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Geographies of Wine in Southern California

September 25, 2012

Statue commemorating discovery of gold in Auburn, CaliforniaThe California Gold Rush of 1849 helped spur the Southern California wine industry. Pictured is a 45-ton concrete statue commemorating the discovery of gold in Auburn, California. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mention of California wine brings visions of northern California’s famed Napa Valley or Sonoma County, or for the more knowledgeable, maybe Lodi. Thoughts of Southern California1 likely center on Disneyland, Hollywood, the Los Angeles mega-city, or perhaps beautiful coastal beaches. For those of you attending the 2013 AAG Annual Meeting next spring in Los Angeles, if you search a bit, though, you’ll find wineries and vineyards scattered around the state’s southern counties, some of them offering wines of notable quality. Their contribution to California’s wine production today, however, barely registers on the hectoliter scale. That said, the first vines planted in the state took root in San Diego, and in Los Angeles the state’s first commercial wines appeared. This region served as the birthplace of California wine, and until the 1960s a moderately-sized industry held forth.

California’s First Wines

The Spaniards brought vines with them as they moved northward into what is today California from the Baja California peninsula toward the end of the eighteenth century. The missions were the principal actors here, and with each mission came vineyard plantings, modest wine and brandy production, but no real commercial industry. In the 1820s non- Spaniards appeared on the scene and established the initial commercial vineyards and wineries. Early production centered on Los Angeles, but soon spread to various corners of southwestern California. This area continued to lead California’s wine production until the late 1860s. The impact of the mid-nineteenth century Gold Rush in northern California and the concentration of greater numbers of people in the Bay Area and the Gold Country led to greater amounts of wine production in those areas. Despite competition from the north, vineyards and wineries continued to grow in number in Southern California, and some of the undertakings involved impressive investments.

Wine delivery truckReminders of Southern California's historic wine industry, such as this delivery truck dating from the 1930s, dot the local landscape. (Credit: William Crowley)

Anaheim, the San Gabriel Valley and Cucamonga

While Los Angeles may have been the heart of early California wine production, it was the heart of a land with very few inhabitants. Some Los Angeles entrepreneurs found prosperity making wine, built substantial structures and began to send wines northward following the Gold Rush, which greatly expanded the existing California wine market. By the 1850s, however, the largest scale operations found suitable land elsewhere in the south. In the 1850s fifty German families formed a wine-purposed community alongside the Santa Ana River in Orange County, calling it Anaheim. By the late 1860s it became the most significant wine producer in the state for a short spell, only to be done in by what was likely Pierce’s Disease by the end of the 1880s.

In the San Gabriel Valley to the east of Los Angeles, the Lake Vineyard and Winery of the 1860s and 1870s led to the San Gabriel Wine Company of the 1880s, whose owners announced their winery as the largest in the world. Built in newly founded Alhambra, its capacity exceeded 47,300 hectoliters, a behemoth for its day. Marketing problems, disease, expanding orange orchards and suburbanization made life short for this enterprise.2 Today, as in Anaheim, one would search in vain to find vestiges of earlier viticultural enterprise. Horses gallop the ground at Santa Anita Racetrack where vines earlier blossomed, just as Disneyland covers the soil that anchored the vines of the Anaheim settlement. But a measurable wine industry continued to thrive in parts of Los Angeles County until the mid-twentieth century. As late as 1940, 2000 hectares of vineyard and 49 wineries still found a home there.

The heart of Southern California’s wine production had moved to the area around Cucumonga, in southwestern San Bernardino County by the 1890s, and spilled over into adjacent parts of northwestern Riverside County. By the turn of the century, an Italian immigrant, Secondo Guasti, claimed to have the largest vineyard in the world, 2000 hectares eventually, and founded a village named after him. The wine industry of this area, heavily influenced by Italian immigrants, continued to be viable for several decades, with over 10,000 hectares still planted in 1956 and over 8,000 in 1965. But suburbanization, smog, and the growth of the Ontario airport spelled the end. As late as 1970 San Bernardino County had more hectares of bearing3 wine grapes than either Napa or Sonoma Counties. But by 1975 hectareage had declined to a bit over 4000 hectares, and today only a couple of hundred hectares remain. Old wineries from Prohibition days and earlier still survive, now surrounded by urban development, such as the Galleano Winery in Mira Loma (since 1933). But with the beginning of the Wine Revolution4 in California in the late 1960s, Southern California’s wine face has taken on a new visage.

Temecula

Temecula in WinterTemecula, shown here in winter, is the center of today's Southern California wine industry. (Credit: William Crowley)

In the late 1960s, vines took root in an area of southern Riverside County in a seemingly unlikely spot in the near desert environs not far from the old town of Temecula. By the mid-1970s several wineries appeared, hectareage grew, and Temecula became, and continues to be, the center of today’s Southern California wine industry. In the 1980s and 1990s Temecula housed over 1000 hectares of vines. The area grew up in the early days of the California Wine Revolution and growers here took note of these developments (see endnote 4), planting premium varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The early focus centered overwhelmingly on white varieties, reflecting market trends of the 1970s, and by the early 1980s a dozen wineries had appeared in the area.

Temecula’s turn toward an emphasis on high quality wine varieties was a first for Southern California. Earlier efforts in the Cucamonga area and elsewhere focused more on varieties such as Palomino, Mission and Carignane for dessert wines (which lead California production until the late 1960s) and jug wines. While Zinfandel grew widely, these were the days before recognition of the variety’s capability for superior table wines. Prior to the 1970s it filled many a large vessel as part of a red blend.

