HomeWine in Southern California: The Beginnings

Wine in Southern California: The Beginnings

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo planted the Spanish flag in San Diego Bay in 1542, claiming the west coast of North America for Spain, but no settlement was attempted for over two centuries. Alta California was far removed from civilization, difficult to reach and, as yet, no wealth had been found. Spain could not attract Spaniards to settle this remote land. English privateers and Russian whalers frequented the coast of California and Spain feared their greatest enemies in Europe would settle here first.

In 1769 the viceroy of New Spain sent Franciscan padres and Spanish soldiers under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra and Captain Gaspar de Portola to the northern reaches of the Spanish empire in the Americas. Their goal was to establish a system of missions, to Christianize and Hispanicize the native population and establish California as a Spanish colony. California’s first European settlers had arrived.

After a grueling journey and considerable loss of life, Father Serra arrived in San Diego. Here he established the first mission while others traveled north with Captain Portola to Monterey. Father Juan Crespi recorded details of the expedition north. He wrote in his journal of earthquakes, encounters with the native population and details of flora and fauna. He wrote of wild roses and wild grapes thriving near the Santa Ana and Los Angeles rivers. Fertile land was important since agriculture would be vital to the survival of the missions. Supply ships came seldom; the missions needed to be self-sustaining.

Wild grapes signaled fertile land; however, they were unusable for making wine. The sacraments of the church required wine and in the early years casks were sent from mission vineyards in Baja. Far too often casks broke on the trip north or took too long to arrive. This was clearly not practical and shortly after founding Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776 the first vine cuttings were planted in California.

Father Palóu wrote of the abundance of wild vines transforming the land around San Juan Capistrano into a vineyard. Encouraged by this sight, the Fathers planted some grafted vines brought from Old California (Baja), vines capable of producing wine in sufficient quantities for Mass and for table use. Journals kept at San Juan Capistrano show that between May of 1779 and 1781, the padres supervised six campesinos from Baja California in planting 2,000 grapevines at the mission.

When the first crop ripened in the fall of 1783 or 1784 the first winemaking occurred. Entwined in the introduction of viticulture, vital to its success and survival, was the establishment of California’s first labor force. Indians brought into the mission to be Christianized and civilized, tended the fields and produced everything the padres desired. This exploitation set the precedent for cheap farm labor in California.

Eventually 21 missions dotted the coastline of California and every mission maintained a vineyard, some more successful than others. Mission San Gabriel, nine miles east of Los Angeles, recorded the highest production level of wine. In all fairness it should be noted that the mission in Sonoma was the last built, only a decade before secularization of the missions. The Sonoma vines had not matured enough to reveal their potential.

The necessity of having a ready supply of wine for sacramental purposes, combined with the isolation of the new colony of Alta California, led the early Padres to plant grapevines and with them sow the seeds for California’s world renowned wine industry. The success of viticulture at Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Fernando was not lost on American migrants and European immigrants in the early 19th century. As they put down roots, literally, in the southland they based their dreams of agricultural success on planting vines, just like the padres.

The Franciscan padres introduced viticulture to California as an integral part of their mission system; however, it was in the tiny El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles that French immigrant Jean Louis Vignes produced the first commercialized wine of California in the early 1830’s. Within a few years secularization removed the vast missions from church control, their lands dispersed, and their orchards and vineyards found new owners.

Some of the old mission vineyards withered and died, while others flourished under the hands of Alta California’s newest citizens. They brought remarkable talent and enthusiasm to their newfound homes. Some came from Europe with knowledge and marketable skills in viticulture while others, American adventurers filled with hope and optimism, learned the new skills needed to prosper. They became early leaders of Los Angeles and helped define early patterns of economic development.

In early Los Angeles, economic development meant agriculture, and in Los Angeles that meant viticulture. Grapevines covered the banks of the Los Angeles River as well as much of today’s downtown. For half a century, from 1820 to 1870, Los Angeles reigned over the commercial wine industry in the state, and when European vines died from phylloxera, Southern California became the largest wine-producing region in the world.

The formerly slow growing pueblo of Los Angeles developed quickly after the railroads arrived. By the 1880’s, the efforts of boosters in the region and the resulting increase of population and industry pushed the vineyards east, out of the city environs, into the valleys and eventually into neighboring counties. Migrants like Benjamin Wilson and Leonard Rose had already settled in the San Marino area where the tradition of viticulture continued, but that is a story for another day.

Do you have a story of historic interest for San Marino? Send comments and suggestions to historyofsanmarino@gmail.com.

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