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Destination Nevada County

Premium visitors magazine for Nevada County produced by the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce

“The sun, with all

“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” Galileo Galilei 46 DESTINATION Nevada County

Gold Dust and Red Dirt By Rod Byers Certified Wine Educator Grape growing and winemaking exploded in Nevada County with the Gold Rush. In fact, for one short shining moment in 1851 Nevada City was the largest city in California and Nevada County the most populous county in the State. California itself was one year old. Nevada County’s first vineyards date back to 1852. Before the discovery of gold California was a pretty sleepy place, still ruled by Spain. The Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500’s and other than claiming California as Spanish territory they never much bothered with it. Evidently, there was enough gold and silver holding their attention in Mexico that the Spanish never felt compelled to look further north. But by the mid-1700’s there was an increasing number of people bumping about, and the Spanish decided it was time to lay claim to their turf. In 1769 they dispatched a bunch of Franciscan friars north to occupy California, most notable among them, Father Junipero Serra, and with that, the Californian Mission system was born. Eventually, there were twenty-one in all, stretching ultimately from San Diego to the town of Sonoma. Just to make a short historical footnote: 1769 is an intriguing date because that was the same year Thomas Jefferson first started trying to establish vinifera vineyards on America’s east coast. 400-YEAR HERITAGE OF WINEMAKING IN NEVADA COUNTY TAKES ROOT TODAY world in both Chile and Argentina for 250 years before it was brought to California. It was easy to propagate, easy to cultivate, requiring very little if any water and produced a strong, often sweet red wine. The trouble was, it just wasn’t very good. The noted wine author Hugh Johnson referred to the Mission grape as “an early maturing, dark-skinned bag of sweet juice, no more.” But it made wine and thanks to the Franciscans it was quickly spreading through out California. Conversely, in the same time span, by the start of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson was still importing European grape cuttings every year to replace the vines that continued to die in his vineyards each year. That’s how the California wine industry started, with the first settlers traveling from Mission to Mission transporting grape cuttings and establishing vineyards in new areas. Little by little California was growing. By the 1830’s folks were starting to arrive in increasing numbers from the east coast and some brought grape cuttings of other varieties with them. One of the standard collections of the day was the New England collection of which Zinfandel was a part. The mission grape was by far the most widely planted, but the early vineyard-ists quickly recognized the superior quality of the Zinfandel grapes for producing red wine. In California, the Missions were partly military, partly religious and partly cultural, but intrinsic to all of them were grapes and wine. The grape they selected to plant ironically enough was the Mission grape. Clearly, of vinifera origin, it had already been cultivated in the new Then came the Gold Rush and California changed overnight. San Francisco was the port of entry for thousands of people all heading east to the gold fields. There was, of course, DESTINATION Nevada County 47