It has been called “Gold Country” since the mid-1800s when people from all over the world came to the Sierra Foothills to seek their fortunes during the great California Gold Rush. Some of those people planted grapevines that they brought with them from Europe.
While the Mission grape variety dominated the early plantings, another variety — a very different one — was imported from somewhere in the Adriatic region, and the wine made from this grape became known as Zinfandel.
Ask Sierra Foothills winemakers what gives the area’s wines their robust flavor, and almost to a person they’ll tell you, “It’s the soil.”
Most of the vineyards at the 2,000-foot elevation are planted in soil made of decomposed granite, a product of erosion from the Sierra Nevada range. This granitic soil is typical of the Shenandoah Valley in Amador County, around Murphys in Calaveras County, and in the Fair Play/Somerset area in El Dorado County.
At the higher El Dorado elevations — closer to 3,000 feet — the soil is composed of finely crushed volcanic rock, released by volcanoes in the Lake Tahoe area around 10 million years ago. Lava Cap Winery (established in 1986, five years after the Jones family planted grapevines) takes its name from this soil.
Both types of soil accommodate good drainage but offer very few nutrients, making the vines send their roots deep into the ground to hunt for food and water. The substantial root structure provides the grapes with the flavors of the specific vineyard site.
Some of the vineyards are dry farmed, with no summertime irrigation. These vines bask in the intense sunshine, and produce grapes with skins that have a deep blue/black color.
Stressed vines produce richer, more deeply flavored wines. And in the Sierra Foothills, that means Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have been considered the star varieties — and winners of a different kind of gold: gold medals in prestigious wine competitions.