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Early Amador County history, before vineyards, is facsinating. As early as 1843, John Sutter dispatched men - some with families - to stands of cedar and sugar pine on the ridge between today's Amador and Sutter Creeks. He called the place "Pine Woods." Sutter's men worked there sawing wood, producing charcoal, and manufacturing other items needed at Sutter's Fort. Even for a time after the gold discovery, Sutter's men still worked at Pine Woods.
Before statehood, what is now Amador was part of the San Juaquin District and in 1849 had at least three precincts - Drytown, Volcano, and Buena Vista Ranch - in the statewide elections of 1849. When California became a state in 1850, Calaveras was one of the original 27 counties organized. But citizens northerly of the Mokelumne River were quickly dissatisfied with being a stepchild province. After several years agitation, the county was finally divided in 1854 and on June 14th, Amador was born.
In later years, it acquired land north of Dry Creek from El Dorado County and gave up its easterly Sierra territory when Alpine County was formed in 1863. Jackson, which had been the county seat of Calaveras for a time in 1851-1852, edged out Volcano to become county seat of the new county. Volcano threatened to wrest the honor away in 1857, but the effort was stymied in the legislature at the eleventh hour. Jackson may be the only city which has been the county seat of two counties.
Amador County is the only county in the state named after a native Californian - Jose Maria Amador, a wealthy ranchero before the gold rush, whose great ranch covered much of what is now Amador Valley near Danville. He and his employees mined along a creek in this county in 1848 and 1849. That creek became known as Amadore's Creek, and soon after, camps called Amadore Crossing and South Amadore or Amadore City were founded.
Miners in the latter camp in 1852 first petitioned that a proposed new county be called "Amador" . In 1854, when legislation dividing Calaveras was debated, a motion to name the new county Amador instead of Washington was adopted.
Wine Growing History of Important Amador County AVAs
Though not as well known as the Napa Valley AVA or Sonoma Valley AVA wine growing regions of California, the Shenandoah Valley was once the princicpal wine growing region of California.With the discovery of gold, the area quickly became a mecca for those trying to make their fortune. One of the major demands of the mainly young, single men was a steady supply of alcohol. Vineyards were planted and several wineries began to produce wine, and numerous wineries sprouted up, many of whose vineyards are still in use by wineries today. From the earliest days, Zinfandel dominated the plantings in the county. The varietal was well-suited to the abundant sunshine and austere soils.
The decline of the California Gold Rush, coupled with the onset of Prohibition, devastated the wine making region of Amador County. Today, this area has been resurrected and is now home to over 45 different wineries. Amador County is renowned for its Zinfandel, but many other varietals, such as Sangiovese, Barbera, Primitivo, Mourvedre, and others are gaining international recognition.
Amador County has a high percentage of old Zinfandel vines. Some of the Zinfandel vineyards in this county are more than 125 years old; including the original Grandpère vineyard, planted with Zinfandel before 1869. This 10-acre vineyard is home to the oldest Zinfandel vines on Earth, with proof of existence dating to 1869 when the vineyard was listed as a descriptor on a deed from the U.S. Geological Survey. Also, grant deed in Amador County records proves its existence in 1869. These old vines produce intense flavors, allowing winemakers to make outstanding Zinfandels.
The History of Shenandoah Valley Wine Production
One of the major demands of the mainly young, single men was a steady supply of alcohol. Vineyards were planted and several wineries began to produce wine. From the earliest days, Zinfandel dominated the plantings in the valley. The varietal is well-suited to the abundant sunshine and austere soils.
The wines produced during this time were very alcoholic and often fortified with brandy.
After the ban on mining hydraulicking (use of water cannons) in 1884, local wine production began a steady decline for the next 70 years. However, not all of the subsequent developments were negative.
The isolation of the region spared many of the vines from the devastation of the phylloxera . The fact that some Zinfandel vines in the Shenandoah Valley date back to the 1860s is indicative of this fact. Grandpere and Esola are two noteworthy old vine vineyards that were planted in during this era.
However, this isolation was a double-edged sword. When Prohibition became law, it was not economically feasible to continue to grow grapes in the Sierra Foothills. While regions like Lodi were close enough to the logistical routes used to ship grapes to home winemakers, the Shenandoah Valley was simply too far away. Wine production reached its lowest point during the 1950s. Only about 370 acres of vineyards remained.
During the 1970s, the region saw a renewed interest in producing wine. Carey Gott founded Montevina Winery in 1970. This was followed by the establishment of Karly Winery by Buck Cobb in 1976. The Trinchero Family (owners of Sutter Home) bought Montevina in 1988 to develop a high end line.
Vineyard acreage has steadily increased in recent years and is still dominated by Zinfandel, but Italian varietals such as Barbera and Sangiovese, and French Rhone varietals such as Mourvedre, Syrah, and Viognier have gained important recognition. A number of new wineries have also been established in the AVA, with a total of 36 wineries now in the Valley.
The History Of Fiddletown
By the 1870s, most of the placer gold in the region had been found, as mining became more and more dependent on hydraulicking (use of water cannons). The town received another blow in 1878 when Judge Columbus Allen Purinton enacted a petition to change the name to Oleta, his daughter's name.
There is some dispute as to whether he was ever a judge at all, and the reason he gave for the name change was that he was embarrassed to be known as “the man from Fiddletown” amongst his more cosmopolitan colleagues. In 1932, the local residents decided to go back to the town’s original name because it was more historically correct. AVA status was granted in 1983.
Viticulture And Microclimates of Amador County
Local vineyards are very stressed in Amador's marginal terrain. The elevation of the Shenandoah Valley AVA ranges between 1,200 and 1,600 feet above sea level, with vineyards in the Fiddletown AVA reaching 2,500 feet. Located in the Sierra Foothills, coastal fog does not reach this far inland. The hillside terrain of Shenandoah Valley is made of soils that retain water poorly and contain very little organic material. This leads to stressed vines and extremely flavorful fruit. Fiddletown borders land that is not arable for grape production. Rainfall is scarce and usually ranges between 30 and 40 inches per year.
Despite these difficult conditions, most vineyards are dry farmed, meaning they are not irrigated. Grape yield rarely exceeds three tons per acre and is usually between one and two. This translates into massively flavored wines. Zinfandel from the region has an uncommon amount of depth and concentration.
These AVAs" soils have a significant amount of granite in them. They are deep, fairly well drained, and very unfertile. These poor soils stress the vines, causing phenols, pigments, and tannins to develop in grape skins. Zinfandel typically gets its body primarily from alcohol, but Fiddletown Zinfandel is also quite tannic.
The scientific name for most of this soil is Sierra-Ahwahee. Its texture is classified as sandy-loam. Most growers choose southwest facing slopes to plant their vines. This allows for the maximum amount of sun exposure during the day to counteract cool overnight temperatures. Some soil contains a significant amount of oxidized iron and is red in color.
In the 1880s, much of California Wine Country was decimated by phylloxera. But because of Amador County's isolation, many local vines survived. Additionally, Zinfandel planted on its native rootstock is one of the most resistant Vitis vinifera varietals to phylloxera.