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History of Sonoma County Wine Production in Specific AVAs

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The history of wine in Sonoma County is intimately connected with early events that shaped California. The region’s current AVAs have historically been influenced by different ethnic groups, religions and economic models. The result is a dynamic, heterogenous wine region that currently grows almost every known varietal.

The Spanish, Russian and Mexican Years

The Sonoma history of wine dates back to the days of the Spanish Missionaries. They used Native American labor to cultivate agriculture and raise livestock.

In 1823, Father Jose Altimira founded a mission in the Sonoma Valley. Vineyards were planted and simple wines were made with the Criolla (also known as the Mission) varietal.

Russian fur trappers were the other early European inhabitants of Sonoma County. Many lived in the Russian River Valley. They were major players in the lucrative sea otter pelt trade. Established in 1812, Fort Ross was the center of this business.

These two races of Europeans dominated the early history of Sonoma County, but they had very little economic, political or social contact with one another. There were also a number of Americans in the region that did not fit into the mold of either society.

History of Sonoma County Wine Production in Specific AVAs

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. The new government began the secularization of the Spanish Missions in 1833. General Vallejo led the secularization of the Sonoma Mission and was given control of massive tracts of land. Vallejo’s subsequent land grants would do much to shape the emerging Sonoma Wine Country.

The Early American Years

The 1846 Bear Flag Revolt occured in the town of Sonoma. It was a peripheral conflict in the Mexican-American War (1845-1848). This event was was the beginning of the end of the Mexian era in California. Contrary to popular belief, the Bear Flag Revolt did not immediately “Americanize” Sonoma County. Mexico did not cede California to the U.S. until their defeat in the Mexican-American War in 1848.

In the same year, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River. The surge of incoming Americans seeking their fortune changed the demographics of Northern California immensely. Most of the participants in the Bear Flag Revolt did not maintain any power or even a presence near their uprising. Instead, they moved to the Sierra Foothills to look for gold placer.

Despite the fact that Vallejo had yielded to the Americans during their famous revolt, he maintained significant status and wealth. Vallejo also played a key role in the early wine industry. Vallejo hired two talented winemakers from Germany named Jacob Gundlach and Emil Dresel. These men were instrumental in developing the commercial basis for subsequent Sonoma Wineries.

Other non-Yankees also played prominent roles in Sonoma Wine Country for many years. Count Agostaon Haraszthy, a Hungarian noble, arrived in Sonoma in 1856. He planted vineyards and established Buena Vista Winery. He immediately set about solidifying his power and status in the region by marrying two of his sons to two of General Vallejo’s daughters.

The Count had more passion for wine than he did business sense and Buena Vista Winery ultimately went bankrupt. Nonetheless, his experimentation and successes with different vitis vinifera varietals earned him the title, “Father of the California Wine Industry”.

After the initial years of the Gold Rush, most of the surface placer was found. Many individuals became dissolutioned with the difficult and increasingly unlucrative life of a gold miner. Some settled in the Sonoma Valley and the adjacent mountains to start more stable lives. They raised livestock and planted agricultural products, including vineyards. These rugged pioneers produced the first wine on Sonoma Mountain.

During the 1880s, the Italian Swiss Company was established in the town of Asti in the Alexander Valley. Its purpose was to give poor immigrants the opportunity to support themselves through grape-growing.

History of Sonoma County Wine Production in Specific AVAs

Around this time, Senator George Hearst planted Madrone Vineyards with imported cuttings from Bordeaux. Senator Hearst made a fortune in the mining industry and was the father of William Randolph Hearst. It is generally accepted that he was the first to widely plant Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County.

Italian immigrants also began to settle in the Dry Creek Valley. They planted hillside Zinfandel vineyards and started small Sonoma Wineries. Some of these vines are still alive today and are among the most prized in the current AVA.

Difficult Times for Sonoma Wineries

The Phylloxera Louse devastated vineyards all over the state during the late 19th century. After the discovery of Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, the industry bounced back in the early 20th century. There were over 100 wineries in the years immediately preceeding the ensuing, more damaging event that would soon hit Sonoma Wineries.

Prohibition decimated the wine industry and caused a major gap in the region’s viticultural history. A few producers survived, including Sebastiani Winery. This was due to a coveted and rare contract to make wine for ecclesiastical use.  During these uncertain years, Luther Burbank laid the foundation for the future. He contributed much to the current understanding of botany and plant classification. Burbank’s many contributions to California Wine Country are too numerous to justifiably cover in this article.

History of Sonoma County Wine Production in Specific AVAs

Perhaps his most enduring achievement was building on Haraszthy’s legacy of experimenting with different varietals. Burbank was an early advocate of fully utilizing the diverse terroir of Sonoma Wine Country. This included planting varietals that were suited to cooler temperatures in corresponding locations. At the time, this was a revolutionary concept.

The decades after Prohibition catered to America’s undeveloped taste for wine. Some great vintages were made by Sonoma Wineries during these years, but most production was generic or fortified to the point of barely being wine. These fortified wines were not fine ports; they were made to get people drunk cheaply.

The Renaissance

High-quality Sonoma Wineries reemerged during the 1960s and 1970s. The region has since carved a unique identity for itself. The “fighting varietal” movement took root during the 1980s at Mike Benziger’s Glen Ellen Winery. The 1990s to the present have seen an unprecedented growth in the region’s wine industry.

Sonoma County is very large region with many different microclimates. In the spirit of Haraszthy and Burbank, Sonoma AVAs have some of the most defined terroir in the state. With the exception of a couple huge, meaningless AVAs that were pushed through by powerful interests, Sonoma County is one of the success stories of the American AVA system.