Wine and Agriculture in El Dorado County


The prospectors who crossed thousands of miles of land and sea to reach the gold fields of El Dorado County brought with them many skills, as well as the desire and fortitude to settle the land. When mining wore them out and less and less gold was found, many prospectors turned to other resources and industries to make their living and carve out homes. Among them were men who found that the climate and geography of El Dorado County resembled that of other wine growing regions in the world.


First Vines

Franciscan Friars from Spain were the first to bring wine grapes to California when they established the missions. This Mission variety was grown primarily in the Missions and forts established by the Spanish. By 1848 most of these institutions were abandoned. Prospectors and others saw the crumbling mission gardens and took the fruits to eat, and eventually they took clippings and the plants themselves. From these some of the first wines in El Dorado County were produced. However, the Mission variety in El Dorado County produces a weak wine with little color and flavor so in 1849 a Mr. Stevens imported the first non-mission grapes from New England. They were standard New England vinifera collection.


Steven’s vineyard of 36 vines was established in 1849 and was located four miles west of where the town of Rescue now is, along the Sweetwater Creek.


Boom and Bust

Fossati-Lombardo Winery, Late 1800s

As the Motherlode region grew in population so too did the demand for goods, among them wine and distilled spirits. From 1857-1870 there were 12 wineries in production in El Dorado County. From 1870 to 1900 there were 28 principal wineries with 2,100 acres devoted to wine production by 1904.

Economic downturns in agriculture nationwide beginning in the 1870s to the Great Depression and a decrease in population of El Dorado County took a large toll on the wine industry. Likewise, overproduction also played a key role. Even the finest wines produced in the region had little market other than San Francisco. The final bust came with prohibition in the 1920s and closed many of the last wineries in operation. In 1966 there were only 11 acres devoted to wine production in the entire county, the Higgins’ Zinfandel crop located near Mt. Aukum, similar in size to the amount of acreage devoted to wine in 1855.


In the late 1950s a disease began to ravage the pear crop in El Dorado County opening the way for new crops to be introduced. The County Farm Advisor and County Agricultural Commissioner began planting experimental grape vines.

In the 1970s, increased interest in wine production in El Dorado County was helped by Dick Bethell who introduced some El Dorado County wines at a blind taste test at the Univeristy of California at Davis. Gaining high marks, the El Dorado County wines stood out. Soon after, Greg Boeger, a graduate of UC Davis, purchased the Lombardo/Fossatti Winery in 1973. By 1977 the county had 200 acres devoted to wine production and three more wineries, Madrona, Sierra Vista, and El Dorado. Soon awards and medals began being awarded across the state and nation to El Dorado County wines.


In 1983 “El Dorado” was granted American Viticultural Area (AVA) by the ATF. This area includes lands between 1,200 and 3,500 feet in elevation. On the north the border is the middle fork if the American River and to the south is the south fork of the Consumnes River. In 2001, in southern El Dorado County, the Fairplay AVA region was established and includes only 33 square miles, but is home to 350 acres of vineyard. The diverse climate, geography, and soils of the varying regions of El Dorado County make for immensely diverse wines.


By 2010 there were 88 vineyards in El Dorado County who were members of the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association and many tasting rooms and cellars. Many of these establishments are easily accessible and have tasting rooms open to the public.