Few districts have more of the character of the old California than Sonoma County, and grapes and wine have been integral to its history. As early as 1812, Russian colonists planted and cultivated grapes at Ft. Ross on the Coast. But it was the Spanish Franciscan Fathers who laid the foundation for the Sonoma wine industry in 1823 when Padre Jose Altimera planted several thousand grape vines at their northernmost mission, San Francisco Solano in Sonoma.
In 1834, political upheaval brought an appropriation of all missions by the Mexican government. During this period of disarray, cuttings from the Sonoma mission vineyards were carried throughout the northern California area to start new vineyards. By the time of the “Bear Flag Revolt” and the subsequent annexation of California by the United States in 1854, the vineyards of General Mariano Vallejo, the military governor of Mexican California, were producing an annual income of $20,000.
Other areas of the county were developing at this time: Rocky Mountain trapper Cyrus Alexander in northern Sonoma first planted grapes in what would be Alexander Valley; the county’s first “feminist vineyardist,” Senora Maria de Carrillo, had 2,000 vines in what would be Santa Rosa; Captain Nicolas Carrigan, probably the first American settler, had vineyards in the Valley of the Moon, and later in 1852, his neighbor William Hill, planted the first non-mission grapes in the county.
All of this viticulture activity took place prior to the arrival in 1855 of the man considered “The Father of the California Wine Industry,” Count Agoston Haraszthy. The Hungarian County purchased the Salvador Vallejo vineyard in Sonoma Valley, renamed it Buena Vista, and soon was producing fine wines from the vineyard. In 1861 he was commissioned, but never paid, by the California legislature to study viticulture in Europe. He returned to Sonoma County the following year with over 100,000 cuttings of prized grape varietals from France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Haraszthy is credited with first promoting the concept that fine table wines could be produced in Sonoma County as well as Europe.
A worldwide outbreak of phylloxera, American root louse, occurred in 1873 and nearly destroyed the young vineyards. Finally, vines which were disease resistant to the soil parasite were found and varietal shoots grafted to these hardy stocks. The wine industry then continued its expansion to such a magnitude that the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 22, 1876, noted: “As a wine growing region, Sonoma stands at the head of the list.” Indeed, in 1920, there were 256 wineries and Sonoma County had surpassed Los Angeles in total wine acreage with more than 22,000 acres in production.
That same year the United States government accomplished what nature could not – it shut down the commercial wine industry with the 18th Amendment or “The Volstad Act.” Although this legislation closed the wineries, grape growers actually flourished. The demand for grapes from home winemakers was so great in the early years of Prohibition that grape prices reached highs not equaled until the last years of the 1960s. Thanks to a loophole allowing 200 gallons of wine yearly for home production, more than 150 million gallons were produced in hundreds of thousands of households in 1930. The grape production of Sonoma County alone increased to 30,000 acres in 1930.
The year 1933 brought the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the repeal of Prohibition, but not in time for many wineries. Only 160 of California’s 700 wineries remained. These wineries endured by producing sacramental wine and grape juice or by planting other fruit crops between the wine rows. The wine industry in Sonoma County underwent a slow revival in the late 1930s. Many of the wineries that began producing wine immediately produced bulk wines that went to bottlers outside of the country. Small to medium-sized wineries sprang up in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, and the Russian River area, places that had experienced limited growth in the earlier years.
The ’40s were tumultuous years for the California wine industry. Post war years were characterized by severe overproduction of grapes and wine bringing government mandated programs of pro-rations and set-asides to cope with the overproduction. Adversity brought a new group of wine growers from business, commerce and industry to work beside second generation Sonoma County wine industry pioneers. They were still in the rebuilding process when the nationwide wine boom hit in the 1960s. Orchards were pulled out and grazing land plowed under for vineyards and, for the first time, white grapes were predominant. The winemakers were heeding the tastes of the American consumer.
Technical changes were also taking place within the winery as stainless steel fermentors and crusher-stemmers appeared. Viticulturists were retiring to labs and appearing with exciting new varietals. The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms set about to clarify and more strictly define wine labels in 1975, and by 1978 “appellations” were beginning to be an important part of the marketing of Sonoma County wines.
Today, in Sonoma County, approximately 100,000 tons of grapes are produced on nearly 30,000 acres of vineyards. There are over 125 wineries, over half less than 15 years old. And, as it was over 150 years ago, small family owned wineries continue to exist comfortably alongside larger entities, each producing premium wine in their own unique style.
This History was provided by the Sonoma County Wineries Association