Sunday, July 3, 2011

California’s Historic Wineries: Time in a Bottle

Old wine in old bottles
Wine has been in California since 1779, thanks to the Spanish who brought it up from Mexico and planted it at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California. The rest is, as they say, history. Here then are both historic winery buildings, as well as wineries that produce wines from historic vineyards. Yes, you can taste history.

Northern California
Gold has always been integral to the fabric of the Sierra Foothills (El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties) and people still flock to Gold Country in search of new discoveries. The main one these days is wine. With the massive influx of people searching for gold in 1849, enterprising men and woman planted vineyards to make wine to sell to the miners. In many instances formerly drinkable water from local rivers became so heavily polluted by mining that cheap wine was preferred, and safer. California’s gold rush faded by 1855 and the throngs of people moved to the larger city of San Francisco. That move caused the demise of the Sierra Foothills wine region, where there were hundreds of wineries. The mass exodus however spawned the growth of another wine region…Napa.

The old walls of the Coloma Winery still stand
One of the first commercial wineries in the entire state, the remains of it, still stands today not far from where gold was discovered in Coloma, north of Placerville. The Coloma Winery was built in 1852, believed to be the very first commercial winery in California. It’s known that the first vintage of their wine, made by Martin Allhoff, was in 1858 which was distributed throughout the region and western Nevada. Sobon Estate is on the site of the first commercial winery in Amador County, dating to 1856, and the original winery, though not functioning, can be toured and it’s free. The old cellars are heavy with must and age, but it’s very cool. ( Just down the road, Deaver Winery in the Shenandoah Valley still has original Mission vines from the late 1800s and they make a port with it. ( Scott Harvey Winery makes a zinfandel called “1869” from a vineyard planted in, well, 1869, also from Amador County. In Napa, the Charles Krug Winery was built in 1860 (the Mondavi family has owned it since the 1940s).
The Redwood Cellar at Charles Krug
 The original redwood cellar was recently restored to its stunning glory and it’s a state historic landmark. Robert Mondavi (Peter Mondavi’s brother) still presides over the wines at age 97. (  

Southern California
Grapes were grown throughout the California Mission chain as sacramental wine, but also to produce raisins – easily portable food sold to travelers. The “Mission” grape, a hybrid of different grapes, was high in sugar, low in acid, and produced a thin rustic wine which by most accounts was pretty bad, even though wine and brandy production was a significant source of income for some of the Missions. Mission Santa Barbara established a vineyard and winery between 1824 and 1834. About 1820 San Antonio winery was built in what is now Goleta, just north of the City of Santa Barbara for use as sacramental wine. The lonely historic adobe winery is still standing nearly 200 years later, though on private land. I had the good fortune to visit and see the old barrels and winemaking equipment. 
Santa Cruz Winery - in its heyday

In Santa Barbara in the late 1890s about 200 acres of grapes were planted on Santa Cruz Island, just off the Santa Barbara coast, the remnants still standing on the interior of the island. And while you’re in Santa Barbara, if you drive on De La Vina Street,
well, it used to be covered with vines.

Saucelito Canyon Winery in the Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County was so remote, when they originally planted vines in 1880, the Feds trying to find it during Prohibition, couldn’t. Good thing too. Great zinfandels come from these true old vines and if you ever get a chance to visit the original homestead (it’s not open to the public but their tasting room is) go! Their “1880” zinfandel is made from grapes grown on original rootstock. It’s a magical place – and it’s where I asked my wife to marry me.

Saucelito Canyon Zinfandel vines on their 1880s rootstock
Gypsy Canyon Winery off Highway 246 near Lompoc has original Mission grapes on site too, and they produce Angelica, a sweet wine made from brandy and Mission grapes from an 1860’s recipe. ( In 1919 the first known grapes went into the ground in Monterey County, a remote place called Chalone, where the Chenin Blanc still produces fruit! And around the same time, commercial vineyards were planted in Paso Robles.

Grapevines can be amazingly hardy. (While I was in Spain in 2010, I visited a fat old vine still producing grapes which is 140 years old). So visit some of California’s historic wineries, sip history and be part of that continuum.
Santa Barbara Mission with grapevines (now gone) in front
For more information about California's wine and wineries, take a look at my books, Santa Barbara & The Central Coast, and California Wine Country.