For more than a century, as wine historian Thomas Pinney noted, “California wine meant Los Angeles wine.”
Do you think I’m pulling your hollow leg? Not in the least.
The glory that now covers the vineyards of the Sonoma and Santa Ynez valleys, Alexander and Edna, the Russian River and other valleys and valleys, once belonged to Los Angeles.
Years before the reign of the Citrus King, dozens of wineries and over a million vines made up LA’s huge crop. In 1869, when LA wineries were squeezing up to 5 million gallons, 3 out of 4 production workers in Los Angeles were earning some sort of salary from the wine business.
Now: Set the journey back 100 years before, when Spanish soldiers and priests weaved their way here in Alta California, bringing with them, as The Times wine critic once wrote, “the cross, the sword and the vine. .”
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For a time mission wine was sent from Mexico, but soon vine cuttings were bundled and also sent north. Saint Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions, found the supply of wine so critical that on October 27, 1783, he wrote a letter from Mission San Gabriel to his superiors: “Many masses have not been celebrated because of our lack of wine. . We currently have enough everywhere except this mission.”
The Spanish vine thus made quite a stir in the New World, where it was known for a time as Los Angeles and permanently as Mission, one of the best crops in the San Gabriel and San Fernando missions.
Almost every culture has its own intoxicating drink, and native Californians invented it long ago pispibata, a wool-inducing substance from native cherries. California had native grapes, but neither the native Californians nor the visiting chaplains found them palatable.
Like the ‘Mother Hass’ avocado tree in La Habra Heights, Mission San Gabriel’s vineyards were a staple madre stock much of LA’s emerging commercial wine industry.
The 1880 “History of Los Angeles County” states, with a probable margin of error, that when the missions were secularized by the Mexican government in the 1830s, the capers told the Indian mission workers to destroy the vines, but they refused. In the same account, local residents hacked several vineyards for firewood.
Whatever happened, enough of them survived to spawn a worldly LA grape trade. It became what the orange tree in every yard would soon become for gentleman farmers: a few vines grown for the family table, or eventually tens of thousands for profit.
One of them—a farmer rather than a gentleman—was New Englander John Chapman. He was one of the first Yankee Americans to appear in Southern California, a buccaneer sailor whose industry and ingenuity impressed Mexican officials. He was skilled in carpentry, doctoring, shipbuilding, and grape growing. By 1826 he owned a house and several thousand vineyards in Los Angeles, which he shared with his Mexican wife Guadalupe and their 11 children.
LA had several dozen wineries in the 1830s, most of them on the west side of the LA River. In the 1860s, a man named Andrew Boyle began growing grapes on unfashionable “flats” east of the river and sold wine under the name “Paredon Blanc” – White Wall. We know the neighborhood as Boyle Heights.
Let’s take a moment to define what early “wine” was. The main grape drink was aguardiente, a portmanteau meaning “burning water”, a brandy of considerable ferocity. The current wine was at first a fairly basic plan, unadorned by comments about bouquet or bouquet terroir, so cheap and so plentiful that it was often poured free with restaurant meals. Locals also preferred a white alcoholic wine called Angelica.
Around 1857, winemaker Manuel Requeña and future citrus magnate William Wolfskill sent donations wine to President James Buchanan, a case of red and white wine, brandy, and Angelica; the winemaking brothers Sainsevains sent their own essential sparkling wine to the White House. In a letter of thanks from “Washington City,” Buchanan thanked Freres Sainsevain and predicted a great future for California wine.
Mission San Fernando had its own laudable vineyards, and in 1846 Spanish native Eulogio de Celis purchased much of the mission’s land, castles, supplies, and vines from Mexican officials. He and California statesman and land baron Andres Pico produced a wine that one visitor found to be of “good quality”.
Jean-Louis Vignes—his last name, coincidentally, means “vine”—arrived from France’s Bordeaux wine region in about 1831, and his riverside vineyards, where Union Station now stands, produced several hundred barrels a year. His history is unclear: Either he was cunningly banished from France and his nephews, the Sainsevain brothers, scoured the world to find him, or he settled here and then invited his relatives to join him and prosper.
His name – Vignes – is still on a street in downtown LA, as is “Aliso”, the name he gave his vineyard. Likewise “Mateo” for Matthew Keller, an Irishman who grew grapes near the Vignes and Wolfskill property. He called his vineyard Rising Sun Vineyard, and in her book “Towers of Gold”, Frances Dinkenspiel writes that Keller was always using new winemaking technologies to make his wine better.
Bauchet Street – the address of the Men’s Central Jail – commemorates Louis Bauchet, once a stalwart in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, who began growing grapes in 1831.
Kohler Street was named after Charles Kohler, a German violinist who collaborated with flutist John Frohling to make California wine that made it to the East Coast. (Five years ago, the Daily Beast reported, Kohler’s great-great-grandson was reviving the label that Prohibition killed.)
