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In The Middle Of History

Sonoma Winemaking History

As early as 1812, Russian colonists planted and cultivated grapes at Fort Ross on the Coast. But it was the Spanish Franciscan Fathers who laid the foundation for our wine industry in 1824 when Padre Jose Altimira planted several thousand grape vines at their northernmost mission, San Francisco Solano in Sonoma. In 1834, political upheaval brought an appropriation of all missions by the Mexican government. During this period of disarray, cuttings from the Sonoma mission vineyards were carried throughout the northern California area to start new vineyards. By the time of the "Bear Flag Revolt" and the subsequent annexation of California by the United States in 1854, the vineyards of General Mariano Vallejo, the military Governor of Mexican California, were producing an annual income of $20,000.

Other areas in the county were developing at this time: The widowed Senora Maria de Carrillo carried 2,000 Sonoma cuttings to Santa Rosa in the 1840s and became, perhaps, California's first woman winemaker, certainly its first woman grape grower. Rocky Mountain trapper Cyrus Alexander in northern Sonoma first planted grapes in what would be Alexander Valley. Captain Nicholas Carriger, probably the first American settler, had vineyards in the Valley of the Moon (Sonoma Valley). His neighbor William Hill planted the first non-mission grapes in the county near Glen Ellen in 1852. About the same time, Davenport Cozzens cut into the rich earth in Dry Creek Valley and planted vines.

All of this viticultural activity took place prior to the arrival in 1855 of the man considered "The Father of California Wine Industry," Agoston Haraszthy. The spectacular and mysterious Hungarian who claimed to be a count purchased the Salvador Vallejo vineyard in Sonoma Valley, renamed it Buena Vista, and soon was producing fine wines from the vineyard. In 1861 he was commissioned by the California legislature to study viticulture in Europe. He returned to Sonoma County the following year with over 100,000 cuttings of prized grape varietals from France, Germany, Italy and Spain. For some reason or another, the legislature refused to pay Haraszthy for his work, perhaps because he was a Rebel sympathizer during the Civil War. Haraszthy is credited with first promoting the concept that fine table wines could be produced in Sonoma County as well as Europe. But it was General Vallejo with the aid of a winemaker he employed from France who usually won more medals for his wines at the California State Fair.

But vines were not the only resources that Europe provided the California wine industry. Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Prohibition, European immigrants brought winemaking knowledge and techniques to the fertile soils of Sonoma. Bundschu, Foppiano, Korbel, Simi, Gundlach, Quitzow and Sebastiani established wineries that exist and flourish a century later.

A worldwide outbreak of phylloxera, American root louse, occurred in 1873 and nearly destroyed the young vineyards. Finally, vines disease-resistant to the soil parasite were found and varietal shoots grafted to these hardy stocks. The wine industry then continued its expansion to such a magnitude that the San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 1876, noted: "As a wine growing region, Sonoma stands at the head of the list." Indeed, in 1920, there were 256 wineries and Sonoma County had surpassed Los Angeles in total wine acreage with more than 22,000 acres in production (in 1998 there were 194 wineries and 44,700 acres of grapes).

The year 1919 also marked the year that the United States government accomplished what nature could not - it shut down the commercial wine industry with the 18th Amendment and passage of "The Volstead Act." An interesting sidelight to this is that there was some ambiguity about the application of the Volstead Act to the wine industry. As a result, San Francisco Judge Van Fleet was asked to rule on exempting wineries. He did not. However, the Sonoma County Grape Growers, many of whom helped raise what was to become the California state flag in the "Bear Flag Revolt," voted to go ahead with the crush and make wine anyway. Eventually the wineries not making "sacramental" or "medicinal" wine were closed but grape growers actually flourished. The demand for grapes from home winemakers was so great in the early years of Prohibition that grape prices reached highs not equaled until the last years of the 1960s. Thanks to a loophole allowing 200 gallons of wine yearly for home production, more than 150 million gallons were produced in hundreds of thousands of households in 1930. The grape production reported for Sonoma County totaled 21,300 acres in 1930.

The year 1933 brought the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the repeal of Prohibition, but not in time for many wineries. Only 160 of California's 700 wineries remained. These wineries endured by producing sacramental wine and grape juice or by planting other crops. Some pulled out their vines; others planted other fruit crops between the wine rows. The wine industry in Sonoma County underwent a slow revival in the late 1930s. Many of the wineries that began producing wine immediately produced bulk wines that went to bottlers outside the county. Small to medium sized wineries sprang up in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River area, places that had experienced limited growth in the earlier years.

The '40s were tumultuous years for the California wine industry. Post-war years were characterized by severe overproduction of grapes and wine bringing government mandated programs of pro-rations and set-asides to cope with the overproduction. Adversity brought a new group of winegrowers from business, commerce and industry to work beside second-generation Sonoma County wine industry pioneers. They were still in the rebuilding process when the nationwide wine boom hit in the 1960s. Orchards were pulled out and grazing land plowed under for vineyards and, for the first time, white grapes were predominant. The winemakers were heeding the tastes of the American consumer.

Technical changes were also taking place within wineries as stainless steel fermenters and crusher-stemmers appeared. Viticulturists were retiring to labs and appearing with exciting new varietals. The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms set about to clarify and more strictly define wine labels in 1975, and by 1978 "appellations" were beginning to be an important part of the marketing of Sonoma County wines.

Sonoma Winemaking Today and Tomorrow

In Sonoma County in 1997, nearly 174,000 tons of grapes valued at $273 million were produced on about 36,000 acres of bearing vineyards with about 5,000 non-bearing. This was the biggest and most valuable harvest in history. In fact, the total value of the Sonoma County harvest topped all other wine growing regions in California. There were 194 bonded wineries in 1996, up from 58 in 1969. The financial contribution of growers and vintners is substantial. Wine industry revenues are estimated at $1,126,000 in 1995. With secondary spending to suppliers and revenues from wine-related tourism, it is estimated the Sonoma County wine industry contributes nearly $3 billion to the local economy, about 18% of the county's contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP).

In 2000, Sonoma County became number 1 in California for total grape sales with nearly $390 million in total revenues from 42,200 acres of grapes. There were 13,600 non-bearing acres. Bonded winery numbers were 192 in 2000.

The future for Sonoma County as California’s premier food and wine growing region seems secure but there are threats. Phylloxera and the succumbing of AXR1, the rootstock of choice for decades, to the new phylloxera biotype has been a major financial setback for growers. New rootstocks resistant to Phylloxera are replacing AXR1. Fortunately rising demand for Sonoma County wines has kept nearly all growers afloat. Unlike phylloxera, there is no known remedy for Pierce's disease. So far, Pierce’s disease is not as big a problem in Sonoma County as elsewhere, but who can say what the future will bring.

A problem more serious than vineyard pests and diseases is urban sprawl. Sonoma County viticulture's worst enemy may be the climate, beauty and rural character cherished by those who already live here and envied by would-be refugees from the big cities. Sonoma County is the fastest growing county in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. If the historical rate of growth continues, all 180,000 acres of Sonoma County prime ag land will be consumed by urban sprawl in just 79 years.

So severe is the threat that in 1990 Sonoma County voters approved a 1/4% sales tax (one of the few recent voter-approved tax increases in all of California) to buy development rights on ag land threatened by sprawl. By purchasing development rights on the land, farmers can continue to own their land, farm it and sell it to others who will continue farming. But it is protected from urban development in perpetuity. To further protect ag land in 1996, voters in Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Sebastopol and Rohnert Park adopted urban growth boundaries that cannot be expanded without another vote of the people.

Statistical data provided by Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, © 1997- 2003

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