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California Wine History

by David on June 20, 2009

California wine is nearly as old as our country, believe it or not. People are nearly always surprised to learn that there were around 800 wineries in the state, with more than 100 wineries in the Napa Valley alone, in 1890. The fact that Napa Valley’s first non-native settlers arrived around 1838 makes it all the more remarkable.

Wine in Ancient Times

Like most good things in life, we’re pretty sure that wine was discovered by mistake. Wine residue has been found in containers that date back over 7,000 years, so that’s the official beginning. But, since yeast is everywhere like bacteria, no doubt someone at some very ancient time set aside a little grape juice as a treat for later and soon found they had something much more interesting all together!

The species that makes the world’s wine today, vitis vinifera, is thought to be native to the area south of the Black Sea, in what is now Georgia and Armenia, and eventually traveled west. There’s evidence that vitis vinifera was not only growing, but actively cultivated, in Tuscany before the Romans overtook the Etruscans in the 4th century BC and had been growing wild for centuries prior! Imagine what the wine must have tasted like then! Apparently, it was common to add herbs and spices to make it more palatable. Of course, Europe takes the credit for making these varieties famous. But, things really didn’t start to happen in Europe until the ancient Romans began classifying grape varieties and studying their characteristics in order to increase yields and improve quality.

Wine Comes to the Americas

Wine production spread throughout Europe, surviving many physical and political upheavals over the centuries, thanks mainly to the church. Finally, around 1500, wine made its way to Mexico and Argentina for the first time. Hernando Cortez was the first to successfully establish European wine grapes in what is now Mexico. There was little confidence that his venture would succeed because earlier attempts to grow them along the Gulf Coast of North America had been disastrous – a foreshadowing of our phylloxera problems. But, the vines did so well in Mexico, where there was no phylloxera, that by 1595 the King of Spain decreed that new plantings and re-plantings were strictly forbidden, for fear of competition to his export market. The restriction was enforced for 150 years, putting any potential for commercial production on hiatus.

As in Europe, thanks to the church, some of the wine plantings survived and the California wine industry was concentrated in southern California, known as Alta California, in the early days. It gradually made its way north as more and more missions dotted their way up our coastline. It seems that the padres always brought the vines along with them. Father Junipero Serra was responsible for planting the first California vineyard in San Diego in 1769. Many think of him as the first true father of California wine.

Apparently, his planting was limited to what we know as the Mission grape, presumably brought over from Spain, a bland variety that’s fallen out of use. From what little is written, it made very poor dry table wine and passable brandy. Its best incarnation seemed to be as a fortified wine, somewhat like Madeira, which they called Angelica. European immigrants began bringing in better varieties in the 1800s and so Mission began to fade away except for the brandy and Angelica.

The Industry Moves North

When Mexico gained independence from Spain in the early 1800s it began secularizing the mission system and it set off a huge land grab. The lands were supposed to go to the Indians but in reality ended up going to friends, military associates, blood relatives and in-laws of the future General, Mariano Vallejo. He was the military commandant for Alta California, in charge of the distribution and managed to keep the huge Rancho Petaluma for himself. One of his associates was George C. Yount, a very important figure in Napa Valley’s history. Yount came out here from North Carolina in 1831 and assisted General Vallejo in a number of ways. His reward was a grant of 12,000 acres called the Caymus Rancho here in the Napa Valley. Amazingly, it covered the area starting just south of what is now the town of Yountville and went all the way up to about a mile south of St. Helena, about 18 square miles. Yount was essentially the first non-native settler in the Napa Valley and planted the first vineyard here around 1838.

It took the US annexation of Alta California in 1847 and, even more importantly, the gold rush to shift the California wine epicenter from the south to the north. Jancis Robinson contends that the fact that the immigrants and 49ers were all men explains the increased demand for alcohol!

While all this was going on, a Hungarian man named Agoston Haraszthy arrived in California and bought a vineyard in Sonoma. He founded the Buena Vista winery in 1856, which still exists today. He was a very colorful character, who has also been called the father of California wine. His name seems to be the one we think of first when it comes to California wine history, but his importance tends to be exaggerated. He was credited as being the first to bring better varieties to the area and the first to introduce Zinfandel, neither of which is true. But, he did make a couple of very significant contributions. In 1861, he returned to Europe and sent back thousands of vine cuttings in an effort to advance quality. He was acting as a member of the state commission on viticulture and his treatise, Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine-Making brought the first national attention to California as a wine producing state.

