Sonoma History Of Wine

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The Spanish, Russian, and Mexican Years

The Sonoma history of wine dates back to the days of the Spanish Missionaries. They raised cattle and built large farms, harnessing Indian labor under the pretext of saving their souls.

In 1823, Father Jose Altimira founded a mission in the Sonoma Valley. The Sonoma Mission produced simple wines for ecclesiastical purposes.

Russian fur trappers were the other early European inhabitants of Sonoma County and immigrated from Alaska in the north.

Many lived along the Russian River and in the the nearby foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains in what is now known as the Chalk Hill AVA. 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 American adventurers in the region that did not fit into the mold of either society.

In 1833, Mexico won its independence from Spain and all of the Spanish Mission system was secularized. General Vallejo was consequently granted much of Sonoma County by the Mexican government. Vallejo’s ensuing land grants would do much to shape the Sonoma history of wine.

Sonoma History Of Wine

The American Years

In 1846, the Bear Flag Revolt ended the Mexican Era as well as Vallejo’s dominance in the region. Contrary to popular belief, the Bear Flag Revolt did not immediately “Americanize” Sonoma County.

This would have to wait until 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. The ensuing frenzy of incoming Americans seeking their fortune changed the region much more than the largely symbolic Bear Flag Revolt. Some of these settlers homesteaded on Sonoma Mountain, directly west of the town of Glen Ellen.

Agostaon Haraszthy, a Hungarian noble, arrived in Sonoma in 1856 and established one of the first Sonoma Wineries. 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.

Although his Buena Vista Winery was not ultimately successful, his experimentation with different varietals in the region earned him the title, “Father of the California Wine Industry”.

The Italian Swiss Company was another early winery in the Sonoma history of wine. It was established in the 1880s in Alexander Valley Wine Country as a charitable venture to give poor immigrants the opportunity to support themselves through grape-growing.

Around this time, George Hearst planted Madrone Vineyards with imported Bordeaux varietal cuttings. He was the first to widely plant Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County.

The legendary Luther Burbank lived in Santa Rosa for many years and contributed much to our current understanding of botany and plant classification. Burbank inherited Haraszthy’s legacy and continued to experiment with differnet varietals until his death in 1926.

His adventurous experimentation opened the door for varietals that were suited to cooler temperatures. Once thought to be too cold for wine production, the Carneros AVA currently excels at producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Phylloxera and Prohibition

By the early twentieth century, there were over 100 Sonoma Wineries. Unfortunately, Phylloxera and Prohibition caused a major gap in the Sonoma history of wine.

Sebastiani Winery was one of the noteable survivors due to their contract to make wine for the Church. Most Sonoma Wineries lay dormant for a generation and began to rebound about the same time as they did in the Napa Valley.