California, because of its temperate climate, long growing season, and different soil types, has become the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, and every type of grape that is grown can find the perfect place to be planted in the state. Thirteen different appellations, or regions, have been identified by the wine industry, and Calaveras County sits in the middle of the Sierra Foothills Appellation, the third largest in the state in acres of grapes planted. The features that make this region so unique are the crushed granite soil, warm summer days, and much cooler nights. As you travel on Highway 49, you are passing through one of the world’s finest winemaking regions.
In the 1850s people from every nation on earth came to the gold country to seek their fortunes. Mokelumne Hill, serving an extended mining community of several thousand, was at the center of it all and was the largest, richest, and most violent of the boomtowns. Gold was everywhere as Dr. W. Gillespie discovered in 1852 when, on walk, he turned over some rocks, took out more with the help of his walking stick, and went home carrying 14 pounds of virgin gold.
The town was diverse in population, and the different nationalities lived in their own camps such as China Gulch, French Hill, and Chili Gulch. These people also brought with them the food and drink of their homeland including grape vines. Vineyards sprang up throughout the region with Zinfandel as the grape of choice along with Mission, Black and White Hamburg, Riesling, and Muscat.
The climate, soil, and endless demand for alcohol created a thriving winemaking industry, and Calaveras was the fourth largest wine producing county in the state in 1870 with at least 116 winemakers producing over 100,000 gallons of wine annually. Over the decades, however, declining population, prohibition, the depression, and other economic forces resulted in the loss of virtually all wine production. In 1937, the Sciaccaluga Winery near Vallecito was the only bonded winery left in the county.
The huge population of the Gold Rush region, estimated to be 100,000 at its height, created enormous demands for food and drink, and ranches sprang up along the length of the Sierra to meet the demand. Near Murphy’s in 1853, David Fausett and James Inks established a ranch on San Domingo Creek which would later be owned by the Shaw family until the late 1940s. They and the neighboring Vogliotti and Silva ranches grew hay, cattle, hogs, poultry, grapes, and made wine. Late in the 1880s, Lorenzo Gardella also started ranching here, made wine, held dances at his hall, served macaroni dinners, and this historic valley would acquire the common name of Macaroni Flat. These ranches would continue to survive long after the last gold mine was closed and sealed.
Barden Stevenot, a fifth generation Calaveras resident, is given much of the credit for reawakening the wine industry in the county. He purchased the original San Domingo Ranch in Macaroni Flat in the late 1960s and recalls that one of his neighbors was Ernest Vogliotti who made his own wine until he died at the age of 102. Barden discovered that old vines still grew on the property and began to research whether a vineyard and winery could be successful. In the early 1970s Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel vines were planted, and an old hay barn was converted into a winery in 1977. The first 2,200 cases were released in 1978, and Stevenot Winery now produces over 40,000 cases annually.
What followed was a new rush to the gold country as vintners and winemakers returned to the Sierra to mine for a different kind of gold – one that grew right out of the ground. Milliare, Black Sheep, Indian Rock, Kautz Ironstone, and Chatom were all in operation by 1996 when 260 acres were planted to grapes. Today, there are 23 tasting rooms and over 60 members of the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance with over 1,000 acres in production. Calaveras, already rich in recreation, charming shops, museums, Gold Rush history, and home of the famous frog jump has yet another reason for you to explore and enjoy the riches of this majestic, bountiful county.
CAMPS Restaurant is proud to include on our list many of the excellent wines made in our county, and we recommend them to you for your dining pleasure. Your hostess will also be able to answer questions about the character and special qualities of all our wine offerings. We hope you have the opportunity to visit our local wineries and experience for yourself the wonderful variety and quality of Calaveras wines.
Thanks to: Judith Marvin, Calaveras Winegrape Alliance, and The Calaveras County Historical Society