An Introduction to the Sierra Foothills | Wine Enthusiast
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An Introduction to the Sierra Foothills

Even without its gorgeous vineyard vistas and increasingly excellent wines, the Sierra Foothills region beckons as a rich travel destination. These hills, which rise from the flat farmland of the San Joaquin to the soaring Sierra Nevada mountains, held vast treasure long before any wine was made.

James Marshall discovered gold in the gravel bottom of the American River at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. By the next year, tens of thousands of would-be miners known as the Forty-Niners converged on the region to stake claims and seek riches. Ramshackle encampments along every river soon became Wild West-style towns with crowded hotels and saloons.

While a few prospectors did get rich, others realized there was more reliable money in selling the miners supplies, food and drink; Levi Straus & Co. launched during this time, as did many local vineyards.

Located 80 miles inland from San Francisco, the Foothills wine region is vast. Eight counties stretch 120 miles roughly north to south along the scenic and aptly numbered Highway 49. The preponderance of top wines come from Amador County, Calaveras County and El Dorado County. Although the region holds about 225 bonded wineries, only 6,000 acres of vines are planted.

Visitors can find time-travel opportunities like panning for gold or climbing aboard a restored rail line.The area also offers outstanding river rafting, kayaking, hiking and rock climbing. Recently, luxury lodging and more creative cuisine have injected some welcome energy into these historic hills.

Top Grapes of the Sierra Foothills


The best-known wines of the region are full-bodied but rarely tannic. Zinfandel is oozing wild berry and cedar flavors, they feel soft and silky on the palate.


Fruity, mild in tannins yet high in acidity, this fresh, food-friendly wine originated in northern Italy. Increasingly, Barbera is considered a Foothills favorite.

Petite Sirah

Wine rarely gets more robust than this. Petite Sirah is almost black in color, it tastes like crushed black pepper and blackberry jam, packed with fine-grained tannins.

Sauvignon Blanc

Crisp, floral and creamy, this grape shows flavors of pear and melon through much of the region. Balanced minerality makes Sauvignon Blanc an outstanding match with food.


This is a wine of great body, richness and mouthfeel. Viognier offers honey on the nose followed by lime, Meyer lemon, apricot and peach flavors, with a slight taste of stone.