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Spirited Pioneers

08/25/2009 12:31PM ● Published by Wendy Sipple

Photo by Drew Newhard-Bittel, courtesy of Skinner Vineyards.

Most Gold Rushers arrived in California with little more than their sanguine dreams of plucking large, shining nuggets from the icy waters of the Mother Lode.

For some, the arduous labor paid off. The majority, however, lost faith in the empty promise of quick riches. They either abandoned their claims and left or took what earnings they could muster from the diggings and turned their attentions to other pursuits.

Many early El Dorado County pioneers, for instance, recognized the lucrative possibilities in supplying the increasing demand for fresh fruit, wine and brandy. Years before, the Spanish missionaries discovered the grape-growing potential of California’s landscape, a prospect fortified by the moderate climate. By 1849, a Green Valley farmer named Stevens had already planted grape vines on his homestead and others followed. Although the early wines they produced never reached the world-class status awarded them today, pioneer vintners forged the way.

One of the county’s earliest wine industry pioneers, Jacob Zentgraf, arrived in San Francisco in 1852 with only $5 to his name. With his brother Antone, the German-born stonecutter came to prospect along Weber Creek. Before long, however, they quit their claim and sought a more profitable and less competitive occupation.

Recognizing the earning potential of the land, the Zentgrafs purchased a 520-acre farm along Sweetwater Creek in Green Valley. The brothers immediately went to work setting out a few “varietals,” and within a few years, their grape-growing operations furnished other vintners with vines. In 1857, the Zentgraf vineyard produced 1,800 gallons of wine and sold all of it for $1.50 per gallon. In 1859, a small distillery made brandy that sold for $2.50 a gallon.

Perhaps the most prominent and successful vintner of the time, however, was another German immigrant named Henry Matte. Matte’s farm, also located in Green Valley near the site of Mormon Island, contained 80 acres of grapes from which the vintner produced 35 to 40 thousand gallons of fine wine and about 7,000 gallons of quality brandy annually.

The promise of gold also lured James Skinner to California in 1852. The self-educated Scottish weaver and carpenter took his “pay dirt” from Foster’s Bar near Coloma and purchased a ranch near present-day Rescue. Around 1861, he planted a vineyard that eventually grew into one of the largest and most profitable in El Dorado County. Skinner built a fireproof stone cellar where he stored up to 15,000 gallons of wine. He also constructed a substantial two-story distillery for the purpose of manufacturing brandy and vinegar. Today, descendent Michael Skinner keeps the family tradition going at two El Dorado County vineyards, one located near the original vineyard set out in 1861, and another in Fair Play.

Palo Sioli writes in his History of El Dorado County, “Mr. Skinner came to California a poor man, but by industry and business tact, has surrounded himself in plenty.” This accolade holds true not only for Skinner, but for Jacob and Antone Zentgraf, Henry Matte, and numerous others whose perseverance and hard work earned them prominence among El Dorado County’s agricultural pioneers.

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