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Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Short History of Wine in Sonoma County

Wine came with the European settlers. The Spanish and their series of missions up the California coast are credited with bringing wine to the state. The northernmost mission and the last one built was in the town of Sonoma.

The first vineyard planting in what is now Sonoma County was actually by Russians at Fort Ross on the Pacific coast around 1812. The Spanish mission in Sonoma came in the 1820s, no doubt to prevent any further expansion ideas by the Russians. Maria Carrillo received a land grant in what is now Santa Rosa and planted grapes in the 1840s making her California's first woman grape grower though her cattle ranch was the major part of the operation.

In the 1850s after gold was discovered in California the wine business took off, too, with plantings in Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley. Haraszthy, the "father of the California wine industry," arrived in Sonoma Valley at this time, bought existing vineyards, and founded Buena Vista Winery. He studied French wine making and passed his knowledge on to others. The former commander of the Sonoma Mission, General Vallejo, also gets credit for making table wines at this time.

Just as things really got going a root pest, Phylloxera, invaded the vineyards in the 1870s. Once a way to avoid the pest was found grape production took off again.

Around the turn of the 20th century wine grapes were big business in Sonoma County. Familiar names like Gundlach-Bundschu, Foppiano, Korbel, Sebastiani and Simi were going strong. As the railroads came to the region the county became one of the top ten agricultural areas in the country with dairy, poultry, apples, prunes and hops along with grapes going to market. (The county currently ranks 32nd in ag production).

Celebrating the end of Prohibition
When Prohibition took effect in 1920 there were over 250 wineries in the county (there were about 700 in the state). Sonoma had just passed Los Angeles County as the biggest grape growing area in California. Most wineries and grape growers did not survive Prohibition. With the Depression and WWII there wasn't much growth for some time. During the mid-20th century Italian Swiss Colony was the most well-known winery in Sonoma County.

The modern era of wine making in Sonoma County started slowly in the '60s, gained steam in the '70s, and really took off in the '80s. It took until 2005 to reach the 250 wineries mark again -- the same number we had 85 years earlier.

Some of the newcomers at the beginning of the boom were Alexander Valley Vineyards, Clos du Bois, Dry Creek Valley, Kenwood Vineyards, plus many more. Grape production became the largest agricultural crop in 1987 by passing dairy.

Today there are 370 wineries and 60,000 acres of wine grapes planted. Wine and tourism, both heavily intertwined, are top employers in the county.

Old hop drying kiln in the Russian River Valley