California was vigorously approaching its first wine boom at about the same time phylloxera began devastating vines in Europe, around 1870, which actually helped to fuel the industry here. As vines died all over Europe new vineyards and wineries grew like topsy all over the north coast, Livermore and Santa Clara. At its peak for the century, California had about 800 wineries. Fine wines were made mainly in the northern coastal areas and most of the large-scale production took place, as it does today, in the massive San Joaquin Valley.

The state of California encouraged this because wine was viewed as one of our more distinctive products and, as the gold rush seemed to be giving way to a vine rush, they even granted a four-year tax exemption for all new vineyards plantings. There were over 300 wine varieties here by then and, with the exception of Zinfandel which was the most planted wine variety in the state, the grapes that ruled the day are almost unknown now: Chasselas, Burger and Mission. The crowning glory came in the form of 36 medals and 4 honorable mentions for American wines, the great majority coming from California, at the 1900 Paris Exposition.


As the song says, apparently things were “too hot, not to cool down”. The industry took 2 huge blows around 1890. One was over-planting, which drove prices down below costs, and the other was our first brush with phylloxera, the devastating vine louse. Because we were able to benefit from the European’s experience with it, replanting and recovery came about relatively quickly. By the turn of the century prosperity returned, but didn’t last long, as states began to go dry, one-by-one, in anticipation of prohibition. The 18th amendment, called the Volstead Act, took effect in January of 1920.

We can thank the very busy and enterprising bootleggers and home winemakers of those prohibition years for the survival of many of the vineyards. In fact, most of the credit goes to the home winemakers because the bootleggers were primarily focused on stronger stuff. The law allowed us to produce 200 gallons of wine per household each year, adding up to about 3 bottles a day, which just might do! Of course most of the wine grapes were replaced by other crops but, according wine-historian Charles Sullivan, Americans legally drank at least 4 billion bottles of homemade wine during those 13 years. Quantities of California grapes were shipped all over the nation to these diligent home winemakers. In addition, an astounding quantity of wine seemed to be needed for medicinal and sacramental purposes. Some wineries managed to survive by obtaining the permits necessary to make those wines but, even so, production dropped 94% from 1919 to 1925. By 1933 the industry was in ruins and the best varieties had been grafted over to varieties that traveled better, but made mediocre wine.

Of course, repeal was accompanied by the great depression, which didn’t bode well for a quick recovery. And though it was considered a national repeal, it really went state-by-state, much as our current labyrinth of wine-shipping laws does today. Three states, Kansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi, remained dry for quite some time and 17 others established their own monopolies by operating state stores. These state operators didn’t appear to be interested in making a sale with their limited selection and poor merchandising. To this day you can still find dry counties in some states.

A Slow Recovery

The proliferation of inferior varieties did nothing to help jumpstart the industry. In 1933 less than 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, and virtually no Chardonnay were planted in California. Plus production, for the most part, was shoddy and quick, in fact, some wineries sold the wine that had been sitting in their warehouses all those prohibition years. Tasty stuff, no doubt! At that time, in most cases wine was shipped in bulk and bottled at big bottling plants back east or at the individual shops and restaurants.

The expression “wino” was coined during those early days after repeal because fortified dessert wines, such as port or sherry, were taxed at the wine rate, which was a fraction of the distilled spirits tax. So, at 20% alcohol, these wines provided a very cheap drunk. That, and the fact that the table wines didn’t taste good, added to a lingering sense that drinking wasn’t quite proper, meant most households stayed away from wine completely. In 1919, table wine accounted for three of every four gallons shipped. After repeal, these cheap dessert wines took their place. It wasn’t until the beginning of the second wine boom, around 1970, that table wines finally regained their status as the most popular wine category.

Of course, throughout this time, there were a few wineries that were focused on quality, and Eleanor Roosevelt began serving the finest of the American wines in the White House immediately upon the death of the 18th amendment.

We can’t talk about the success of California, or American wine without mentioning Frank Schoonmaker, perhaps America’s first wine writer. He began a wine importing business just after repeal and added the best California wines to his inventory as early as 1939. One thing he couldn’t agree with, as a broker, was using European regional names like Burgundy, Rhine wine and Chablis for American wine. They’d been used before prohibition and he became the catalyst for naming wines by the variety in America. He was so influential that it didn’t take long for the varietal label to be equated with quality and high prices, even though those generic names persisted for decades in common use and are still around a little even today.

