California’s Oppressive Wine History

California is one of the states that produce the most wine in America. When speaking of wine, most people think of Napa Valley and Sonoma. However, California’s history is more profound than these two regions. Los Angeles was the birthplace of grape farming in California.

California natives are people who lived in the current California boundaries before and after European immigrants arrived. This includes California Native Americans and Mexican Californians. California natives and European and Chinese immigrants laid the foundation for the California wine industry. European immigrants introduced grapes to this region. However, the industry took shape because of the labor of California natives and Chinese immigrants. Unfortunately, this history is bleak.

A Bleak History of California’s Wine Production

Napa Valley and Sonoma flourished after the 1850s when California became independent. During this time, native Californians developed a relationship with the land. This was drastically altered in the 18th century with the introduction of the Spanish.

California Wine History

Vineyard in Napa Valley, California

Father Junipero Serra came to San Diego from Mexico. Father Serra brought padres and priests to convert the natives and transform the land for settlement. Their march north aimed to stop other powers from exploring these lands, including the Russians and British. The British had a base in Canada, where they organized southward expeditions. Their arrival also brought changes to the way of life for natives.

Beginning of  Wine Production

One of Father Junipero Serra and his company’s goals was to convert Native Americans. Serra went on to build the first mission in San Diego.[1] The missions used sacramental wine, which became limited due to delays in supply from Mexico. As a result, Father Serra sent for vine cuttings from Jesuit missions in Baja, Mexico.

The arrival of vine cuttings in California set a precedent for the exploitative treatment of Native Americans. The missionaries used vineyard cultivation and winemaking as tools of power. This exploitation is the foundation of the success of California as a leading grape and wine-producing region.

Under missionary rule, Native Americans could not own any wine production equipment. However, they could provide labor for grape farming and wine production. They could only drink wine during mass.

Ornelas-Higdon, a historian, notes, “Natives of California are the ones who planted, trimmed, and gathered the grapes. However, it is ironic that they only had limited access to the actual results of their effort.”[2]

The missionaries were expected to replicate the work in Mexico, where they developed land and later gave it to the natives. However, this never happened in California. The exploitation went on as long as the missions were running.

Interestingly, the missionaries coerced Native Americans to convert to the new religion. After conversion, they saw natives as easy to rule, leading to further unfair treatment. The missionaries were often with Spanish soldiers who intimidated natives into submission. Their presence introduced new illnesses, which caused the local population to decline.[3] Therefore, these challenges led to native resistance.


The padres’ authority was harsh on the Native Americans. As a result of the overwhelming need for labor, families were split apart. Naturally, they started resisting it. Some secretly worshipped their native deities in the missions even after “converting.”

Native Americans had a superstitious view of the padres. They decided the best way to counter them was an assassination. As a result, there were cases of food poisoning. Some natives tried stoning in 1805,[4] while others tried escaping from labor camps.

Winemaking in California stems from a troubled past. Missionaries forced natives to abandon their culture and adopt the new system through violence. There was a decline in native plants and animals. Natives lived in crowded labor camps where disease was rampant. Despite these effects, resistance helped some tribes maintain cohesion and cultural practices.

In 1823, the Mexican flag replaced the Spanish flag. In 1824, Native Americans were granted the right to vote and hold public office. Slavery run by missions did not immediately end but disintegrated by the secularization of missions in 1834. In 1846, American settlers invaded California and declared independence in 1850. California’s independence did not resolve conflict with the natives, as they continued to experience violence from the settlers.

The Outcome

Wine production in California greatly impacted Native Americans as they experienced slavery. “While some Native Americans left their communities, many more passed tragically due to other causes, such as sickness (smallpox was particularly harsh), destitution, maltreatment, and drunkenness.”[5]

The Indian Indenture Act was repealed in 1862, ending this troubled history. However, by then, the native population had significantly declined.

Also read:

This Day in Wine History

April 27, 1862 – The Indian Indenture Act was repealed. This was the first act passed to address the labor shortage from the 1850s Gold Rush. “A marshal or sheriff might detain and penalize a white individual for reporting a Native American as a vagabond, slacker, or intoxicated under the law.”[6] Since most natives could not pay the fines, they were auctioned for labor to the highest bidder. In the latter part of the 19th century, their work advanced the wine industry. As a result, the industry boomed until Pierce’s Disease hit in the 1880s. The repeal ended slavery and violence against Native Americans.

September 27, 1821 – The Mexican War of Independence ended. Mexico gained independence from Spain and started enforcing laws to entice settlers in the north. Mexico’s independence sparked additional legislation that led to the expansion of viticulture in California. Settlers from Mexico, the United States, and Europe flocked to California, shifting the wine industry. As a result, vineyards and wine production increased. However, this was short-lived as American settlers took control in 1850.

March 27, 1863 – The Buena Vista Vinicultural Society (BVVS) was established. This laboratory for winemaking discovered new ways to improve wine production and grape farming. As a result, wine production increased. The corporation was exempt from the 18th amendment, owning more than 1440 acres of farmland. The land was used to experiment with different farm practices that allowed grape farming to flourish.

Want to read more? Try these books!


[1] Thomas Pinney, The City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles (Berkeley, California: Heyday; San Francisco, California, 2017).

[2] Patricia Escárcega, “‘Wine Was a Tool of Conquest’: California’s Hidden Multiethnic History of Winemaking,” KCET, March 23, 2022,

[3] Edward D. Castillo, “California Indian History – California Native American Heritage Commission,”, 2022,

[4] Castillo

[5] Frances Dinkelspiel, “California’s Wine Industry Was Built on Slave Labor,” The Daily Beast, June 24, 2017, sec. half-full,

[6] Frances Dinkelspiel, “Op-Ed: Los Angeles Owes Native Americans an Apology,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2019,

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , , , , By Published On: October 31, 2022Last Updated: March 9, 2023

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!