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California - The history of Californian wines

Wine Making Areas

American wines in Europe are mostly understood as Californian wines. Since it's the state that produces the most wine by a large margin that's understandable, but it's worth bearing in mind that over half of the states of the Union produce wine.

American wines in Europe are mostly understood as Californian wines. Since it's the state that produces the most wine by a large margin that's understandable, but it's worth bearing in mind that over half of the states of the Union produce wine.

The history of wine in America and the microscopic plant louse phylloxera vastatrix are closely interlinked. When the first European settlers reached the east coast of the Americas they found the indigenous vine - the vitis labrusca - in abundance. Unfortunately this vine produces a wine that is unpalatable, so attempts were made to introduce the European grape varieties, all descendants of vitis vinifera. These early attempts all ended in disaster, as the tiny phylloxera viciously attacked the root systems of the vines, wiping out all plantings. The native American vine had developed an immunity to its predations, but the European vines had no such defences. It was at this time that the first attempts were made to graft European stock onto the native American roots, in an attempt to deal with the phylloxera.

But American wine production really came into it's own when California joined the Union in 1850. The Spanish had brought the vine to Mexico and to California, where the industry became established from the late 1700s. Because the phylloxera was indigenous only to the American north-east, European vines were able to flourish in California's bountiful climate. The 1849 gold rush brought a big demand for wine from miners with money to pay for it and the industry began to move northwards into the Napa and Sonoma valleys. It was at this time that Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant, firmly put Californian wines on the map with his winery, Buena Vista, in the Sonoma Valley. Apart from proving that fine wines could be made in California he also brought the Champagne-making art to the state.

It's ironic that this man who did so much for the Californian industry, inadvertently almost destroyed it. In the 1850s some American vines had been taken to France to study their resistance to mould, and with the vines went the phylloxera, which soon began to decimate European vineyards. When Haraszthy imported his vines, he also imported phylloxera into California, causing immense devastation. The solution for both Europe and California was what the early New Englanders had found - the grafting of the European vine onto native American roots, a technique that is universally used today.

Just as California was recovering from phylloxera, the 18th Amendment was passed, which brought The Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. The rebuilding of the industry after Repeal came to a halt again for the 2nd World War. It began its newest incarnation in the 1950s, growing slowly at first, but gradually accelerating as demand increased steadily. By the late 1970s the Napa Valley had become a virtually unbroken vineyard. Expansion of the areas under plantation is still growing, with newer areas coming under the vine.

Suggested wine

Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 Vintner's Reserve.

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