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Calaveras County Wine

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In Mokelumne Hill in the 1880s, the Gardella family home was surrounded by vineyards. (Courtesy Calaveras County Archives)

Wine making in Calaveras County began in the early years of the Gold Rush, with the first 1,000 vines set out on the lower Calaveras River in 1851 (Sacramento Transcript, March 14, 1851). The early day grape growers had reportedly been impressed by the healthy thickets of the native grape, Vitus californica, which grew along the banks of the rivers and streams in the county. Although the varietal was not noted, the vines planted must have been of the Mission grape, whose origins have been traced back to the Old World over 500 years ago.

The Mission Grape.

The Mission grape, so named because it was first propagated in California by the mission padres for sacramental and medicinal purposes, is definitely of vinifera (wine bearing) origin. Although no perfect match has been found in the Old World, it is clearly related to the Pais in Chile, the Grande Criollo in Argentina, and the Criollo in Mexico, while some believe it to be a close relative of the Monica grape of Sardinia. Because it was a part of the New World culture for over 250 years before it was carried to the missions in Alta California in the 1770s, it may be a result of one or more crosses or chance hybridization.

Although the grape was planted at many of the missions in Alta California, most of the cuttings used to propagate vineyards in Southern California in the late 1700s were taken from the vina madre, the mother vine, at Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. By the 1820s the mission had the largest vineyard in Alta California and the padres were producing about 500 barrels of wine and 200 of brandy annually. The origins of the huge vineyards planted in the Los Angeles area from the 1790s through the 1850s were from this vine (Sullivan 1998:217-218).

The Mission grapes planted in Calaveras County may have come from several sources: Mission San Jose and its surrounding ranches, Charles Weber’s Campo de los Franceses in Stockton, Sutter’s Hock Farm, or Steven Burge’s ranch in Placer County, who all planted Mission grapes prior to 1852.


The other early varietal to be planted in Calaveras County, Zinfandel, was imported to Long Island by George Gibbs, probably in 1829 from the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria. The first account of the name, however, did not occur until 1831, when Bostonian Samuel Perkins began selling it as Zenfendel. By 1833 several growers in Boston had the vine, now called Zinfandal by its leading nurseryman Charles M. Hovey (perhaps a relative of our own Chuck Hovey?).

By the late 1830s Zinfandel had become a popular table grape in New England, and was later discovered in California to be identical to the New England Black St. Peter’s grape. When gold was discovered on the American River in January of 1848, hordes of argonauts from every country on the globe poured into California in what has been called the greatest mass migration in human history. The first to arrive in California, the 48ers, were miners from Mexico, Chile, and other countries south of the border, and it appears likely that the grapes they brought with them were the Mission variety. By 1849, however, many New Englanders had arrived in California. With a passion for horticulture, they evidently brought the Zinfandel grape to California.

During the 1850s several vineyardists in San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento were importing Zinfandel in shipments of vines from New England. By the late 1860s Zinfandel was being grown all over northern California. In the great wine boom of the 1880s, it was the most widely planted vine, but by the turn of the nineteenth century was no longer the most popular but still one of the most common wine grapes in the state. Mostly, however, it was blended with Petite Sirah and Carignanc to produce ordinary Clarets and burgundies. During Prohibition home winemaking and wines for sacramental use were legal and it was one of the favorites shipped east. After repeal, Zinfandel continued to be used primarily as a blending wine, until the 1960s when the revolution in American wine consumption occurred. At this time, its potential as a fine table wine was being discovered from the California foothills, primarily in Amador County.

As for the varietal, no vine of the Zinfandel name ever existed in the Old World. Recent DNA studies, however, have determined that the Primitivo, common in Southern Italy, and the Zinfandel were identical. Others believe that the vine known as Plavac Mali, a dark grape grown in Croatia on the Adriatic is the same, but the DNA examinations have left some doubt. The vines are, however, probably closely related. As much of northern Italy and all of Croatia were part of the Austrian Empire, from whose capital, Vienna, George Gibbs imported his dark grape to Long Island in 1829, Zinfandel can do doubt trace its origins to that region (Sullivan 1998:407-411).

1858-1862 Planting Boom.

By the late 1850s, an amazing variety of grapes were being grown in Calaveras County. In 1857, the Beatty Ranch on Calaveritas Creek was growing several varieties characteristic of the Eastern United States. Among these were the common Eastern (Vitus labrusca), Isabella, Clinton, Catawba, and the unusual Scuppernog, a Muscadine. Louis Prevost, with a nursery in San Jose, began advertising in the San Andreas newspapers that year. The previous year Joseph Kerns had opened his Murray Creek Nursery near San Andreas, with planting stock brought in from nurseries in the Santa Clara Valley.

