California Wine: A Brief History
California's geographic location is ideal for planting vineyards. It lies roughly at the same latitude as most of France, but the climate is somewhat different.
A combination of the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean and the abundant daytime sunshine allows for slow, even ripening of grapes. This extended ripening period produces intensely flavored fruit, accounting for the world-class wines produced in the region over the the last thirty or so years.
The history of winemaking in California actually dates back far beyond that, to the late 1770s when the Spanish missionaries began building their chain of missions along the Pacific coast.
The first vineyards were planted with the aptly named Mission grape. The wines produced from these early vineyards were used in the celebration of Mass and occasionally fortified and distilled in order to make brandy.
In the early 1800s, immigrants from other European countries began to arrive in California, bringing with them the winemaking techniques of their homeland. During this period, most of California's wine was being produced in the southern part of the state near Los Angeles, but the gold rush of the mid-1800s changed that permanently.
The promise of gold brought an influx of immigrants to Northern California, and they began planting vineyards of their own. Different varietals were being imported from Europe and some of these new winegrowers got the notion to plant their vines on the area's hillsides.
Although cultivating this sloping land was a bit more difficult, these innovative vintners were rewarded with exceptionally flavorful harvests. It seemed that winemaking in California was heading in a positive direction. Unfortunately, in the coming years, two unrelated events would wreak havoc on the fledgling industry.
The first disaster was a pest infestation called phylloxera, which attacked the roots of the grapevines. Tragically, it destroyed a significant portion of California's existing vineyards by 1915.
The growers had no access to pest resistant rootstock, and replanting was a costly struggle for them. The second and all but fatal blow to the industry was the institution of Prohibition in 1919.
By the time the legislation was finally repealed in 1933, California's vineyards were in pathetic condition and as a result, the wines these vineyards produced over the next thirty or so years were of extremely poor quality. Fortunately, better times were on the horizon.
Recognizing the problem, the University of California at Davis began working on methods to improve the industry. They established defined climatic regions and growing zones and developed a set of guidelines for proper sanitary production practices and quality control in the wineries themselves. This much needed assistance from the scientific community started the California wine industry on a course for growth and prosperity.
The real boon to the industry came in 1976 when two California wines won first place in a blind tasting that pitted them against some truly fine French wines. A Chardonnay and a Cabernet, both from Napa Valley wineries, were preferred over their French competitors. In the world of wine, the victory was significant, and California wines began to receive a good deal of positive publicity.
Since that time, there has been an ever-increasing demand for wine from California - and not just in the United States but all over the world. The passion and dedication of the winemakers and grape growers of California has resulted in proliferation of world-class wines from the area - uncork one tonight!
Written by Lynne Webb