Hard to believe, but winemaking in California actually began long before Napa Valley became the industry darling. Before movie stars, Los Angeles was the city of vines.
A Short History of Winemaking in Los Angeles
San Gabriel Mission Grapes planted in 1781
- California was the state of Spanish missions. They incidentally grew grapes and made wine for communion.
- The mission in San Gabriel, CA had over 160 acres of head trained vines largely consisting of zinfandel and mission grapes.
- They were known for making the highest quality vines in the mission system.
- The vines came from Father Junipero Serra, who brought the vines from Baja California in 1781.
First Commercial Winery in 1833
- Jean Louis Vignes started the first commercial winery in CA.
- Originally from Bordeaux France, he jumped on a boat at age 41 with a priest and set sail for Hawaii where he started a rum distillery.
- In 1831, he came to California and started a winery in 1833 in the Los Angeles region, near Monterey Park.
Southern California Terroir
- The Los Angeles climate has many similarities to Spain with lots of heat and little water.
- “There is no portion of the world, in all probability, that produces grapes in so great an abundance as Los Angeles” – General E.D. Townsend, 1855
- At the heigh of the CA wine rush, the state produced 25 million bottles that shipped to San Francisco, Boston, and Europe
- They made huge volumes of wine because the vineyards in France and Europe had been wiped out by phylloxerra
- The news journal Alta California published a report in 1857 that stated “Nearly all the wine and brandy made in CA comes from LA County, which is no doubt better fitted in soil and climate, for the culture of the vine than any other part of the state.”
The Unfortunate Demise
- The vines in what is now Orange County succumbed to disease.
- In the 1870s, the Pacific Coast Railroad and Santa Fe Railroad started an influx of midwesterners looking for a new home.
- Grape production gradually started declining as land made way for houses, roads, and eventually movie studios.
- Prohibition in the 1920s put the nail in the coffin for the wine industry in LA.
- Fun fact: Did you know Prohibition was started by liberal women in Anti-Saloon leagues in Ohio who wanted to protect immigrants that were down on their luck and depressed?
- Before the federal government outlawed alcohol, the city of Los Angeles felt increasing pressure to ban the substance and introduced a number of bureaucratic permits and red tape that still exist today.
The 18th amendment Repealed
- After 13 long years, the 18th amendment banning alcohol was lifted.
- However, the people who ran wineries in Los Angeles had largely moved on to pursue legal methods of earning income.
- Fortunately (or unfortunately) the region developed another world famous export for the world, but the grapes should still be remembered.
The information this post was derived from a talk given by Angeleno Wine Company located in Downtown Los Angeles.