Soon, however, varieties imported from Europe began to take precedence over the California and Eastern United States vines. In 1859 Francis Medina, of the Bay State Ranch on the Calaveras River near San Andreas, exhibited the first Calaveras grapes at the State Fair. He displayed several varieties of European grapes, including those of the Black Hamburg and Royal Muscadine varieties. At about the same time, Mr. Dearborne from Sandy Gulch displayed the Black and White Hamburg and the Muscat of Alexandria varieties at the Union House in Mokelumne Hill.

At that same location, S.W. Brockway was growing the Los Angeles or Mission variety from cuttings planted in 1857. Others growing grapes on “the Hill” were judge Thompson, Dr. Holbrook, and attorneys William Higby and A.P. Dudley. Lewis Schraack, from Pennsylvania, planted Mission and Isabella vines on his Golden Gate Ranch in 1856 and by 1860 had planted 5,000 vines.

Certainly the premier wine growing area in Calaveras County in the early years was Mokelumne Hill, undoubtedly as it was the County Seat and had the most diverse population in the county. Settlers from Chile, Mexico, France, Germany, England, and the Eastern United States, who had long-established tastes for wine, and were familiar with the cultivation of grapes, quickly developed vineyards in the surrounding area.

First among these vineyards was that of Madame Catia at Chile Gulch, where 7,000 pounds of grapes were raised by November of 1858, most of which were to be pressed into wine. The following year, Francis Mercier’s “French Garden” Ranch in Chile Gulch planted 6,000 vines and 1,800 fruit trees, and had 15 gallons of wine in stock for his hotel. This was the earliest known large commercial wine making operation in Calaveras. When Rose De Loach Au Lion purchased the ranch from Mercier in 1864, the sale included 1,500 gallons of California wine. To the south of Mercier’s property was the vineyard of Charles Garland, a native of Maine, who had 40 gallons of wine on hand in 1860. Winemaking in Chile Gulch continued until recent years, on the McSorley Ranch, where the Garamendi family made Zinfandel wine in their cellar carved from the rhyolite hillside behind their house.

Also in Mokelumne Hill in 1860, Henry Druerson and Lemuel Root were assessed for 150 gallons and 30 gallons of wine respectively, while Adele Rogers of San Andreas was taxed for 40 gallons (Costa n.d.). By 1861 Root’s hillside vineyard had 10,000 vines planted, with 1,000 bearing (California Farmer, September 6, 1861).

Several vineyards were located to the west, at Salt Spring Valley, where in 1863, J.W. Woods had 1,000 vines planted. His neighbor W.D. Allen had 500 acres in orchard and vineyard, the largest in the area, with 3,000 vines; all California grapes, presumably Mission, and planted six and eight years before. Nearby, at the Madame Felix Ranch, then operated by her husband Alban Hettick, the garden boasted three or four acres of vines, planted in 1856, with an arbor of “Los Angeles” (Mission) grapes, as well as “standard grapes of foreign kinds” which produced 250 gallons of wine in 1862 (California Farmer, August 28, 1863).

One of the most interesting French settlements was located on the Upper Calaveras River where the Frenchmen Eutrop Hermand, Augustine Vian, Victor Portran, and Company, planted 8,000 vines at their Esperanza Ranch. By 1870, Victor Portron was annually manufacturing 2,000 gallons of wine. Although the date of their first plantings is unknown, the company was located on the property as early as 1854 and was operating a stone store and ranch by the mid-1850s (Costa n.d., Marvin 1994).

By 1852, closer to Murphys, David Fausett and James B. Inks had established a vineyard on their San Domingo Ranch (now Stevenot), and Joseph Dowler had planted grapes on what became the Hahn Ranch, now known as the Vogliotti Ranch. Nearby, Manuel Silva planted grapes in 1872 on the present Styskel property, while in 1883 Lorenzo Gardella purchased the ranch that later became known as Macaroni Flat. Gardella grew grapes, made wine, and held grand balls where macaroni dinners were served in a hall on his ranch. This winemaking tradition was carried on by the Dragone family, who sold their product to many local folk during Prohibition. Even Ethel Adams, a staunch Bostonian, grew wine grapes at her Table Mountain Ranch on Pennsylvania Gulch in the early 1900s.

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The Romaggi home ca. 1900, south of Angels Camp, surrounded by vineyards (Courtesy Calaveras County Archives).

1866-1874 Wine Making Boom.

In 1866 the Calaveras Chronicle noted that in each of the three previous seasons the quantity of wine produced in the county had doubled and there was widespread commercial viticulture and winemaking in Calaveras County. The Red Mountain Vineyard, planted in 1863 by Abraham Schell on the Rancho del Rio Estanislao, produced wines until the early 1920s. Judge J.W. Griswold of Salt Spring Valley was producing Mission grape wine at his Reservoir Vineyard, and Joseph Major of Vallecito was building a wine cellar (later the Sciaccaluga and Fuzere wineries). Three years later John Heinsdorff of Murphys was awarded the First Award at the 1869 California State Fair for the best red wine, one year old, and a special notice for his five-year old white wine (Costa n.d.).

