History of and Guide to the
Winegrowing Industry of Nevada County
By John M. Olney
Mr. Olney incorporates interesting notes and tales of the people and places since wine grape vineyards were first planted in the Gold Rush days in the 1850’s, right up to the Fall season of the year 2011. You will meet the richest of families as they amassed great fortunes in gold mining, water supply and distribution systems, introduction of mechanization with associated energy resources and many more tools that helped transform America from an agrarian society into a mechanized one.
Then after the flash of surface (or “placer”) mining was quickly over he reviews the rebirth of the gold industry as corporations began subsurface operations (also known as “hardrock”) mining. Some of the names you may already be familiar with such as the William Bourn Family of the peninsula who eventually controlled the Empire Gold Mine of Grass Valley (the richest producer in the state), vineyards and the largest stone winery located in Napa’s wine country, the entire water supply to San Francisco County and many more businesses. The notorious Sam Brannan, the exiled Mormon leader, who proclaimed the discovery of gold and continued advertisement of it that led to the mass migration of mostly men and a few women from the states east of the Mississippi River to California thereby upsetting and shifting the power basis in Congress. Brannan built merchandise stores before his proclamation so he could sell mining equipment and food stocks at greatly inflated prices while amassing large land holdings and possibly becoming the first millionaire of California. He was also involved in the wine business in Napa Valley among his many and substantial business endeavors. And, there are more exciting characters of those old days gone by with roots simultaneously in Nevada, Napa and San Francisco Counties.
Mr. Olney traces the major events associated to the very first production of wine in the state of California pointing out the important players and their contribution to the California Winegrowing Industry, indeed for all of America, leading up to the commencement of grape growing and wine production in Nevada County. Then came the disasters! Wine grapevine disease such as Phylloxera, surface gold depletion, and the failed social experiment of the Prohibition era calling for the halt of alcohol production and consumption. All these major factors led to serious declines in the Nevada County population as well as the economy but the subsurface mining continued. This failed economy wiped out the fledging winegrowing agriculture from about the late 1890s through 1940’s.
But A few bright farmers recognized that the fertile soils and moderate climate of the lower Nevada County lands were well suited to fruit and wine grape growing. Slowly wine growing was being re-introduced through a cottage industry type approach in the 1950s through 1970s.
Then a very bright guy was born and raised in Nevada City who went off to law school to find his path in life. Enter one Alan Haley. He acquired a taste for fine wines during his collegiate years at Harvard. He commenced his legal career in Honolulu, Hawaii and noticed that fine wines were not readily available; only ordinary wines, That meant he needed to form an import & distribution system so he could once again enjoy fine wines at home and supply his favorite restaurants with these products too. Bacchus Imports was born. Then he noticed there were no refrigerated facilities available to properly store all the imported wines of not only his business but that of other broker distributors. He leaped into action and built the first refrigerated wine warehouse in Hawaii. But yet another discovery would come to his attention that he found totally unacceptable. Hawaii was taxing imported wines but not locally produced wines. Talented, young and ambitious he feared no one! He attacked the Hawaii laws that taxed imported wine but not domestic wines. He found a very large adversary in Hawaii but like David he eventually slue Goliath taking his unfair taxation case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Along the monotonous court procedures and legal interpretations road he found new friends to support him in his quest for equal playing ground rules such as the giant Gallo Brothers operation of the Central California Valley. They prevailed and taxes that had been withheld over all the long years of court battle were returned to non-resident alcoholic beverage distributors on a percentage basis. By the time of the Supreme Court decision, the amount in escrow that Hawaii could not spend exceeded $100,000,000. That’s correct, over $100 million!. Alan was a hero in the wine business and a key precedent was set because of his tenacious attack of the unfair tax law which is still cited in legal hassles today.
But as would be expected, Alan’s days of successful law practice in Hawaii were numbered. It was time to go home. Hawaii did not need such a rabble rouser! Once back in Nevada City in the late 1970’s Alan discovered that wine was being produced on a very small scale. He made some inquires and eventually got a chance to taste locally made wine from locally grown grapes. During these sessions he realized that Nevada County could support commercial grape growing and wine production. All the essential ingredients were there - soil, climate and interest among locals. He asked what was needed to launch such an industry and the responses were all the same - a locally based grape crushing and production facility. That was all that Alan needed to hear. He responded, “Maybe I can do something about that!”
With that local wine tasting experience, the first modern era winery in Nevada County was born. When completed about two years later, Alan and partners blessed the rebirth of the winegrowing industry in the county by appropriately naming their facility “Nevada City Winery,” 100 hundred years after the first one to be so named which was also located in the downtown area. Then Mr. Olney provides you with descriptions of how the wine grape growing and wine production facilities have experienced rapid growth since the early 2000s going from just over a handful before that timeframe to the current number of 23 bonded wineries.
For the remainder of the booklet, Mr. Olney shifts from historian to tour guide providing the reader with the experiences he encountered in locating the mostly remote countryside vineyards and wineries, meeting directly with owners and winemakers and tasting their products with them. Mr. Olney commented, “What a unique experience compared to most of the more well known wine country regions surrounding the Bay Area.”
He often describes the wines he tasted in terms of how they pleased his palate as opposed to trying to fit them into some sort of subjective point system as if the wine was in a beauty contest. You will also frequently read the reactions of his friend who often accompanied him on his winery visits and who lives in the Grass Valley community of “You Bet,”
The wineries are typically separated by an average of 30 minute drives between them and/or the major towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City. Because of the travel time and perceived loss of wine sales, the majority of wineries have opened a second individual or collective tasting room away from the original winery building in and/or near the major cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City. Mr. Olney provides the reader with plenty of photographic visual aids to assist the reader in knowing how to find these downtown tasting rooms and what readers can expect once there. Additionally, he provides the reader with a hefty amount of color photography designed to give the reader sufficient visual record of what he or she will encounter as they elect to make the associated vineyards and wineries destination and tasting sites for future visits to the area. The interviews with the owners and/or winemakers will provide you with interesting reading as he and his friend get them to open up and tell us how and why they selected Nevada County to become their winegrowing home.
When interviewing Alan Haley, founder of the first modern era winery in Nevada County (1980) Mr. Olney found quite interesting the sidebar comment made by Alan as they closed out their visit. ”You know John, you have the distinction of having tasted more Nevada County wines than any other Bay Area wine writer I know