FAIR PLAY, Calif. -- California has always been something of a mythical destination. As historian Kevin Starr observed, it is a place "at the edge of the American dream" where a person can get a second chance at life in the sun and with the help of nature's abundance. This was never more true than during the Gold Rush.
Beginning in 1848, when gold was first discovered in Coloma , in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, thousands of adventurers poured into the state hoping to find their El Dorado, or at least some lucrative ore. Gold mining turned out to be difficult, dangerous work and most miners moved on to other pursuits in less than five years. But their effect on the collective psyche and the landscape of California was profound.
Many of the mining communities were little more than tent towns where rude shacks were thrown up overnight and torn down a few years later. But others were more lasting, and some vestiges remain. They cluster along Highway 49, the old stagecoach route, from Vinton and Nevada City at the northern end to Chinese Camp and Oakhurst in the south.
Traveling Highway 49 is one way to explore the Gold Rush legacy. Some of its towns are highly restored, largely run by the state as historic parks or villages. Many are lively, thriving communities with the bustle, perhaps, of Gold Rush days, but few of the old buildings. Some are more sedate and charming, but also touristy.
Venture a little way off the main thoroughfare -- to places like Volcano and Fiddletown -- and you can find remnants of the authentic frontier West, preserved without much fuss.
For our base we picked Fair Play, a community with no town center but a central location for exploring the area . (The name comes from an early resident who, alarmed by Gold Rush shenanigans, reportedly declared, "We'll have fair play around here," and named it to prove his point.) We decided to stay at the Fitzpatrick Lodge, a combination bed-and-breakfast and organic winery, where winemaker Brian Fitzpatrick knows the gold country back roads by heart.
What we found was an interesting vantage point on California's past and one of the country's newest and fastest-growing winemaking areas. Today's gold, we discovered, grows on vines.
Fitzpatrick, a native of New Jersey, moved here about 30 years ago, drawn by the beauty of the foothills and the availability of affordable land to farm. Here he built his dream: a log cabin chateau on 40 acres where he grows 14 varieties of grapes and makes about as many wines. His idiosyncratic lodge, which he runs with help from his wife, Diana, includes a wine-tasting room, an outdoor hot tub, and a 25-meter lap pool .
Fitzpatrick Winery, which opened in 1980, was the first in the area, and Fitzpatrick has fought hard to keep out development that could have turned the area into a bedroom community . Over the years, 20 more wineries have been established in the Fair Play region -- now 36 square miles officially designated as an American Viticultural Area.
It's a convenient wine-tasting locale. Four wineries line about a two-mile stretch of Fair Play Road, and others are tucked away in leafy dells .
The days of our winter visit were sunny and mild, and Fitzpatrick's directions took us along lovely, dappled lanes with mossy live oaks, poplars, pine trees, and fir. In spring and summer, we were told, the hills would be luxuriant with daffodils, lupine, California poppies, and other wildflowers.
One day we headed to Fiddletown, a tiny community with a population of 112 . In its heyday in the 1850s, it boasted 16,000 residents, including roughly 10,000 Chinese immigrants. The name reputedly came from an old-timer who claimed that younger residents were "always fiddling."
Today Fiddletown has 18 sites on the National Register of Historic Places and a self-guided walking tour that passes by most of them. These include the Wells Fargo Stage Office, a restored schoolhouse, the old blacksmith and wagon shop, a community center with a huge fiddle above its doors, and the especially interesting Chew Kee Store. This store served as a pharmacy, grocery, and gathering place for Fiddletown's Chinese residents, plus living quarters for a Chinese herbal doctor. A "rammed earth" adobe, it was built about 1850 by packing mud between wooden frames and pounding until it hardened.
One of the few other buildings open to the public is Vilia Landavazo's Rock Hound Saloon. A New Englander first opened this shop as a jewelry store, but locals complained that they needed a bar. So the owner created a combination jewelry store and saloon, which thrived for many years. Today, Landavazo sells rocks, gems, and jewelry in cases that sit atop the old bar and billiard tables.
The rock and gem business is slow, partly because it is hard to find them locally anymore. The town is riddled with mines, but Landavazo said they are "played out and full of bats," so she has to go to the southern part of the state for supplies. She no longer sells liquor, and passing bikers complain that they can't get a beer, she said, with a chuckle. "I sell water, but that doesn't appease them."
Also interesting, and with more amenities for travelers, is the nearby town of Volcano. Although the community rests in a natural cup in the mountains, it is not volcanic. But it looked like a volcano to miners who came here in 1848, and the name stuck. Remains of the early town include its jail, an 1856 brewery, and the old St. George Hotel with a saloon, known as Whiskey Flat, that GQ magazine called "one of 10 bars in the world worth flying to."
Surprisingly, this remote rural town claims to have established the first public library in California, its first astronomical observatory, and its first little theater, which is still in operation.
But the buzz now is all about wine, as vintners find they can produce quality blends despite having relatively young vineyards at elevations of 2,000 to 2,500 feet. Locals like to say these are "wines with an altitude."
The energy and excitement is palpable at places like the Toogood Winery, where Paul Toogood has created 5,000-square-foot caves beneath his Zinfandel fields, and at the Gold Vine Grill, a restaurant that has become a winemakers' hangout. Co-owner Mary Kemp sells more than 40 local wines by the glass, with four two-ounce servings for $7.50 .
The Fair Play climate is warmer than in Napa or Sonoma, producing wines that are typically less acidic but more fruity and intense . Speculators are betting on their success, and already the wines "are getting acclaim. It's starting to happen," Kemp said.
One of historian Starr's conclusions in "Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915" (Oxford University, 1973 ) seems apt. "The energy of the Gold Rush, the thirst for excitement, and the habit of speculation remained part of the Californian temperament," he wrote. "Whatever else California was, good or bad, it was charged with human hope."
Judith Gaines, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at email@example.com.