California’s winemaking history is long and colourful. With vines being planted almost 250 years ago, the region has since seen more than its fair share of drama.
We tend to think of the West Coast as being relatively undisturbed by Europeans until the gold rush of the nineteenth century. In reality though, our influence extends much further back than that. As far back as the seventeenth century, migrants moved north from Mexico and settled in the area.
A collection of mission stations were founded, and it was the missionaries who were responsible for planting the first vines. Aiming to produce wine purely for religious purposes, they saw only sporadic success.
Father Junipero Serra is believed to have achieved the first sustained harvests about 100 years later. The Franciscan missionary planted many vineyards in the region and is credited as being the father of Californian wine.
French immigrant Jean-Louis Vignes is widely regarded to have introduced California to commercial winemaking in the 1830’s. Setting up shop on the banks of the Los Angeles river, he imported Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc vines from his native Bordeaux.
It was shortly after this time that California saw a wave of immigration from the gold rush. One notable immigrant was Hungarian traveller Agoston Haraszthy, who introduced a wide range of vines from all over Europe, helping to promote quality and diversity. Furthermore, his published work on the development of Californian wines helped ensure that this quality remained for the generations that followed.
For his efforts, Haraszthy is often referred to as the father of Californian viniculture. (The title of father of Californian wine had already been taken!)
The wheels started to fall off the Californian wine industry in the late nineteenth century. The first disaster to fall on the region was a pest called Phylloxera, native vines had developed an immunity, but the fresh imports were wiped out, undoing many years of development.
Just as production started to recover, prohibition effectively finished it off. The 1919 law banning the sale of alcohol forced many vineyards to close, their land dug up for more profitable crops. Almost 200 years of hard work had been cancelled out overnight.
Although prohibition was repealed in 1930, it would take many years for the industry to recover. By the 1960s, the region was producing large quantities again, but quality was not what it used to be. California was looked down upon, having gained a reputation for making sweet, port-style wine.
The 1970s however, saw an incident that thrust California back into the big league. Several local winemakers were invited to compete in a blind tasting competition in France. Known as The Judgement Of Paris, it saw Californian winemakers Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett see off their French peers to collect the awards for best red and white respectively.
Today California is the largest new world winemaking region. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, it is known worldwide as a producer of top quality wine. Hopefully the drama has been left in the past.
Joe Errington writes about food and drink for Juicy Grape Wines.