San Pedro Street was once Vineyard Street. Sainsevain Street was eventually renamed Commercial Street and Wine Street, known as Olvera Street, for the county’s first elected judge, Agustin Olvera. Azusa still has Dalton Avenue, named for the energetic Englishman who bought up vast swaths of ranch land in the San Gabriel foothills in the 1840s and established a winery and distillery among his many businesses.
The hundreds of acres of San Gabriel Winery — south of South Pasadena, west of the Alhambra — were said to have cellars that could hold a million and a half gallons, but according to books by Pomona College professor emeritus and wine historian Pinney, the company ran into conflict. untrusted agents and critical consumers. One Philadelphia merchant scorned port as “nothing but trash. I wouldn’t give it away, much less sell it to my customers.”
Even though in the 1960s the average Californian poured two gallons of wine a year into the wine of his countrymen, it took many Californians to develop what is called a sophisticated palate. In 1967, The Times described what happened to Robert Mondavi, the founder of modern California wine. In the restaurant they served him a glass of mulled wine – hot! When he complained, the waiter said: That’s it alleged be hot and pointed indignantly at the label. See? “Haut Sauterne.”
The Gold Rush populated Northern California with drinkers, and LA wine was close, plentiful, and at least relatively cheap. The year gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, a thriving vineyard in LA could bring as much as $1,000 per acre.
And then some of the men who didn’t strike it rich in gold stayed in Northern California to grow grapes and others joined them. The booming wine business—and threats like tariffs, the temperance movement, and disease—prompted the state to create the Wine Commission, which still exists today.
By 1859, LA County already had a cooperative established by the Wine Society to manage the abundance of wine grapes grown and cultivated by French, Italian, German, Swiss and Spanish growers.
A few years ago I came across a song published in 1876 for the centennial that extolled the “Wines of Los Angeles County” in five rumtey-tum verses, the refrain of which is: “For all to be proud we are blessed with / And for which we owe nature’s bounty / Nowhere to be found to compare / With the wines of Los Angeles County.”
By the 1880s, Northern California vineyards were well on their way to international fame with sophisticated varietal wines, and Los Angeles County was well into its citrus fortunes.
But first they had to survive phylloxera—a type of grape blight, probably brought west from hardy vineyards on the East Coast. It swamped California grapes and was able to make its way from there to French vineyards, where it nearly killed French winemaking before the vines were grafted onto American insect-resistant rootstock—a plan that nearly killed the pride of French winemakers.
No such solution was presented to save the winery from prohibition. All over southern California, vineyards were torn up and plowed under.
Beginning in 1919, Charles Stern’s winery in Wineville, Riverside County grew fruit and nuts instead, turning the winery into a cannery and changing “Wineville” to “Windsor.” He is now in an area called Mira Loma. The region east of Los Angeles boomed in winemaking, and now its renowned wineries, such as the Italian Vineyard Co. east of Ontario, at one time the largest in the country, are converting vineyards to walnuts. In 1930, according to The Times, the vineyard founded by Secondo Guasti was still producing grape seeds – and using them as pig feed. Mission Vineyard Co. of Cucamonga sold 1,600 acres to a fruit producer.
Some growers turned to table grapes and raisins, but federal agents were always on the lookout for anything that smelled like wine. In 1931, The Times headlined the article “Today’s Eight-Faced Grape Juice Trial”. The men were charged with conspiring “to distribute unfermented grape juice with the intention that it would later be turned into wine.” Sure, it might be grape juice now, the feds argued—but heat it up and it could turn into wine! The men ended up with misdemeanor fines but were charged with conspiracy.
Very few wineries still produced sacramental and medicinal wine under very strict control. One was the San Antonio Winery, which opened in 1917 on the riverfront and survived Prohibition and the Depression to become LA’s oldest producing winery today.
Like Prohibition or an impoverished economy, prosperity doomed the vineyards. Every month in 1967, Californians were losing more than 11,000 acres of farmland and open space to subdivisions and shopping centers, and Los Angeles was finding it hard to give up farmland for housing.
The winery is still hanging around. New, young winemakers are active in the Antelope Valley. Angeleno Wine Co. makes a natural vegan wine near San Antonio Winery, and Centralas does the same further south, bottling its Crenshaw Cru. Byron Blatty Wines uses LA County grapes.
And then of course there’s Moraga Bel Air Vineyards and Winery on the LA city limits, about 14 acres of some of the richest and most luxurious real estate around, half of which grows grapes.
Rupert Murdoch owns it. He bought it in 2013 for a reported $28.8 million.
He learned it was for sale when he read about it in a story — in his own Wall Street Journal. Fifteen years before the boss bought the winery, the newspaper got into a review of California sauvignon blancs and trivia about “the merits of the 1993 Morag.” The “almost impossible to find” wine was almost impossible at $95 back then. Journalists called it “remarkable”.