By Chris Gill
While the history of California wine begins with the Spanish missionaries who cultivated vines for making sacramental wine, one could argue that California’s modern wine industry actually started in the Sierra Foothills during the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s. With its elevation and rocky, volcanic soil, the Sierra Foothills provided ideal conditions for growing vines from clippings that European immigrants brought along with them as they sought their fortunes. Rhone and Italian varietals like Syrah and Zinfandel thrived in this environment, and winemakers quickly established a successful industry selling wine to prospectors.
As prospectors left the Sierra Foothills, Northern California’s wine industry moved to the Central Valley, Napa, and Sonoma where growing conditions and proximity to population and transport were more advantageous. Prohibition killed off the few remaining wineries during the Twenties, but during the Eighties a number of ambitious growers helped the Sierra Foothills wine industry make a comeback, and in 1987 the Sierra Foothills earned AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation in recognition of the territory’s distinct characteristics.
Champion race car driver Scott Pruett is one of about 100 winemakers who are producing wines in the Sierra Foothills today. Pruett has planted Syrah and Grenache vines on a stunning plot of land overlooking the American River and Folsom Lake, which, along with the vineyard’s 1,200-foot altitude, helps maintain consistent, moderate temperatures. Pruett Vineyards has produced several vintages of Syrah and Grenache wines as well as Cabernet Sauvignon wines made from grapes grown in the Napa Valley.
Pruett’s 2009 Syrah proves that the Sierra Foothills are an excellent location for this varietal. The wine possesses the spice and supple fruit of a French Rhone wine without the funk and the concentration and depth of an Australian Shiraz without the bombast. It’s drinking exceptionally well in its youth, with a crisp acidity that makes it a great pairing with grilled meats and hearty stews or pasta dishes. Pruett wines are available in very limited quantities. Your best bet for obtaining them is direct from the winery or Carpe Vino located in Auburn, California, which is a great source for several Sierra Foothill wines.