Wild, Wild West
More likely recognized as ‘gold country’ than ‘wine country’, the Sierra Foothills wine region is located along the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the eastern edge of California. It’s at least a two hour drive northeast of San Francisco and spans 160 miles of vineyards, making it one of the largest AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) in the United States. Those who don’t associate the foothills with digging for gold, might well associate it with popular destinations such as Yosemite National Park or Lake Tahoe.
The area is rustic and remote and the vineyards are generally from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level with some newer vineyards planted at up to 3,400 feet. For perspective, the vineyards of Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain range from 1,600 to 2,200 feet above sea level and those of Mt. Etna in Sicily (among the highest in the world) reach up to 3,500 feet and even a bit higher in some areas.
Vineyards are nothing new to the Sierra Foothills. Wineries have been around since the gold rush days in the mid-1800s but began to dry up when the gold did. In the early 1900s came war and prohibition, followed by a lot of bad behavior in the region: prostitution, gambling, bootlegging, you name it. It wasn’t until the 70s that wine production started up again to any meaningful extent and the Sierra Foothills AVA was approved in 1987.
No Flash in the Pan
More than 100 wineries reside in the Sierra Foothills today. The appellation overlaps with Amador County, Calveras County, and a few other county appellations. Amador is known for old vines and big reds, most notably Zinfandel but also Syrah, Barbera, and Sangiovese. Calveras is higher in elevation and cooler; in addition to old vine Zinfandel the county is known for Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sierra Foothills is home to 5 other AVAs including:
- El Dorado: Zinfandel is a mainstay but experimentation with Rhone grapes & others is rampant.
- Fair Play: Highest average elevation in California; Rhone and Italian varieties, and Zinfandel.
- Fiddletown: Planted to the same general varieties but known for elegance over richness.
- North Yuba: Very small AVA with dense, rocky soils concentrated to Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Shenandoah Valley: Born on bulk wine but more focus on quality Zinfandel and Syrah today.
Staking Their Claim
Intrepid winemakers and grape growers have been attracted to the Sierra Foothills both by curiosity and by land prices that are much more affordable than California regions such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The area has many things that grape growers look for including warm days and cool nights, a long, sunny growing season, not too much rain, naturally low yields, characterful old vines, and interesting and disparate soil types.
More of the Rhone varieties, especially Grenache, are being planted in the appellation mainly due to the similarities in soil shared with the Rhone region of France. Sand, and particularly granite, make the Sierra Foothills a good bet for success with these grapes. White grapes are finding more success here too, including Grenache Blanc and other Rhone whites, as well as Italian whites like Vermentino, Pinot Grigio, and Fiano.
There is much to be discovered in the Sierra Foothills. Here are some favorite producers with wines from the Sierra Foothills. Some live, farm, and make wine in the Wild West,while others farm and buy grapes from the region and make the wines elsewhere in California.
As you can see by the diversity of grapes, this is an exciting area with much more to be revealed in coming years.
Broc Cellars (Berkeley) – Roussanne
Clos Saron (Sierra Foothills) – Pinot Noir
Donkey & Goat (Berkeley) – Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Chardonnay
Edmunds St. John (Berkeley) – Syrah, Gamay Noir
Favia (Napa) – Syrah, Grenache, Viognier
Forlorn Hope (Napa) - Barbera, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris
Le Clarine Farm (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Viognier, Marsanne
Skinner (Sierra Foothills) – Zinfandel, Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Grenache Blanc