It was at about this time also that the Italian population became an important element in the county’s wine production. The Cuneo brothers at San Antonio Camp and their eventual relatives, the Costa family of Calaveritas, were some of the earliest Italian vintners. The Cavagnero family of Camanche had also planted extensive vineyards. By 1870 Louis Costa was assessed for 4,000 gallons of wine, Ratto and Company for 2,500 gallons, and Louis Bordeaux for 3,000 gallons (Costa n.d.). By that year Calaveras had become the fourth largest wine producing county in the state, with 116 winemakers. In ten years the county’s wine production had grown from 277 gallons in 1860 to a reported 100,500 gallons. Only three other counties were producing more wine: Los Angeles, 531,710 gallons; Sonoma, 308,496 gallons; and El Dorado, 118, 831 gallons (Costa n.d., Heintz 1-5).

1874-1880 Depression in Wine Business.

Very few vineyards were planted in the county in the late 1870s and early 1880s, but a substantial 49,210 gallons of wine were produced by 64 winemakers and 112 growers on 312 acres in 1880 (State Board of Viticultural Commissioners 1880). The Italian winemakers, however, continued to prosper. Angelo Sciaccaluga (Pyshon) was first taxed for wine that year, on his one-quarter acre Vallecito vineyard with 150 gallons of wine; by 1889 he had added a distillery to his operation. In later years the winery was described by his daughter Lottie Pyshon Stephens:

My father had two cellars, one where he crushed his grapes and one where he stored his wine. One was called the distillery, and the other the wine cellar. My father made table and sweet wine. He had a well that ran water on both sides of the cellar, kept the sand wet all the time and the cellar cool. The distillery was torn down after the place was sold but the wine cellar still stands today [on the north side of Highway 4] (Richards 1973:3).

Home Winemaking.

At this point it should be noted that not all winemaking in Calaveras County was for commercial purposes. Winemaking had a long history in the Old World, particularly in France and Italy from where many of the early settlers of the county had immigrated. Farmers from the Eastern United States also hailed from areas where wine was produced, and almost every farmer in the latter half of the nineteenth century planted a few vines, both for table and wine grapes, as well as orchards of fruit, nut, and olive trees, berries, and vegetables for family use. They also raised livestock: cattle, dairy cows, sheep, hogs, goats, and chickens. When the growing season was over, they turned to mining the rivers, creeks, drainages, and veins on their ranches, with water from ditches used both for mining and agricultural purposes. The tradition of home winemaking continues to this day, with many families and friends producing wine for their own consumption.

Mid-1880s Wine Boom.

An account written in 1885 noted that the season of 1885-1886 would probably show a much greater acreage planted in vines and fruit trees than any other season in the history of the state (Elliott 1885:52). One of the largest late 19th Century vineyards and wineries in Calaveras County was that of German immigrant Frederick Mayer, who established a restaurant at Mokelumne Hill in the early 1850s. In 1860 he purchased a nearby ranch and by 1871 his wine cellar contained 10,000 gallons of wine, produced from his 20-acre vineyard of Mission, Muscat, Zinfandel, and Riesling grapes (Costa n.d.). In 1885 the vineyard was described as having about 17,000 vines, consisting of Mission, Shassle, Muscat, Zinfandel, Riesling and other varieties. Mayer made his grapes into white wine, claret, angelica, and brandy, all noted as of “excellent quality” (Elliott 1885:15, 64-65).

By 1890, Calaveras County had dropped from fourth to seventeenth place in the state’s wine production, but it was noted that two wineries were operating at Mokelumne Hill, turning out about 17,000 gallons annually (Peak 1990:2, Lewis Publishing Company 1892:152). One of these was undoubtedly that of Frederick Mayer, and the other must have been that of Charles Gardella, who operated the largest commercial vineyard and winery up to that time (Costa n.d.). Other successful wineries were located at Poverty Bar, where a distillery was attached; at San Antonio Ridge, where John Oeters had a good-sized vineyard and winery; and at the Batten Ranch in Vallecito (Lewis Publishing Company 1892:152, Calaveras County Board of Trade 1894). By 1900, 26,680 gallons of wine were being produced on 100 acres, far down from the 450 acres in 1889. The heyday was over.

1919-1933 Prohibition Boom.