Post World War II Years

But, it took World War Two to really start turning things around. For one thing, there were fewer tank cars available to ship the wine in bulk, so bottling at the winery became very common, increasing quality. Plus, there was incentive for more producers to shift to higher quality because there was virtually no competition from France, Spain or Italy during those years. Those few households in the US who enjoyed fine wine began to look for a quality domestic product. The producers who responded to the demand found that they could raise the price along with the quality. The post-war years seemed to be full of promise but, to see that promise made good, had to wait until about 1960. Even then California still had only about 600 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The renewed availability of European wines and statewide overproduction caused grape prices to collapse in 1947. During those seemingly dormant years there was a great deal of research being done at university level. In fact, according to Leon Adams, the knowledge of grape and wine chemistry advanced more in the decades following World War Two than it had in the past 2000 years. The University of California at Davis became a magnet to aspiring winemakers from all over the world as the leading institution of viticultural and enological research. The American Society of Enologists and Viticulturists was established in 1950 and continues to attract international membership with its annual technical conferences and quarterly journal.

Thanks to the war and to the increased ease of travel, changes were taking place in American taste. Many young people returned home from the war with a taste for wine and, as more Americans visited Europe, the demand for good quality, dry table wine finally began to outstrip that of the fortified wines. By the mid-50s American per capita wine consumption had risen from almost zero at repeal to just under a gallon. By 1972, it was up to 1.5 gallons, three times the rate before prohibition.

The Second Wine Boom

As more high-quality wines started coming out of California, they were put to the test in competitions. The most important one, by far, was the one they call the Judgment of Paris in 1976. Two wines from the Napa Valley, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet and the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, bested their French equivalents in a blind tasting among top professionals by ranking first. It was a humiliating moment for the French producers and there were cries of foul play. But, it was a revelation to many and cemented Napa Valley wines as world class in the minds of even more consumers, which was beneficial to all of California. Incidentally, a re-match was held in the summer of 2006 and California came out even better by taking all of the top five spots. In the original tasting California took two of the top 5 rankings.

The 70s up to about the mid-80s was a time of great growth, our second boom, especially in Napa and Sonoma. As Americans traveled more, their tastes in food and wine became more sophisticated which helped support the astounding number of new wineries that were established during those years. As the land in Napa and Sonoma became more sought after, it also became more expensive which helped to spread the growth southward to Monterey, Santa Barbara and more.

Somewhat of a damper came down in the mid-80s in the form of what’s been called a neo-prohibitionist movement. It succeeded in increasing wine taxes and requiring health warnings on labels and in establishments that serve alcoholic beverages, among other things. Plus, we had a re-visitation of phylloxera. This second epidemic was a huge financial hit to the industry, as over 60% of the vines in Napa and Sonoma had to be replanted, but in its way also helped to move quality forward at a quickened pace. So much about viticulture had been learned in a very short time and the necessary replanting forced us to put what we’d learned into practice sooner than we would have otherwise.

Recovery came quickly, thanks in no small part to the dot-com boom of the 90s and, as the coastal regions became more expensive, the Sierra Foothills began to come on strong, allocating generous amounts of their resources to research. The wealth of the time allowed for ongoing private and public research to increase throughout the state most importantly in viticulture, but also in enology. As we gradually gain an understanding of our own terroir there has been a steady movement in fine wine toward identifying the wine with a specific place, with sub-regional appellations and vineyard designates.

Some interesting benchmarks, courtesy of Jancis Robinson:

Cabernet acreage:
1933: about 100 acres of Cabernet in the state of California.
1960: The Cabernet acreage had grown to about 600 acres.
1991: 30,000 acres of Cabernet planted
2000: over 75,000 acres of Cabernet planted in California.

1990: ¾ of our wine sales came from wines priced at under $3.00 a bottle.
2007: Wines under $3.00/bottle make up less than 13% of sales.
2007: 2 of every 3 bottles of wine sold in the US are from California

The New Millennium

Today, there are somewhere between 1800 and 2400 wineries in the state, depending upon how you measure it. Our ever-expanding export statistics will continue to grow, providing we do our marketing homework as competition from other states, and of course other parts of the world, grows.

In the new century, one of the most compelling topics has been direct shipping. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to support interstate wine shipments directly from wineries to consumers. But, it’s not as simple or clear-cut as it sounds. It’s a beginning in easing shipping regulations and, as we speak, virtually every winery in the country is trying to figure out what they have to do to start selling a greater percentage of their production directly to you.

Another hot topic has been bottle closures, which have everyone confused because plastic corks, screw caps and other closures became main stream, seemingly, overnight. It’s anyone’s guess as to how it will all turn out in the end. For more information on closures, click here.

The term globalization takes on multiple meanings as, beyond the obvious issue of competition, the ease of travel and rapid communication has led to what some call global flavors at the cost of individuality and terroir. Stay tuned on that subject.

So, there’s a lot to look forward to. We still think of ourselves as a young wine producing region, which is encouraging when it comes to quality. The greater our understanding of our soil and climate united with winemaking research can only make our wines, as good as they are today, better and better as we look toward the future.

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