E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazing wide range of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wines. Gallo also makes award-winning spirits (but, you know, this is a wine podcast…). So whether you’re new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. We look forward to serving you enjoyment in moments that matter. Cheers!
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers continues to dive into the complex history of American wine. In part one of this three-part series, Beavers shared how colonization helped bring European techniques in winemaking to the Eastern Seaboard — which was met with hardship. But, as he explains in part two, elsewhere in the developing nation were signs of a blossoming industry.
From the 1500s to the late 19th century, settlers found fruitful land for growing vines across Mexico, California, and the Southwest. Who were these pioneers of winemaking? And how did California — with regions like Sonoma and Napa — become the nation’s hottest destination for vineyards?
Tune in to learn more about the history of American Wine in the second episode of this three-part series.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I just started baking for the first time. It’s been wonderful. I’ve baked one cake. It went … well?
This is part two of American Wine History. Wow, things get crazy. I can’t wait to tell you guys what happens next. Bear with me, because it’s going to be a bit of a rollercoaster. But by the end of this thing, it’s going to be cool.
In the last episode, we talked about what was going on in the eastern states and the colonies and how it all developed. We talked about how there was so much heartbreak. There were lists upon lists of things that weren’t working for people. Towards the end of the episode, I was like, “There’s things happening over in the Rio Grande Valley. So what’s up with that?” In the 15th and 16th century, as I mentioned in the first episode, Europeans were getting on boats and coming over to the New World and trying to find places. The Spanish, specifically, were doing a lot of this. What we’re about to encounter happened almost in isolation because of the lack of communication from the East Coast to the Western Coast and southwest of what would be the U.S.
For Spain, this is how it worked. They occupied a chain of islands just off the coast of Morocco, called the Canary Islands. It was first colonized by the nobles of Spain. Then the royals came, the royals brought monks, the monks brought vines. These islands were a launching pad into the New World because there was no Panama Canal. You had to go around South America, and they would all end up in Mexico — specifically in Mexico City. The monks brought vine cuttings to plant on this new colonized chain of islands. Smack dab in the middle of Spain was a region called La Mancha. There were a lot of monasteries here. It’s so “monastery” that there’s actually wine regions named after the monasteries. There is one wine region called Priorat. “Priorat” means priory; priory means monastery; monastery means monks. So it was a very heavy monastery place. From that area, a vine by the name of Lístan Prieto makes its way from La Mancha to the Canary Islands. No one knows what the word “Lístan” means. Prieto, at the time, meant dark. So it was a dark red grape from La Mancha which made its way with the monks to the Canary Islands, and eventually became known as the Palomino grape.
One of these explorers and captains of ships was named Hernán Cortéz. I’m sure you recognize the name. He heads down around and makes his way to Mexico City. In 1522, he sends a letter to Spain asking for them to send him vine cuttings so he could establish himself in what they were basically starting to call New Spain. Because in this new land, Spain would see you as a resident if you planted a vineyard and established yourself as a resident. You would actually get a land grant. So vine cuttings start making their way from Spain to this New World. Among them is the hardy, highly productive survival grape from La Mancha, Lístan Prieto, now known as Palomino. From here, wine starts expanding south — not north yet —but definitely south. It makes its way to Peru, Argentina, and eventually to Chile. I’m sure a lot of vines did a lot of traveling, but there’s one vine that seems to keep popping up, doing well, and making wine. It was once called Lístan Prieto. It was also once called the Palomino grape. But as this grape starts traveling south to Peru, it’s called Negra Corriente or “Current Black.” In Argentina, it’s called Criolla Chica, which means the “Creole girl.” And in Chile, they call it Pais, which just means “country.”
This is a very interesting thing here for history, but the wine that was being made in Mexico City was not for religious purposes. It was secular wine for these conquistadors just to drink. Obviously, the wine situation was going well. The vines were growing, wine was being made, and people were consuming it. So much so that the Iberian imports were drying up. People didn’t want wine from Spain coming to the New World because by the time it got there, it was bad. It was better for them over in Mexico City to grow their own vines and make their own wine. Because it was working. The merchants got mad. They went and cried to the royalty, so the royalty put an edict out, saying, “No more wine production in Mexico City by order of the king.” It didn’t really work. Wine production did slow down or kind of stop or stall in Mexico City.
