In the late 18th Century, the Spanish were busy establishing missions in what was then known as Alta California in an effort to colonize the area. Among these is the Mission San Juan Capistrano established by the Franciscan friar Father Junipero Serra. In 1779, he planted a vineyard with cuttings taken from earlier Mexican plantings which eventually became the source of grapes for making wine mass. Father Serra went on to found eight other missions, all of which had their own vineyards.
Although an earlier attempt at establishing a vineyard was made at the San Bruno Mission in 1683, the place was abandoned in less than two years. This makes Father Serra the first to establish a sustained vineyard in California. Indeed, he is now known as the Father of California Wine. The produce of the vineyards he planted came to be known as the Mission grapes, and they dominated wine production for the next hundred years.
The Mission’s vineyards were not the only sources of grapes for the winemakers. The French settler Jean-Louis Vignes imported European wine vines and planted them in an area around Los Angeles in 1833. From the 1850s to 1860s, a Hungarian soldier and merchant named Agoston Haraszthy made several trips to Europe and brought cuttings from the best European vineyards and planted them in farms over northern California. He later founded the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma Valley, which is deemed the oldest commercial winery. Partly because of this, the valley is acknowledged as the birthplace of the wine industry in California.
In the neighboring Napa Valley, John Patchett also planted a commercial vineyard in 1854. Four years later, when he began harvesting his grapes, he established Napa’s first winery. Charles Krug, who previously worked for both Haraszthy and Patchett, also established his own winery that now bears his name in St. Helena. Perhaps because he learned the art of wine-making from other vintners, he did not hesitate to mentor Karl Wente, Charles Whitmore, and Jacob Beringer, who would all become great vintners.
The Prohibition imposed from 1920 to 1933 almost killed the wine industry. It survived only because the vintners were allowed an annual production of 200 gallons of alcohol-free cider and fruit juice. Under this cover, many of the wine-makers became bootleggers.
When the ban was lifted, the industry came back with a vengeance. New processes were introduced from production to labeling the bottles. By the 1970s, California wines were beating their French counterparts in blind tasting contests.
From the Franciscan friars’ altars, California wines are now served in tables all over the world.