This Quaint California County Is Full of Family-owned Wineries and Historic Gold Rush Towns

California Gold Country, foothills of the Sierra Nevada in El Dorado County, California

The story goes that the town of Fair Play in the Sierra foothills got its name during the California Gold Rush when two miners settled a dispute and agreed to “fair play” in the future. Nearly 200 years later, the foothills provide a different kind of treasure — the climate, soil, and altitude for growing high-quality wine grapes. Northeast of the famed Napa Valley and east of Sonoma, the Fair Play American Viticultural Area (AVA) vineyards have the average highest elevation in California at between 2,000 and 3,500 feet above sea level. Unfamiliar even to some avid wine consumers, the wines of the Fair Play and El Dorado AVAs are impressive and gaining the recognition they deserve. 

Despite their current growth, the tasting rooms are still places where you can have a casual chat with the winemaker or owner who might be splitting time in the vineyard with a full-time job in the city. Or you’ll meet others who have “retired” to the foothills to work harder than ever at their labor of love: making wine. Family owned and operated wineries are the norm. 

I heard about Fair Play from Amy Krahe who came from San Francisco with her husband Aaron Bryan. A district manager for a wine distributor and a classically trained economist working in technology, respectively, they turned Aaron’s hobby into their future plans and bought 21 acres in Fair Play. In an unfortunate coincidence, they secured an SBA loan for their winery on the same day San Francisco shut down bars and restaurants, abruptly ending their income from Tag & Jug Cider Company which they had founded in 2014. A safari tent on their vineyard was home for the couple and their two-year-old for a while until they moved into their winery to escape smoke from the Northern California fires. They’re currently awaiting construction of a 280-square-foot “tiny house” for their living quarters.

Skinner winery in El Dorado County, California

It’s been quite a change for the self-proclaimed “city slickers.” Aaron applied his creative skills and interests in everything from roasting coffee to brewing beer and making wine into developing the Conduit and Divergent Vine wineries. He recently completed the harvest, picking about 20 tons of grapes in a few weeks. Their hope is to open soon on a limited basis with outdoor seating for tastings as other wineries throughout California have done during COVID-19 restrictions. 

Mike and Carey Skinner of Skinner Vineyards and Winery tell an interesting story on their website. Their son Kevin and his wife Kathy noticed the town of Skinners and took a detour on their way home from a Lake Tahoe vacation to check it out. They learned that a Scottish miner named James Skinner had invested some of his Gold Rush profits in a plot of land and started a winery and distillery in the 1860s. After some research, Mike discovered that Skinner was his ancestor and within a year, bought property and planted grapes. He felt driven to honor that legacy, and the rest, as they say, is — well, you know.

Family owned and operated Gwinllan Estate (Gwinllan means “vineyard” in the Welsh language) produces a wide variety of wines and includes their three Border Collies on the list of working family members. Shadow Ranch, also family owned, retains the Gold Rush era atmosphere with original buildings dating to 1888. North Dakota natives Les and Sharon Heinsen opened Element 79 after retirement, fulfilling a lifelong dream. You’ll find similar stories in most of the Fair Play wineries.

There’s more to do in El Dorado County than taste wine, although the wine trails are on most visitors’ itineraries. The historic Gold Rush towns, linked by California Highway 49, are reminders of the tens of thousands who came from around the world to seek their fortunes. You can still pan for gold (and keep the nuggets you find!) and discover historic hotels, saloons, and early architecture. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park includes a replica of the original Sutter’s Mill along with more than 20 historic buildings. Take a gold panning lesson and try your luck in the American River, enjoy a hike and picnic, or stroll through the exhibits in the park. 

Explore the outdoors on El Dorado County’s hiking trails, or try whitewater rafting, mountain and road biking, or rock climbing. Horseback riding and golf are more ways to enjoy the outdoors, and Lake Tahoe is only an hour away with year-round things to do. Sacramento, California’s capital, is also about an hour away in the other direction, a convenient arrival point from out of town. The Sierra foothills, so significant in the history of California and the country, are waiting to be discovered once again. 

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