What Is the California Wine Industry?

California has a long and interesting tradition of wine making, or viticulture. The wine industry in California claims its beginning in 1769, when the first grape vines were planted at Mission San Diego, by the Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra. Wine was made in missions for ecclesiastical purposes, as well as medicinal. The first grapes grown in California, a black-skinned grape variety called the Mission grape, played a significant role in California wine production until the late 19th century.

History of California Vineyards

The history of California vineyards begins in 1833, when the first documented instance of importing vines into California for growth occurred in Los Angeles. A French winemaker Jean-Louis Vignes was responsible for importing French vines, believing they would grow well in the California climate. Later in the 1850s and ’60s, Agoston Harazsthy — a Hungarian soldier and merchant — imported original vine cuttings from around 165 European vineyards. Altogether, he introduced 300 different grape varietals in California and could be considered the godfather of California wine. He founded the Buena Vista Winery, which can still be seen in Sonoma. Great efforts were made in promoting vine planting throughout North California. Perhaps more importantly, this one time soldier introduced the first non-irrigated vineyards, and was known for constructing caves for wine cellaring.


The first tragedy in the California wine story happened in the late 19th century. Most of the European vines were destroyed due to the attack of Phylloxera – a destructive root louse that winemakers still battle to this day. Most attempts to get rid of this plague were unsuccessful. Finally, Thomas V. Munson — regarded as the “father of Texas viticulture” — came up with an idea. Graft European vines onto American rootstocks to form a hardier vine without sacrificing quality. It worked, and grape production continued.

California Wine During Prohibition

The California wine industry faced a major decline during Prohibition, an era in American history when alcohol of any kind was strictly controlled by the government. From 1920 to 1933, the only way to legally procure alcohol was through a doctor’s prescription. Despite the fact that many of these types of prescriptions were written, the amount of legal alcohol orders were not nearly enough to support the many industries that existed before Prohibition. The major portion of the industry, which was made up of 700 plus wineries, was wiped out. By 1934, about a year after Prohibition was struck down, the California wine industry managed to revive little by little. The common grape varieties of the time were Thompson seedless, Emperor, and Flame Tokay, grapes mostly unknown to today’s consumer.

In 1976, an amazing event took place that changed the face of wine in the Western world. At this time, French wines were considered the greatest in the world, and American wines were looked down on as inferior both in taste and quality. When American wine enthusiast Steve Spurrier challenged France to put their wines up against those from the Napa Valley in a blind taste test, the French wine authorities quickly accepted the challenge. What the French wine snobs didn’t know was Napa Valley — one of the best areas in the world in terms of growing wine grapes. The stage was set for a faceoff between France and California.

A judging panel of 9 French wine enthusiasts was assembled to rank the wines in competition. Six California Cabernet Sauvignons went up against four of the top red wines from the Bordeaux region in France, and six California Chardonnays competed against four highly regarded whites from Burgundy. The blind taste test was on.

As the tasting proceeded, witnesses to the competition noticed that something strange was happening. The judges couldn’t tell which wines were from California and which were from France. Famously, one French judge noted, “That wine is definitely California. It has no nose.” He was speaking of the 1973 Batard Montrachet, which at the time was considered the finest French wine in the world.

After the smoke cleared, two wines from the Napa Valley were selected as the winners. California wines had swept both red and white categories, and many other California wines were rated significantly higher than those from France. It has been described as a “shot heard ’round the world” for wine enthusiasts, and was the beginning of an incredible surge in winemaking that continues to this day in the Napa Valley and elsewhere in California. A book about this tasting (“Bottle Shock”) is a bestseller, and a movie is in production. Critics call it “Rambo for wine snobs.”

Today, the California wine industry is among the finest in the world. It contributes to between 80 and 90% of total U.S. wine production. The industry boasts well over 2,400 wineries, which produce more than 500 million gallons of wines every year. Chardonnay is the largest grown variety, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and White Zinfandel.

See also:

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