By this time, Peru had wine. So now, Mexico City was just importing wine from Peru. They didn’t import wine from Spain anymore. It was becoming an isolated incident to the point where Peru, at some point, became the No. 1 supplier of Mexico City. Speaking of Peru, while all this is going on, there is a sect of monks called the Jesuits that are making their way through Peru, working their way north, building missions, converting people and all that stuff that the monks do. Eventually, they make their way to Mexico City and build missions there. At some point in the 16th century, the Jesuit monks fell out of favor with the Spanish royalty and were banished from the New World. It was literally like, “Get your stuff, get out, come back home, we’re putting you in jail, and we may kill you.” I don’t know what they did, but to come in and fill the vacuum of these empty monasteries are the Franciscan monks. They start heading their way to the New World. They start occupying the Jesuit missions.
This is one of our “pop off” moments in our story, wine lovers. Enter: Father Junípero Serra. This guy was chomping at the bit to get to the New World and do missionary work. He was a very intense guy. He flogged himself, was very committed to his order, and wanted to be a missionary so badly. He’s very loyal to the church, and he rises up pretty quickly in the missions of Mexico City. At some point, an order comes from Spain that he is to become the president of missions of the Californias, and to head north to convert everyone to monotheism. In 1769, Father Junípero Serra arrived in a little hamlet called San Diego and established his first mission called Mission San Diego de Alcala. He plants a vineyard, and it’s thought that this moment here is the first time vitis vinifera made it into California soil. He eventually continues north all the way to Monterey and then eventually to Sonoma. He builds nine or 10 different missions, and then he supplies each of those missions with vines from the cuttings of the San Diego mission. These vines were not only for the monks, for religious use, but also for settlers to come in and grab and make a place for themselves. The grape that was primarily being in these vineyards was Pais, Palomino, or Lístan Prieto. But to the settlers and monks, because it was on a mission, it was called the Mission grape. Going forward, that is the name of this grape. As you can imagine, settlers used those vines over nine or 10 missions, and the Mission grape became the No. 1 planted vine across California until the late 1800s.
By now, you’re asking, what about phylloxera? Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get to it. It’s fun. But by the 1800s, the majority of the wine being made was in what we know as Southern California. Spain rules Mexico, Mexico City is a hub, word gets out to the rest of Europe, and they begin making their way to Mexico City to eventually work their way up into the north to Baja and beyond. So by the 19th century, what would become the United States did have wine being made successfully. But it was in a place called Alta California, and it was not happening over on the East Coast. While all of this was happening over in the Southern California-Mexico area, failure was happening over in the east. It was one heartbreak after another, and there was no communication. But now there was, and things got crazy.
OK, wine lovers, things are about to start moving very fast. In 1821, a man by the name of William Wolfskill made his way to colonial New Mexico to a place called Santa Fe de Nuevo México. Which is basically the town of Santa Fe in what is now the state of New Mexico. This is the era of the trapper, the mountain man, the cowboy. And William Wolfskill is all of those things — primarily a trapper. He spent the last 10 years living off the land in colonial New Mexico, which is basically a lot of Texas and all of Arizona. So it’s a lot of land. He was trapping and selling furs and making a bunch of money along the way. He gets very wealthy and decides to head into town and make a life for himself. Just as he was arriving, that same year was the War of Mexican Independence from Spain.
In 1826, two people did crazy things. A man from southwest France near the Bordeaux area, who comes from a family of coopers (meaning a family that makes barrels for wine) decides to upend everything, leave France, and head to the New World. This guy’s name was John-Louis Vignes, which basically translates to “John Lewis Vines.” That’s right, again, you can’t make it up. I’m calling him Johnny Vines. Who wouldn’t call him Johnny Vines? Johnny Vines leaves France and actually heads to Honolulu, because he has some distillery experience and wants to have a chance at rum. Also that year, a man by the name of George C. Yount, who lives in North Carolina, wants to be a trapper, wants to be a mountain man, has a family and just leaves them. He hits the Santa Fe trail to go to where all the activity is.
