California’s High-Country Wines

The phrase ‘alpine wine’ is on the lips of many a sommelier these days. Thanks to the exigencies of climate change, not to mention the surge of interest in lower-alcohol, higher-acidity wines, mountain-grown wines everywhere are having a moment.

Despite the lack of the word ‘mountain’ in its name, the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA) hosts most of California’s highest-elevation vineyard sites. And within the Sierra Foothills, a good many of those sites can be found within the El Dorado AVA, whose vineyards begin at 1,200 feet (366 m) and go up to 3,300 feet (1,006 m) of elevation.

El Dorado County was quite literally put on the map in 1848 when James Marshall discovered gold there at Sutter’s Mill, launching California’s Gold Rush and forever changing the fate of the entire state. Within 20 years, El Dorado County hosted nearly 2,000 acres (809 ha) of grapevines, planted with the hopes of slaking the thirst of a ballooning population.

But El Dorado’s prominence as a vine-growing region faded quickly. By the turn of the 20th century, most vineyard projects were abandoned, like so many failed mining claims. The onset of Prohibition in 1920 represented the final nail in the coffin for El Dorado’s (and most of California’s) wine industry.

Barring a few experimental plantings, El Dorado’s wine industry wouldn’t really get started again until Boeger Winery opened in 1973. Plantings grew slowly after that, but began to pick up steam in the 1990s. In 1993 the county crushed 3,334 tons of grapes from roughly 780 acres (316 ha) of vines. In 2022, 6,235 tons of grapes were harvested from a total of 2,941 acres (1,190 ha). Needless to say, yields have come down considerably since the early 1990s as growers have become more sophisticated and quality-minded.

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