is common to the coastal regions. This means the grapes receive more direct sunlight, thus ripening fully without retaining excess herbaceous characters or acidity that is out of balance with the fruit flavors.

There are three basic soil types in the region: fine-grained volcanic rock, decomposed granite and fine-grained shale. Varying in elevation and topography, each soil offers good drainage and the nutrients needed to encourage vines producing rich, deeply flavored grapes.

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Early this year, a book that chronicles the history of winemaking in El Dorado County was published. It’s called “Gold and Wine,” and you can read about it here (

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever been to El Dorado County wine country, we’d love to hear about your experiences. Please share them in the comments box below.

Posted in Wine Region Profiles
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