In 1828, our boy William Wolfskill in Mexico City established himself. Now that Mexico is independent from Spain, William Wolfskill becomes a naturalized citizen of Mexico — essentially an American Mexican. That next year in 1829 Honolulu, things weren’t going so well for Johnny Vines. He established himself, has a little house, and has some sugar cane. He’s doing this whole rum thing and is actually working at a distillery. Everything’s going really well. But there’s this religious figure in Honolulu who convinces the Queen at the time that alcohol is bad, and the Queen bans all alcohol from the island. So now Johnny Vines doesn’t have a job. The distillery closes. All the cane gets burned and destroyed. So that next year, Johnny Vines gets on a boat in Oahu to set out and figure out his next move. That same year in Mexico City, William Wolfskill, who’s already established, joins a traveling posse by the famous trailblazer Jedediah Smith. The goal is to head north from Mexico City to Baja and into what is now Southern California. Another member of that posse is George C. Yount. As Yount and Wolfskill arrive in Southern California, our guy Johnny Vines is on that ship. He lands in Monterey, Calif. So George Yount and William Wolfskill become buds. They split off from the party and go to the coast to hunt sea otters. They make even more money. In 1834, they felt like they wanted to leave. William Wolfskill says, “I have so much money, I’m going to go to this little town over here called Los Angeles and see what I can do.” And George C. Yount says, “You know what, I’m hearing about this place up north called Napa. I think I’ll go check it out.” So the two friends split.
Now, when Mexico took their land back from Spain they called what is now California “Alta California.” All of these missions that were now defunct were in Alta California, because the Spanish were gone. These missions had a lot of land and a ton of vines all the way up in Sonoma. There is a man by the name of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. This guy is a big deal, especially for Sonoma and Napa. He oversaw the secularization of the mission in Sonoma. If you’ve ever been to Sonoma and you see that town square, it’s right there. He had a lot of money and a lot of land. During this time, there is a lot of very sparse land, and there’s not a lot of control or regulation going on. There’s a lot of these landowners, a lot of people squatting, and then there’s anti-Mexican revolts going on. It’s kind of a Wild West situation going on there, and we’re going to get to that in a second. But Vallejo is very important. In 1834, when Yount worked his way up north, he ended up in Sonoma and he actually became a carpenter for Vallejo. In 1835, Vallejo took over the Sonoma Plaza. He plants a vineyard. This is the thing about Vallejo: He was Mexican, and he actually encouraged American and European immigrants to come into Alta California. He thought it was good for labor. He’s like, “We need people with skills, we need to start bringing people in.” So he started employing people, and George C. Yount was part of that. They became very good friends. And in 1836, Vallejo gave George C. Yount a huge swath of land in what is now the Napa Valley. So Yount became the first settler in the Napa Valley. He calls this land Rancho Caymus, “Caymus” being the name of an offshoot tribe from a larger tribe of indigenous people in the area. This was a big piece of land, and if you listen to the Napa episode, you have a sense of this. His ranch covered Yountville, Oakville, and Rutherford combined. That’s big.
By this point, our boy Johnny Vines is doing really well. What happened to Johnny Vines? Well, he leaves Monterey. He ends up going to Los Angeles, and applies for citizenship there. He buys 104 acres in what is now downtown Los Angeles and plants a vineyard. He names his property El Aliso after this big alder tree that’s on the entrance of the property. He begins making wine from the Mission grape. Obviously, the Mission grape is everywhere. But the thing is, Johnny Vines is French. He’s from the Bordeaux region. He’s not satisfied with this Mission grape. So he reaches out to his connections in Bordeaux, and he gets Sauvignon Blanc and Cab Franc imported to Los Angeles and makes this wine. He’s known as the first guy to make “quality wine” in California. He’s also the first person to age wine. In 1857, he advertised that his wines were 20 years old. But by 1840, Johnny Vines sent his first shipment of wine to northern California. This guy was crazy popular, and actually created what’s called French Town in what is now Chinatown in Los Angeles. It was a thriving French community. I think about 70 percent of European-Americans in Los Angeles at the time were French.
Just south of Johnny Vines, remember that guy William Wolfskill? The guy who had all this money? He ends up setting up his own agricultural business as well. He starts to plant vines. Of course, he plants the Mission grape, but he also plants oranges and other citrus fruits. He actually started the citrus industry of California. He invents the Valencia orange. But his goal was to make quantity, while Johnny Vines was making quality. So there were rivals already in the beginnings of California and even the American wine industry, but they were friendly rivals. We have the large producer and then we have the smaller producer. It’s kind of amazing how it started there in Los Angeles, and it’s kind of a theme throughout California.
Back up in Northern California, a really rich rancher by the name of John Marsh is having a conflict with some squatters on his land. The government of Mexico is not doing anything about it. He gets really mad and starts writing letters to the East saying, “Hey, California’s amazing, the climate, the soil, you’ve got to come.” And this letter campaign starts to work, and people start moving west. Also in that year, one of the most interesting figures in all of American wine was a man from Hungary named Agoston Haraszthy. This guy will become one of the most prominent figures in American wine and in California wine. In 1840, he left Hungary with his 18-year-old cousin to come to the United States and see what’s going on. He lands in Wisconsin. He falls in love with it. He sees potential. This guy is a businessman. He starts making deals. Things are going great. He has plans. So he heads back to Hungary, grabs his family, comes back to Wisconsin, and never goes back to Hungary again.
