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History of Wine Grapes in the Foothills

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A Brief History

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Wine grapes have been grown in the foothill counties of El Dorado and Amador since about the 1850's, estimated around the time of gold discovery in Coloma. Early farm settlers, mainly grape growers and orchardists, supplied the mining communities with home made spirits and fresh fruit. During the early to mid 1900's the foothill grape industry peaked and declined in response to forces such as prohibition, grape phylloxera, and poor prices.

In the early 1960's pear decline, a devastating disease affecting El Dorado's premium Bartlett crop, caused orchards to be taken out and growers searched for an alternative crop. Several trial wine grape plantings were established in El Dorado County by 1965 and were evaluated by the UC Davis Department of Enology, confirming the suitability of the area for wine grape production producing wines of distinctive quality.

Meanwhile, Amador County grape growers, many arriving from Italy, survived Prohibition by selling fresh grapes and continued to plant, mostly Zinfandel. Some of these growers also experimented with "dry farming", producing intensely flavored berries. In the late 1960's the Amador wine grape growing area was "rediscovered" by home winemakers who passed their impressive wines made from Amador grapes onto commercial Napa Valley winemakers.
Source: "Old Vines, A History of Winegrowing in Amador county," by Eric J. Costa.

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Farm Advisor Dick Bethell and Agriculture Commissioner Ed Delfino admire the Barbera crop from the Ritchie vineyards which brought top of the market prices. Picture taken around 1974.