Alas, at the turn of the millennium a new critter spreading an old plague hit Temecula’s vineyards. The Glassy-winged Sharpshooter, a recent insect arrival to the state, injected the area’s grapes with a bacterium that results in Pierce’s Disease. Infected vines die in short order, and in Temecula the pest brought rapid devastation. Nearly half of Temecula’s vineyards succumbed. The experience here led to substantial and expensive quarantine efforts around the state to hold the invader at bay. These attempts have been quite successful with major impact restricted to Southern California.5 In the last decade, replanting has returned Temecula’s vineyard expanse to 900 hectares.

The New Southern California Winescape 

Vineyards presently cover about 1400 hectares in Southern California, with sixty percent of these in Temecula. Given the massive urban sprawl that consumes much of the landscape of southwestern California, possibilities of large-scale vineyard planting seem unlikely. Vineyards, orchards, dairies and field crops have given way to subdivisions for several decades, from Riverside to San Diego to Los Angeles and beyond. Yet the growth in the wine market in the new millennium, together with the cachet of having one’s own winery has led to pioneering in new environs since the late 1990s. In general, these efforts involve small, sometimes isolated operations. Mountainous landscapes where little else might be pursued agriculturally, exurban edges, or desert land have hosted the bulk of the new enterprises.

These new vineyards and wineries, many at the micro-scale, have appeared in widely separated venues, locales where vineyards are never likely to be more than a footnote to nearby suburbs, citrus orchards, nursery greenhouses or chaparral. In the arid reaches of northeastern Los Angeles County, a few vineyards and wineries have found a home in the Antelope Valley, the far western extension of the Mojave Desert. Small wineries with adjacent vineyards have carved out an existence in the complicated topography of the coastal San Gabriel Mountains of western Los Angeles County, within view of the Pacific Ocean above Malibu. In Orange County a winery and vineyard occupy similar terrain in the mountains inland from Laguna Beach. San Diego County has witnessed a flowering of small winery enterprises in a number of locations. Premium red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Syrah dominate newer plantings in almost all of these undertakings.

An additional phenomenon, not restricted to Southern California by any means, is the “urban micro-winery,” as Orange Coast Winery describes itself, where the “winemaker uses the finest grapes from renowned wine growers across several California wine growing regions.”6 The winery has no vineyards of its own. On the other hand, not far away in Newport Beach an urban location with 1200 vines supports a micro-winery’s total production.

Well over 100 wineries now operate in California’s southern reaches, with the number growing measurably over the last two decades. Coinciding with this increase in vineyards and wineries, their owners sought government recognition for the distinctiveness of their wine districts. For the name of a given area to appear in print on a wine label (other than a state or county name), approval must be granted by the federal government which also establishes boundaries for the wine district, known as an AVA (American Viticultural Area). Ten AVAs have been approved for areas in Southern California, some of them housing only one or a few wineries each. Two of these AVAs are sited within spitting distance of one another to accommodate Malibu area vineyards. One is called Malibu-Newton Canyon and the other goes by Saddle Rock-Malibu. On the Mojave Desert, three AVAs have been designated in the Antelope Valley where fewer than ten wineries do their fermenting.

The romance of the vine, the massive market represented by the Southern California metro complex, and areas with attractive growing conditions (especially areas with marine influence) have led to a mini-renaissance in that part of California where the Spanish fermented the state’s first Vitis vinifera crops. The focus of the new (and now old as well) wineries and vineyards centers on high quality table wine from premium grapes in virtually every new planting, or every import of fruit from other parts of the state. While the consumer will never see most of these wines on the shelves of their nearest wine purveyor (because of very limited production), if s/he sets off awandering in outer suburbs, difficult mountain pathways or the western reaches of the Mojave Desert, s/he might just find some wine awaiting.

William K. Crowley
crowleyw@sonoma.edu

Professor Emeritus William Crowley taught a Wine Geography course for over 30 years in Sonoma State University’s Department of Geography and Global Studies. He has conducted research in, and published academic articles on, the wine industries of France, Chile, Mexico and California.


NOTES

1Santa Barbara County, part of Southern California for many, is not included in this effort because, in the world of wine, it is considered part of the “Central Coast.” San Diego County, part of the region under discussion, gets short shrift in this piece because of space limitations. It does possess a worthy wine history of its own, with a reported 2400 hectares in production in 1889 and another 3000 not yet bearing (Pinney, p. 313). Vineyard operations have grown modestly over the last two decades (now around 200 hectares) and an estimated 50 wineries function.

Thomas Pinney, 1989. A History of Wine in America; from the Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley, University of California Press), 294-309.

Grape vines are not considered bearing (yielding a crop) until they are three years old. In 1970 Napa and Sonoma had more total hectareage in grapes than San Bernardino because of the numerous recently planted vineyards that were still non-bearing.

The California Wine Revolution began in Napa County in the 1960s and involved planting more premium varieties of grapes, employing new practices in the vineyards (improved trellising methods, drip irrigation, reduced crop load, etc.) and technological advances in the winery (temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks—especially for white wines, French oak barrels for aging red wines, horizontal bladder presses and more). The end result was rapid improvement in the quality of much California wine.

Pierce’s Disease put the Anaheim Colony out of business in the 1880s and has hit thousands of hectares in Sonoma and Napa Counties, among other places, in the last twenty years. The Bluegreen Sharpshooter has carried the poison in these cases. This cousin of the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter does not fly as far and is more easily controlled.

www.orangecoastwinery.com, accessed on July 17, 2012. 

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