Around this time, our boy Johnny Vines in Los Angeles is making regular shipments of wines to Northern California. That next year over in Napa, George C. Yount gets even more land from Vajello over Howell Mountain. By 1846, everything’s hitting a fevered pitch. You have revolts happening in California. There are clashes with the Mexican government, which becomes the beginning of the Mexican-American War. While all that is happening, there is a rush of people in wagons from the East heading to the West.
Over in Wisconsin, Agoston Haraszthy was having his way with everything he wanted. He bought a bunch of land on a prairie bordering the Wisconsin river. It’s now called Sauk City. He became a big figure in this area and actually started building a town. He built a brickyard. He built a sawmill. He built a general store. He built a hotel. He sold real estate. He operated a ferry that went across the Wisconsin River. And he actually had a steamboat on that river. He had a contract to supply corn to the soldiers in the nearby Fort Winnebago, and he raised pigs and he raised sheep. And he’s the first person in the state of Wisconsin to plant a hopyard. Hops became very popular years later in Wisconsin; it became the hop central of America. Oh, and did I mention that he published a two-volume book called “Travels in North America” for people back in Europe to understand what’s going on here? As if he didn’t have enough to do, in 1847 he planted vines. But he doesn’t just plant vines. He starts boring a 40-foot hole into a hill, creating a cellar to receive the fruit of his vines. And he’s the first in the United States to build a cellar into a mountain or hill. That same year, a young aspiring journalist in Prussia by the name of Charles Krug makes his way to Philadelphia. In 1848, Agoston Haraszthy experienced what every winemaker in this part of the country is experiencing, and that winter killed all of his vines. He says enough is enough. He takes his family on the Santa Fe Trail and leaves Wisconsin forever.
That same year, El Aliso, Johnny Vines’ property, became the most extensive vineyard in California. The United States takes control of California from Mexico, and one week before California becomes a state, somebody finds gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains. That changes everything. In 1848, the population of California was 8,000. In 1849, the population of California was 100,000. You would think that with our guy Agaston Haraszthy, who they called in Wisconsin “The Count” because he was always getting into businesses, the Gold Rush would be a beeline for this guy. But no, he takes the Santa Fe trail and he ends up in a little hamlet called San Diego. When he gets to San Diego, he wastes no time. He and his son’s planned to buy this defunct mission just outside of San Diego. They ended up not doing that. But he does plant vineyards on his property with cuttings from that mission they almost got. He’s also said to have brought in some Bordeaux varieties.
But that’s the thing about Agaston Haraszthy. As interesting of a character that he is, a lot of his history is mysterious. He did a lot of stuff, but there’s not a lot of information about him, and sometimes dates get confusing and it’s a little bit foggy. But that’s Agaston, guys. This guy becomes the first sheriff of San Diego and is elected city marshal in the same year. And in addition to that, he’s elected state assemblyman for San Diego County that same year. Then he goes off to Sacramento to do the legislating, and he never returns to San Diego. Within two months after the legislature convened in Sacramento, this dude went and bought extensive land property just south of the city of San Francisco near a mission called Mission Dolores, which is now The Mission in San Francisco. It proves impossible to do what he wants to do there. So he moves on, he sells that property. He goes over to the peninsula. He sets up another vineyard in a place called San Mateo, where a bunch of people were buying or building summer homes in. He goes to the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which makes a little sense, and tries to grow vines there. So here’s where the gold rush is happening. He has vineyards in San Mateo over on the peninsula. He actually starts becoming a gold refiner and enters into a partnership with two other Hungarians that he knows in the area. In 1855, with all that going on, he somehow became the official smelter and refiner at the Branch Mint in San Francisco. That was all between 1849 in 1855. In that time when he was doing all this stuff, he had that refinery. This is a really interesting moment here.
He hires a guy named Charles Krug. Remember that guy I mentioned earlier from Prussia? Well, he makes his way to Philadelphia. He goes back to Prussia, and then he comes back to the United States and ends up in San Francisco for a journalist gig. But he ends up at a refinery hired by Agaston Haraszthy and basically seals his fate, because those two will eventually head north to the Sonoma-Napa area.
