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Winemaking in California

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | July 02, 2011

For the process of high quality winemaking, no other place in the world has the benefits of the State of California. Wines from California are world-renown as are the winemakers who produce them. Much of the success of winemaking in California has to do with the climate conditions that exist throughout the State. California is known for its abundant sunshine, excellent soil, minimal rain, low humidity and mild winters. Because these conditions exist throughout most of the state, California is the highest producer of wine in the United States. California also holds a reputation for being the envy of many old-world wine producers. Perhaps Professor George Hussman captured the essence of California winemaking when he said the following more than a century ago: "A visit to this shore, in the Summer of 1881, convinced me that this was the true home of the grape, and that California . . . was destined to become the vine land of the world."

The history winemaking in California traces back to the vines introduced by the Spanish missionaries over two centuries ago. The vine choice for the missionaries was an inferior Vinifera variety. This variety--known as Criolla--was not responsible for the production of quality wines. It would take almost a century before high quality winemaking commenced in California.

The introduction of European grape varieties marked the beginning of quality wine production in California. The credit for introduction falls to a man by the name of Jean Louis Vignes. Vignes was one of the first serious quality winegrowers in California. His successes in California led to eight of his relatives to emigrate from France to California in 1834. At around the same time, Vignes sent for European wine grape cuttings to be delivered to California. Shortly after this introduction, grape planting in California exploded. By the late 1840s vineyards as far north as Sacramento, Sonoma and Napa could be found. Vineyards grew even further when in 1859 California legislation exempted new vineyards from taxation. Unfortunately the explosive growth seen during this time would be checked by future wine recessions.

Characteristics of the wine industry in California show times of booms and busts. One of the first recorded wine busts occurred in 1858 and 1859. At this time wines in Los Angeles were so plentiful that the value of vineyard lands dropped substantially. Not helping the situation was the fact that much of the surplus wine was of inferior quality. This first wine bust was followed by a period of prosperity. This was not to last and in 1876 a second wine bust hit. This second slowdown was partially caused by the world economic depression of 1870 along with continued over-planting of vineyards. During this time many winegrowers uprooted their grapes and switched to planting fruit trees. Like the first wine bust, a period of prosperity followed the second wine bust. Winegrowers who were able to survive planted better grape varieties and worked on producing higher quality wine. Additional troubles were on the horizon and quality winemaking in California would take a serious downturn.

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In all of the wine history of California, the two major events that had the most profound and negative effect on winemaking were the Phylloxera outbreak of 1873 and the act of Prohibition in the late 1920s. These two catastrophes effectively destroyed the California wine industry. Only in the 1960s would the California wine industry show signs of recovery.

Phylloxera Vastatrix is a small yellow insect that feeds on the roots of susceptible grape varieties and ultimately kills the vine. American grape varieties have a natural resistance to Phylloxera that is not found in European grape varieties. This missing natural resistance proved to be disastrous for European varieties as vineyards around the world began to die of the disease. Once identified, the wine industry desperately worked to find a solution to the epidemic. The solution to the problem was realized in the grafting of old-world vines onto Phylloxera resistant American vine root varieties. This solution effectively stopped the spread of Phylloxera. The same process is still used to control Phylloxera as there is no cure for the disease.

Much can be said about the act of Prohibition. Without a doubt this act destroyed the wine industry of California as well as the entire United States. During the period of prohibition, governmental agencies worked with vineyards to develop alternate markets for vines. The majority of these efforts failed leading to the encouragement of repurposing vineyard lands. During this time the government offered vineyards five dollars per acre to uproot their vines. As Repeal was anticipated in the early 1930s, many wineries bought and crushed extra quantities of grapes in hopes of turning a profit. Winegrowers flooded the market with wine at Repeal, however the market demand did not meet the supply. This major problem combined with the dire financial conditions of the vineyards and the poor handling conditions of surplus wine created conditions not much better than that of Prohibition.

Recovery of the California wine industry after Repeal was exceedingly slow. During Repeal many new plantings of grapes were of varieties that were not suited for wine production. For example, The Thompson Seedless--which was popular during Prohibition--is an excellent grape for the fresh fruit market and the raisin market but not the wine market. Because most of the vineyards were of inferior non-wine grape varieties, the quality of the wines produced in California suffered greatly. During the 1960s things slowly began to change. Americans began to learn and appreciate quality wines and as such a wine shortage was soon realized. Also during this time frame specific vintners began experimenting with the production of high-quality wines. These processes continued and by the mid 1970s to early 1980s the California wine industry was showing tremendous signs of improvement. Today the wine industry in California has re-captured its former glory and in many ways has surpassed it. It would seem that Professor George Hussman's statement has been shown to be true; California has become the vine land of the world.

Today there are over 800 wineries in California. Wineries can be found in many different parts of the state. Some of the northern wine producing areas include the world famous Napa valley, Sonoma county and Mendocino county. Southern wine areas include the San Francisco bay area, Monterey and Central Valley areas. As you develop your tastes you will be able to determine which region you will enjoy the most.

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