The Rise and Fall and Rise of California Wines – Milford-Orange Times
By Ray Spaziani
talk about wine
In 1769, the Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra planted the first Californian vineyard at Mission San “Diego de Alcala”. Serra went on to establish eight more missions and vineyards until his death in 1784 and has been called the father of California wine.
The grape variety he planted was likely descended from earlier Mexican plantations. It became known as the mission grape and dominated California wine production until around 1880. There are still some mission grapes planted in California to this day but used primarily for purposes of distillation and the production of California brandy. Wines made from mission grapes do not meet modern quality standards.
The first documented imported European vines from California were planted in Los Angeles in 1893 by Jean-Louis Vignes. In the 1850s and 60s, Agoston Harazsthy, a Hungarian soldier, merchant, and promoter, made several trips to bring cuttings from 165 of Europe’s greatest vineyards to California. Part of this business was at his own expense and part through state grants. Overall, he introduced about 300 different grape varieties, although some were lost before testing due to storage and handling difficulties. On several of his trips to Europe, Harazsthy was promised reimbursement from the state of California for the delivery of vine cuttings. But he was never paid.
Harazsthy is considered the founder of the California wine industry and brought his enthusiasm and optimism for the future of wine along with considerable personal effort and risk. He founded Buena Vista Winery and promoted the planting of vineyards throughout much of Northern California. He dug vast cellars for the winery, promoted hillside planting, encouraged the idea of unirrigated vineyards, and suggested redwood barrels when oak supplies ran low. He was indeed the founder of the Californian wine industry.
In 1863, a species of Native American grape was taken to botanic gardens in England. These cuttings carried a species of root lice called phylloxera, which attacks and feeds on the roots and fine leaves. European vines had no evolutionary protection. By 1865, it had spread to the vineyards of Provence. Over the next 20 years it inhabited and decimated almost every vineyard in Europe. Many methods have been tried to eradicate phylloxera, but all have proven to be temporary and uneconomical.
Finally, Thomas Munson, a Texas horticulturist, proposed grafting European vinifera vines onto American rootstocks. Then began a long and laborious process of grafting all the vines in Europe onto American rootstocks. Only in this way could the European wine industry be saved from extinction.
At the time when Europeans were struggling with phylloxera, the American wine industry was flourishing. Californian wine was exported throughout Europe and South America.
The destruction of the American wine industry is said to come from Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Prohibition had been enacted in 1919, followed by the Volstead National Prohibition Act and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 banning the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors.
Thanks to a loophole allowing each house to “make 200 gallons of cider and non-intoxicating fruit juice a year”, thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens became door-to-door winemakers and smugglers. Prices for fresh grapes soared due to increased demand and a rail shortage of refrigerated freight cars in which to ship them.
Several states remained dry after the repeal of Prohibition. Other states entered the liquor business by operating state parcel shops. Other states have granted licenses. The only group of wines that sold well were fortified dessert wines. Taxed at a lower rate than distilled spirits, but with 20% alcohol, this group made the cheapest intoxicant available. It wasn’t until 1968 that table wines took over from fortified wines, regaining status as the most popular wine category.
In 1920, there were over 2,500 commercial wineries in the United States. Fewer than 100 survived as winemaking operations in 1933. Prohibition distorted the role of alcohol in American life and ruined a fledgling world-class wine industry, which took decades to overcome.
Some California winemakers started producing quality wines but still struggled to market them. Frank Schoonmaker, a prominent wine journalist and writer in the 1950s and 1960s, introduced the idea of labeling wines using grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling) rather than generic names borrowed from famous regions European (Burgundy, Chablis, Rhine). Robert Mondavi was one of the first to label the majority of his wines with varietal names and has consistently promoted the practice.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the quality of some winemakers’ wines was exceptional. But few took notice. On May 24, 1976, a blind tasting took place in Paris with a jury composed exclusively of French oenologists. After comparing California chardonnays to the best French chard, three of the top four were Californian. Each of the nine judges ranked Chateau Montelena first. Chalone Vineyard came third and Spring Mountain placed fourth. When the reds were evaluated, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was ranked number one, ahead of Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Montrose, Château Hout-Brion and Château Léoville Las Cases. America had arrived.
Ray Spaziani is the director of the New Haven chapter of the American Wine Society. He sits on the tasting panels of Winemaker Magazine and Amate del Vino and is a Certified Wine Educator and award-winning home winemaker. Email Ray with your wine questions or activities at [email protected]