Speaking of Napa, an Englishman by the name of John Pratchett arrived in Napa Valley back in 1852. He plants vines, mostly the Mission grape, and is thought to be the first to plant vines in Napa Valley. In the same year that John Pratchett was planting, a guy named Joseph Warren Osborn came to California. He buys a bunch of land south of Rancho Caymus, where George C. Yount is, and he calls it Oak Knoll, which is now an AVA. He plants vines and is thought to be the first person to plant Zinfandel into Napa soil. The Gold Rush basically ended in 1855, and not a lot of people made much money. But a few people did make a lot of money, and they were not necessarily the people that found a bunch of gold. They were the people that supplied the things to all the people looking for gold. A lot of that money ends up moving north into the Sonoma-Napa area. Wine is being made in Sonoma and Napa, and that wine was being sent to San Francisco as well during the Gold Rush. So Agaston Haraszthy, the guy with fingers in all the pies, gets in trouble. He gets indicted for embezzlement in one of his refineries, and he has to have a trial. But this guy doesn’t want to sit around and wait around for a trial. He heads north and he ends up in a place called Sonoma with his boy Charles Krug. The trial goes on, and he’s actually acquitted, but that’s not until 1861. So he’s just in Sonoma doing his thing, which is very important for the history of wine in America, while he’s on trial. Awesome. In 1857, he bought land, starts boring holes into mountains and hills like he did in Wisconsin. And he opened up his own winery called Buena Vista. Charles Krug is helping him out, but remember John Pratchett? He has his first crush, and then he hires Charles Krug to help him out. He also ends up helping out George C. Yount for wine and buys his own land from Agaston Haraszthy. But in 1860, he married the daughter of a prominent landowner in this area and was awarded a bunch of land through a dowry. Where he, in turn, opened his first winery, Charles Krug Winery in the St. Helena District.
The importance of Charles Krug and Agaston Haraszthy are profound because of their contribution to winemaking in the area. Not only do tons of winemakers in Napa and Sonoma have hillside cellars because of Haraszthy, but he was also very big on getting people to plant vines on hillsides. He brought a lot of European techniques to California and to the American winemaking culture. Charles Krug, of course, was the consulting winemaker in the area, but he had other little innovations that he would bring to the stage. He started using a cider press to press grapes, which became the norm at the time. For poor Agaston Haraszthy, everything comes to an end with this guy. It’s a little bit sad, but at some point, he is directed by the California government to report on vines and grapes in California. He ends up going to Europe and collects a bunch of vines. Traveling all through Europe is a very, very, very expensive trip. He brought back hundreds and hundreds of vines back to California, presented all of his findings and reports to the California government, and they’re like, “OK, that’s a lot. We don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
By 1862, Johnny Vines passed away at the age of 82. He had a very happy life, very accomplished. William Wolfskilll died in 1866 as one of the wealthiest men in California. But for Agaston Haraszthy, the 1860s was not a very good time. He had a winery, he also had an agricultural business, and he was on that board. He also spent a bunch of money going across Europe and finding information for the California government, who basically said, “We don’t want that anymore.” Not only that, but his wines, which were award-winning wines at the time, started to get weak and thin. His vines started dying off. He couldn’t figure out what was going on. Nothing was working. His wine started to not sell. It was phylloxera.
Phylloxera is a native louse in the Northeast of the United States. By this time, it’s making its way over the Rockies. It didn’t have a full-blown effect on the West until after the 1880s. But Agaston Haraszthy had a bunch of vitis vinifera in his area, and phylloxera got ahold of it. He loses almost everything and files for bankruptcy. But not letting anything get this guy down, he finds two new business associates with a new opportunity somewhere in South America. He heads down to Nicaragua and disappears forever. Was it sickness? Did he get eaten by an alligator? Did he try to wrestle an alligator and get eaten by an alligator? Did he acclimate to the people of the area and live a long life in seclusion? We’ll never know. But because of his work and Charles Krug and all these original characters, this area starts to become a burgeoning area.
And here’s a little note: In 1879, a winemaker by the name of Gustave Niebaum was the first to make a Bordeaux blend in Napa. That’s important. So by the 1900s, the eastern part of the United States was not doing well with wine. The western part of the United States was killing it with wine — specifically in California, specifically in Napa and Sonoma. Wines are being sent to Canada, Germany, England, Mexico, Asia. We were sending wines everywhere. We had a burgeoning wine industry. Part of that was because Europe was dealing with phylloxera at the time, and we weren’t there yet. So we were doing so well. Everything was developing. Everything was going great. You could feel the energy in this area, especially doing this research. You can just kind of feel it.
Then in 1919, Prohibition hit and destroyed everything.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.