The institution of the Volstead Act in 1919 produced yet another boom in the Calaveras wine industry, as wines for sacramental use and home wine making were the only alcoholic beverages allowed under Prohibition. Almost everyone in Calaveras who had a vineyard became a home winemaker or produced sacramental wine, and numerous vineyards were established or replanted, reaching 445 acres by 1924.

1930s-1970s Slumbering Years.

After the Repeal, when alcohol of all varieties again became legal, wine production in Calaveras lagged, undoubtedly also due to the oversupply of acreages planted to grapes in the Prohibition years. In 1930, only 324 acres were planted to grapes, and by 1937 there was only one bonded winery in the county, that of J.P. Fuzere, at the old Sciaccaluga Winery in Vallecito. That same year Fuzure was charged for selling wine to an Indian minor, and Sheriff Zwinge testified that there were several reports of such sales to Indians (Calaveras Prospect, February 6, 1937), suggesting that the wine business was not very successful.

1970s-2000s Modern Boom.

In 1976, Bob Bliss, with partner Jim Riggs, bonded the first new winery in Calaveras County in 40 years: Chispa Cellars. The true beginning of modern winemaking in Calaveras County, however, must be laid at the feet of Barden Stevenot, a fifth-generation resident of Calaveras. Barden purchased the Shaw Ranch on San Domingo Creek in the late 1960s, without a plan, because he was in love with the valley and the land. The 1970s were the beginning of the expansion of the California wine industry, an industry that until that time had remained in the hands of a few old families or conglomerates in the Napa, Sonoma, San Joaquin, and Cucamonga valleys. Noting that the San Domingo Ranch had the same topography and climate as the wineries in Northern California, and that the San Domingo Valley had been a major grape producer from the 1850s until the vines were removed, Barden saw an opportunity to re-establish a vineyard on this ranch.

Taking crash courses at U.C. Davis and exhaustively interviewing anyone who knew anything about wine, Barden set about developing the ranch into a vineyard. In the face of numerous obstacles, his tenacity and enthusiasm paid off. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel were planted in the early 1970s. A winery was established in the old Shaw hay barn in 1977, with the first tasting room located in the cellar beneath the ranch house. As profits and production grew, more buildings were added, including a modern winery, storage buildings, offices, and a shop. The tasting room was moved to the Alaska House, then to the main ranch house. The recent purchase of the adjacent Gardella/Dragone Ranch at Macaroni Flat and the planting of another 72 acres of grapes attests to Barden’s belief in the future of winemaking in Calaveras County.

Barden encouraged others to purchase land and plant vines in Calaveras County, and was, almost singlehandedly, responsible for the rebirth of the wine industry in the county. The major agricultural industry in the county today, many new wineries have been established, and are being planted as we imbibe. Among these are: Milliare Winery, opened in 1983, Black Sheep and Indian Rock in 1986, Kautz Ironstone in 1989, Chatom in 1991, Malvadino in 1996, and more recently, Zucca Mountain, Laraine Wine/Gerber Vineyards, Domaine Becquet, French Hill, Broll Mountain, Irish, Hatcher, Boitano Family, Brice Station, Newsome-Harlow, and Twisted Oak. By 1997 there were approximately 260 bearing acres in the county, today there are over 1,000, a testament to the foresight of the writer who, in 1892, noted:

If, as some predict, the culture of the vine is to ultimately become the principal industry of the foothill counties of California, then certainly Calaveras will aspire to the leadership, as the conditions here existing are altogether favorable (Lewis Publishing Company 1892:152).


By Judith Marvin


Calaveras County Board of Trade. 1894 Calaveras County, California-Soil, Climate and General Resources. Calaveras County Board of Trade, San Andreas, California. Reprinted by the Calaveras Enterprise 1971.

California Farmer. 1860s Various issues as noted.

Costa, Eric. n.d. “Pioneer Wines and Vines of Calaveras County.” Sierra Foothills Wine Times.

Elliott, W.W. 1885 Calaveras County Illustrated and Described-1885. W.W. Elliott, Oakland, California. Reproduced by Valley Publishers, Fresno, 1976.

Lewis Publishing Company. 1892 A Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Merced, Stanislaus, Calaveras, Tuolumne and Mariposa, Illustrated. The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago.

Marvin, Judith. 1995 “A Little Bit of France on the Calaveras River.” Las Calaveras, Volume XLIII, Number 2. Quarterly Bulletin of the Calaveras County Historical Society, San Andreas.

Peak, Melinda A. 1990 The Sciaccaluga Winery, CA-CAL-1079H, Calaveras County, California. Prepared by Peak & Associates, Sacramento, for Northern California Power Agency, Murphys.

Richards, Wanda, compiler and editor. 1973 Vallecito History, Interviews and Research. Fourth Grade Class, Vallecito School, Vallecito, California.

Sullivan, Charles L. 1998 A Companion to California Wine, and Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.