Sunday, May 02, 2010


The Past Meets the Present

PART ONE of a three-part series:
An Introduction to the
Northern Sierra Foothills Wineries

By John Olney
(All photos by John Olney unless otherwise so stipulated)
Web site:  / E-mail:  
Phone: 707-299-9548

Copyright, all rights reserved by Wine Country Marketing and Promotions,
1370 Trancas St., #409, Napa, CA 94558 Phone: 707-299-9548

April 28, 2010
The day started with dark skies looming over the northern Sierra Foothills along a backroad residential community, named “You Bet.” The area is nestled in the typical rolling hills mix of dirt and gravel roads occasionally connected by short segments of privately paved sections.

This area is located about three miles plus east of historic Grass Valley, California and mile from the famous Empire Gold Mine. It is situated along Highway 174 which connects Colfax and Grass Valley. Colfax is the heart of the first discovery of gold by John Marshall in the stream of the lumber mill of John Sutter and Grass Valley represents the once largest gold producing mine in California. Its second owner was the William Bower Bourn family of San Francisco. William, the Second, brought the mine to its highest production before it was purchased by North Star Gold Mines.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the very beginning.

What brought my attention to this area is an interesting story that started with my decision to attend for the first time my San Leandro High School anniversary event scheduled for September of this year. Signing up for this function gave everybody my e-mail address and sure enough it wasn’t very long before some class members started contacting me. In particular was Nancy (“Nanc”) Boyce. She was my dream girl in my senior year and when we both moved on to College of the Pacific -- now the liberal arts college of the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California. But, a romantic relationship just was not going to happen.

After way more years than either of wish to mention, we re-contacted back in January and agreed to a meeting at which we spent a fabulous four hour lunch in Walunt Creek getting reacquainted. Then in April, Nanc and I decided to get together again. We both enjoy wine and Nanc had experience in the tasting room and private events at Arrowhead Winery of Sonoma while unbeknown to both of us, while I was working in Napa wineries (Mumm, Silverado and Andretti). I wanted to get away from the north Bay Area wine country so I suggested that I come up her way and we go to a couple of the local 15 wineries of the Northern Sierra Wine Country Association (Click here: ). She was fine with my recommendation, so I began looking up each winery on the Internet. I quickly found out that these wineries operated at different hours that I was used to back in the Napa-Sonoma wine counties. I was looking at mostly a Saturday and Sunday tasting room opening schedule and most did not open until noon. As I was interested in also doing an article on the couple of wineries we would visit, I would not be able to complete an interview on their busiest consumer days so I set about to schedule visits by appointment. I e-mailed them all and happily I received many favorable responses. I found myself now going to the northern Sierra Foothills to visit more than just a couple of wineries. Click here to see the participating wineries,and visit their web sites:

The Past - A little historical Commonality Between Napa and Nevada Counties

In looking up the wineries and the major towns which they surround, Grass Valley and Nevada City, I could not avoid reading about the gold rush days which created these towns. This brought to my attention a number of characters who had simultaneous ties to Napa County.

The gold country area was familiar with a very important Mormon gentleman named Sam Brannan. It was Brannan who ran around spreading the word about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill but only after he established three mercantile stores between San Francisco and Gold Country from which his inflated product prices made him one of the early wealthiest men in California. Brannan took a consort by the name of Lola Montez who would eventually leave him. She was famous/infamous in Grass valley as well. This was happening during the 1860’s when Brannan was founding the northern most city of Napa County, Calistoga, where his dream of soda springs resort fizzled out..

There were the names of William Bower Bourn, the First and Second, who purchased the Empire Gold Mine and developed it into the largest, deepest and most productive gold mine of California. It was in Grass Valley that William, the 2nd pushed for electrical power for his mines and forced the convergence of smaller power companies into what would become Pacific Gas and Electric (PG and E), founded in Grass Valley. The Langley and Bourn Mine just south of St. Helena, Napa County was rich in iron ore in the 1870’s. Important to Nevada County is the fact that simultaneous with gold mining in Nevada County, the largest mining production of cinnabar from which mercury is produced, was in Napa County.

In the mid 1870’s Bourn, the 2nd, was producing wine just south of St. Helena, in Napa County. Then in the early 1880’s, Bourn also built the great stone winery in north St. Helena across from the Charles Krug winery, known as Greystone," that now houses the Culinary Institute of America with its California Vintners Hall Of Fame. This was the first building in Napa County to have electrical power.

Back to the Present - The Wineries of Nevada County

As of this writing, we have visited nine of the wineries either at downtown tasting rooms and/or the actual winery/vineyard site.  The natural beauty of the foothills cannot be avoided. Everywhere we went and looked there were just beautiful views and settings.

Five wineries on Wednesday the 28th of April and four more on the 29th. I’ve got to tell you, I certainly should have figured out before I started driving to the wineries that I was dealing with country roads. Naively, I measured distance on a map between two points - BIG MISTAKE! All day long, except for the first winery on the days list, I was apologizing profusely for being late. Each winery in sequence totally accepted my being late and told me that they thought it was going to happen when they saw my schedule published to all. I say “my being late” because none of it was the fault of Nanc - it was all my doing. We’d finally arrive, I would apologize like crazy and they would just invite us on in with great big open arms as if we were right on time! Winery after winery we only experienced the most gracious of hosts so willing to share their wine and stories with us.

On Wednesday, Nanc had suggested that she might make some sandwiches for us to eat along the way between winery visits. But no, I had it all planned out and we would catch lunch at a restaurant as we went along our visits - BIG MISTAKE, AGAIN! We were running so late between visits that lunch was skipped. She wouldn’t leave her house on Thursday without bringing along sandwiches she made for us -Smart Girl!

In between the winery visits on Wednesday we were frequently caught in heavy rain downpours and even hail storms. We must of looked like two drown mice! The skies were dark but beautiful.

On the next morning, Thursday, I awoke to a beautiful, but thin layer of snow on the decks of the house, grounds and clinging to tree branches surrounding the home. This day gave us some sunny breaks mixed again with rain and hail then back to sunshine. It did not matter that we were at the very end of April and had anticipated the weather to be blue skies and warm. Over the two day period we got a little bit of it all!

PART TWO of three: 
My next article will be about the wines we tasted, but I want to wait until we have completed our tasting with as many of the wineries who will participate in our little project.  Wednesday, May 5 we visit four more and I hope to talk the last two into joining us this coming week.

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