In the mid-1800s, California's Gold Country was home to one of America's earliest wine success stories. As prospectors flooded the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, they brought shovels, picks and even grapevines, which they often planted near the gold fields. Vineyards soon sprang up, and winemakers thrived. Isolated, bored and sometimes flush with cash, miners were willing to pay high prices for wine. By the turn of the century, the Sierra foothills boasted the highest density of vineyards in California.
Not so today. The end of the Gold Rush led to a precipitous drop in vineyard acreage. Though there's been a resurgence, the Sierra Foothills appellation (roughly the area west of Lake Tahoe and south to Yosemite) is still an off-the-beaten-track wine destination. Nonetheless, the region's spicy, full-throttle Zinfandels and Syrahs are worth getting to know. Wineries such as Terre Rouge, Easton, Renwood and Edmunds St. John, among others, prove that Gold Country still holds some of California's hidden treasures.
One of the area's assets—besides its proximity to Tahoe's slopes—is its wealth of old-vine Zinfandel vineyards. Zinfandel is a remarkably long-lived grape variety. Some of the original vines—still producing great fruit in Amador and El Dorado counties—have been in the ground for a century or more. Renwood makes its Jack Rabbit Flat Zinfandel from a vineyard of 80-year-old vines, and you can taste the age in the concentrated, jammy plum and blackberry high notes. Easton makes a powerful, intense Fiddletown Zinfandel from some of the oldest vines in California, a few dating back to 1865.
Sierra Foothills winemakers say the secret to their successful Syrahs is elevation. As vineyards approach 3,000 feet, the temperature swings between day and night can be as extreme as 40 degrees, which slows ripening, creating nuanced flavors and balancing acidity in the fruit.
The region produces some of California's best Syrahs. Terre Rouge's Ascent Syrah, the vineyard's premier bottling, presents smoky, exotic flavors against a backdrop of sweet blackberry flavors. Edmunds St. John's Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah is equally distinctive, leading with ripe perfumes and filling the taste buds with powerful cherry and raspberry fruit.
Want to enjoy these limited-production wines? Take a day off from skiing when you're in Tahoe to visit Renwood or Terre Rouge. Or stop by some of the finer Tahoe restaurants (try Wolfdale's in Tahoe City or PlumpJack Cafe at Squaw) with lists rich in Gold Country wines. Then raise a glass to thank the Forty-Niners.