By Tom Bender

41st annual Columbia Wine Tasting, 1 to 4 p.m., Columbia State Historic Park, (209) 588-5089, www.columbiawinetasting.com.

Columbia State Park on Sunday will once again celebrate a longtime connection to the world of wines when the town becomes the site of the 41 annual Columbia Wine Tasting to benefit the nearby Columbia College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Program.

Sponsored by the Columbia College Foundation, wine and food tasting venues are spread around the historic park in eight to nine various buildings and gardens that are all an easy walk from each other. Having been involved in the event’s development and start, I am fortunate to have watched it grow from a handful of emerging wineries in 1977 to over 75 properties participating this year.

Recognizing Columbia as an important wine destination is not new. Following the peak of the Gold Rush in the mid- to late 1850s when Columbia boasted a population of 6,000, a number of businesses popped up to support those who remained in the area in hopes of finding a livelihood beyond the goldfields. This included several wineries in the area that were started by foreigners missing their common beverage of choice from the old country.

Just a mile out of the thriving town was Vine Springs Winery and Vineyards, which in the 1870s and 1880s was one of the most successful wine producers in the Sierra Foothills. Their wines, produced from hillside vineyards, gained local and International recognition as they shipped cases of their red wine as far away as France. Unfortunately, their operation and vineyards disappeared about 100 years ago. The terraced hillsides remain as a reminder of their successful winemaking.

A number of commercial vineyards in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties remained in operation into the beginning of the 20th century when a dwindling population and the onset of prohibition brought an end to any further local winemaking.

Fast forward to the 1970s when the Sierra Foothills returned as a winery destination with the start up of a handful of new wineries from Amador County including Montevina Winery, Shenandoah Winery and Amador Foothill Winery. In Calaveras County, Stevenot Winery and Black Sheep Winery started developing a name and following. Many of these early foothill players will mark over 30 years of pouring at the Columbia event.

The Columbia Tasting remains a one-of-a-kind tasting with its unique setup and wide range of tasting opportunities. Funds still support the Columbia College Culinary program through the Columbia College Foundation. The event is a great opportunity to compare our current local efforts alongside some exceptional winemakers from all over the state.

But unlike those early years when you could literally taste all the wines poured, this is no longer the case. There will likely be upwards of 300 wines available to taste at this years event, so responsible sampling is necessary. Try to develop a plan and map out in advance which winery tables to visit at the event. Think about focusing on particular grape types or regions. Skip over wineries or wines you are very familiar with and be experimental. If you sample wines and ask the representative for more info you might come away with new discoveries.

Remember to consume as much water as you do wine. And it is OK to spit, using the dump buckets at each table. And finally, take notes or photos so you will remember ones you like and want to seek out later.

And be sure to check out the silent auction site where spirited bidding on collectable wines and gifts are great values and a fun finish to a great afternoon. It is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to bid and take home a large-format bottle or special winery tasting and tour.

For tickets, a full list of participating wineries, the auction list and more information, go online to www.columbiawinetasting.com. Advance reservations are $55, and there will be a limited number of $60 tickets available on the day of the event.

See you in Columbia on Sunday!

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