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Copyright © 2018
Forkmedia LLC


by Fred McMillin
for May 2000


From Clumsy to Classy...

The Story of Wine in California


In the Beginning

Franciscan friars made the first California wine using the Spanish Mission grape at San Juan Capistrano about 1782. A few years later, Sir George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company was unimpressed. He noted in his diary, "Politeness alone induced me to swallow it."

Mission Grape Wine

Your author with a
90-year-old Mission grape vine.

Father Durand's brandy made from the wine drew better reviews from another observer: "Crystal clear, double distilled, it was twice as strong as the good father's faith."

Mexico Nouveau

Control of Alta ("upper" in Spanish) California winemaking changed in 1821. Mexico became independent of Spain. Some 13 years later Mexico shut down the missions. General Mariano Vallejo (ancestor Admiral Vallejo took Christopher Columbus back to Spain in chains!) took over the Sonoma Mission's vineyard in 1836 and soon became Northern California's first commercial vintner. Meanwhile, Russians were making wine near a stream that we now call the Russian River. They also ventured into the Napa Valley and named a mountain there Saint Helena.

Now Dig This

About 1850 one percent of the U.S.A. population had moved to the Sierra Foothills. with the help of other strong backs from Europe and South America, eventually 12 billion tons of earth were dug up. Gold made the Foothills the fastest-growing wine district in what was now part of the United States. Sierra wine production exceeded the combined output of Sonoma and Napa. Some familiar names appeared to provide support services...pants of a new, tough fabric called denim were being sold by one Levi Strauss, wheelborrows were sold bv John Studebaker, etc.

The Super Sixtys

In 1861 German Karl Krug (he became "Charles" in California) founded the first commercial Napa Valley winery. That year, Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy brought some 100,000 European vine cuttings to Sonoma. (Later, in a double ceremony his sons would marry General Vallejo's two daughters.) Zinfandel was replacing the Mission in the better vineyards when PEP virtually killed the industry.

The PEP Disaster

  • Phylloxera started in the 1870s
  • Earthquake of 1906
  • Prohibition started in 1920

    PEP brought winemaking to a halt, except for Beaulieu and a few others that made altar and medicinal wine. Haraszthy's Buena Vista Winery was destroyed by the earthquake and the location forgotten for years.

    The Super Sixties...Again

    The nineteen sixties saw another milestone in California wines. There was an explosive increase in demand for table wines, and it hasn't stopped. In 1966 the state had 228 wineries, 1980—470, and by 1990 about 800!

    If only Sir George Simpson could taste a Sonoma Chardonnay or a Napa Cab today!

    Postscript —A Slender Reed

    It's hard to realize how few people were involved when the Mission vines were being brought to California soon to make its first wine. For example, the total Spanish population in 1773 consisted of only 61 soldiers and 11 priests.


    This page created May 2000