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The Wine Boom!

Aug 16, 2008
Winemaking in California has never been an unsupervised industry. The first vines were brought to the Pacific shores by Cortez. When the ruthless conqueror of Mexico failed to find gold he decided to develop the country as an enormous vineyard. He commanded every landowner to plant, every year for five years, 1,000 vines for every 100 Indians living on his land. Years later Spain sent her high priests of civilization into the barren wilderness of Baja, California, with the understood provision that wines would be made for sacramental purposes at their mission outposts.

In 1769 Padre Junipero Serra, the beloved Franciscan, established his first mission in Alta California--Mission San Diego de Alcala. He brought vine cuttings with him, vines which originally came from Spain. They were set out around the new mission and as they flourished, more cuttings were planted in San Gabriel where sun and soil proved even more fruitful for the vines. The gnarled, twisted trunk of the first vine planted at San Gabriel still bears its annual harvest of Mission grapes. This single species planted along El Camino Real by the Franciscan priests, by its abundant yield, established California as a vine land.

The first commercial vineyard was established in Los Angeles in 1824 by one John Chapman who set out 4,000 vines. He was followed seven years later by an even more enterprising pioneer from France, Louis Vignes. His vineyard, on the site of the present Union Station in Los Angeles, was a profitable venture, providing wines and brandies not only for the young City of Angels but for the northern ports of Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco.

The big excitement, one hundred years ago when gold was discovered in California, created such a fantastic period of American history that the grape rush never received much publicity. It followed the gold rush, and quite logically. Every boom town was a market for wine and grapes. Prices were fabulous. If, many thought, good grapes could be grown in Southern California where the wines were coming from; they would probably do as well elsewhere in the State. New species, such as Chenin Blanc, were imported and they flourished equally well.

Like a thunderbolt sensational news arrived from Europe. The vineyards of France were dying of an unknown disease. California would become the vineyard of the world. Every ship sailing into the Golden Gate confirmed the tragic and wonderful news. By 1855 the boom was on. Landowners all over the State caught the wine fever. By planting a few thousand vines they could become rich, with a world market waiting. Vineyards sprang up all over California. In 1858, bearing vineyards in Los Angeles were selling for $1,000 per acre.

Boom--and then bust!

A poor crop in 1859 was followed by an equally poor harvest in 1860. The State Agricultural Society, formed in 1854, recognized that something must be done to save the young industry. Each year the Society had sent several of its members, by stagecoach and horseback, to widespread areas of vine plantings to report back on economic and agricultural conditions. The most successful vintner was a Sonoma vineyardist, Colonel Agoston Haraszthy. His success with foreign grape varieties, such as Carignane, had sent land values in the vicinity of his Buena Vista vineyard from $6 to $135 per acre.

Col. Haraszthy's achievement was by no means accidental; his entire lifetime had been spent in seeking the right place in America to make fine wines. In 1847 he planted his first vineyard in Wisconsin shortly after he arrived in this country from Hungary. Undaunted by failure there he moved to San Diego, primarily for his health. He imported more than a hundred and sixty-five different species of grapes from Europe, including Zinfandel which has now become the most widely planted grape in California.

Dissatisfied with the quality of the wine he could make there he moved north to the present site of Crystal Springs Reservoir, just south of San Francisco. Here he discovered he was too near the sea; his vines suffered from strong winds, fog, and lack of sunshine.

He made a fourth attempt, in Sonoma, after seeing the flourishing vineyards of General Vallejo in that county. With renewed inspiration he transplanted his imported cuttings and set out the Buena Vista Vineyards in Sonoma in 1856.
About the Author
Sarah Martin is a freelance marketing writer based out of San Diego, CA. She specializes in the history of wine, winetasting, fine wine varietals, and particularly enjoys a fine glass of Chenin Blanc . For an amazing selection of wines, please visit http://www.wineaccess.com.
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