The Roots of Winemaking - April 2012
By Ellen Hopkins
As far back as legends go, the Sierra Nevada has cast her spell, drawing men from distant places to explore the magnificent mountains and claim her riches. Her heart, the foothill region called the Mother Lode, holds special treasures—evergreens caressing azure skies, spun-gold meadows bearing solitary oaks, raging rivers glittering with speckled gravel and fine wine spiced with history.
Foothill vintages have lately realized some fame. Finally. Again. For while their recent popularity is relatively new, Mother Lode viticulture dates back to January 24, 1848, the day carpenter James Wilson Marshall jump-started California history at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. Sutter wasn’t looking for gold. His plan was to divert water from the American River to power a saw blade in the mill, then float the lumber downstream to Sutter’s Fort near present-day Sacramento. Two shiny pebbles in the mill’s tailrace caught his eye that day, pebbles that became the seeds of Mother Lode history.
Once planted, the news of California gold spread like pollen on a windy day. Fortune seekers flooded the foothills, sparing no gulch, ravine or rivulet. Hard work and discouragement colored their world. They needed sustenance, supplies and a way to unwind.
A few looked to richer placers—hardware, cattle, grains, orchards and vines. Winemaking took root. By 1890, over 100 small vineyards dotted the Mother Lode hillsides.
Pioneer vintners searched near and far for suitable varieties. As late as 1880, most of California’s grapes were Mission, which arrived via Mexico in 1769, following Father Junipero Serra and the chain of Spanish missions up the coast.
From San Diego to Sonoma, the juicy, sweet grape flourished, producing a heavy, high-alcohol, low-acid vintage. This “California claret” kept well and had the desired effect, but was not a particularly fine wine.
The Franciscans relied on rather primitive viticultural methods. According to Charles Krug, on an 1859 Napa Valley expedition he was offered “a tin cup full of elegant claret, which was fermented in large cow hides lassoed between trees and filled with grapes crushed by Indians.”
Better distilling procedures arrived with settlers from Mexico and Europe. General Mariano Vallejo, commander in chief of Mexico’s California army, “disestablished” the tiny mission in Sonoma in 1833. For the next 30 years, he devoted himself to the interests of placing the budding state into American hands.
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