Exploring the History of Immigrant Winemakers

You may be surprised to know who makes your wine. America has a history of wine dating back to the arrival of the first European immigrates. California became central for wine production due to its rich, fertile valleys. European immigrants dominated the early years, but California wine demography has been changing. In the 20th century, the number of Mexican immigrants working in vineyards and producing wine increased in California. Their contributions have been significant, even though not significantly acknowledged. Thanks in part to its immigrant history, California is the largest wine-producing state. The American wine industry is owed to immigrants.

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European Immigrants

Ever wondered why there are many Italian-sounding wineries in America? Most early immigrants originated from Europe. The Germans and French were among the first to settle in America and establish wineries. These immigrants came from winemaking regions in Europe. Later, other settlers joined from Italy, Hungary, Portugal, and Spain. Italians took root, forming most family-owned wineries. Immigrants introduced grape farming and winemaking techniques. Winemaking was a foreign concept in America, and America lacked a wine culture. However, immigrants not only brought winemaking knowledge, but also wine culture to the country.

European immigrants introduced many wine traditions to America. For instance, Miljenko Grgich, a Croatian immigrant, introduced table wine to Napa Valley in 1958. “Two decades later, Grgich’s 1976 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay beat French wines in a blind tasting, and he and other European immigrants had effectively made Napa a wine industry contender.”[1]

Grgich was among one of the American wines that overcame some of the best French wines during the Judgment of Paris. It was one of Grgich’s and American winemakers’ proud moments. Immigrants have since influenced the American wine industry, with Napa Valley and Sonoma as their de facto capital. The wine industry has also made Napa Valley the second largest tourist attraction after Disneyland.

person holding grapes

Napa Valley

Napa Valley is famed for being the most famous wine region in California. It is located in the northern part of the state, northeast of San Fransico. Napa Valley has become one of the top wine regions for tourism.

Napa Valley’s wine history goes as far back as the 17th century. History has shown that the first grapes were planted in 1683 but were not developed and did not lead to wine production. In 1769, Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish Catholic missionary of the Franciscan order, planted and developed vineyards for use in their missions.[2] The wines were used for religious purposes.

Did you know? Father Serra and his colleagues were the earliest missionaries to grow grapes.

In the 19th century, other European migrants settled in Napa Valley and Sonoma, exploding the wine industry. The wine industry grew during President Abraham Lincoln’s administration. He was “the first president to purchase and serve California wine.”[3] Most of California’s wineries, especially in Napa Valley and Sonoma, were established in the 19th century. The fertile soils in Napa Valleys aided grape farming. With the introduction of Mexican immigrants later in the 20th century, the region became a wine hub. Admittedly, Mexican immigrants were influential in the growth of Napa Valley and California as a wine region.

The Forgotten History of Chinese Immigrants’ Contribution to the Sonoma Wine Industry

Mexican Immigrants

Americans owe European immigrants for the introduction of wine in America, but the industry was built on the work of Mexican immigrants.[4] Winemakers arrived in Mexico and were engaged in the practice but had little influence compared to European immigrants until 1942. After the World War II, the US experienced a labor shortage. As a result, they welcomed Mexican immigrants for paid seasonal work. The winemaking business grew, requiring year-round workers, and Mexican immigrants were retained. By 2004, they formed up to 98 percent of vineyard workers in Napa Valley.

Most of them arrived in Napa Valley at a young age and learned grape farming and winemaking. Later, they started making and bottling their wines, forming the first Mexican family-owned wineries. There are more than ten family-owned Mexican immigrant wineries in the Napa Valley. As the wine industry expanded, more skilled and unskilled labor was required. Mexican immigrants pursuing the American dream, aided by the porous borders, began forming a large percentage of workers.

blue berries on green leaves during daytime

This Day in Colonial Wine History

Mexican-owned wineries increased in the later part of the 20th and 21st century. They increased after prohibition and continue to contribute to the American wine industry. These include Robledo Winery, Valdez Family Winery, Ceja Winery, and Gustavo Wine.

This Day in Wine History

November 24, 1713: Father Junipero Serra was born on this day. Father Serra introduced vineyard cultivation to California in 1769. Father Serra is referred to as the first father of wine in California. He introduced the Vitis Vinifera grapes used for table, sacramental, and fortified wine.

June 18, 1913: On this day, Robert Mondavi was born. Mondavi made significant contributions to the American wine industry, including introducing varietal rather than the generic classification of wines. He established his winery in the Napa Valley in 1966 and influenced wine production and the reputation of the Napa Valley. Mondavi “is credited for bringing worldwide critical acclaim and fame to the wines of Napa Valley. His complex Cabernets, Chardonnay, and barrel-aged bottles are highly regarded worldwide.”[5] Mondavi made a 25 million donation to the University of California, Davis, in 2001 to establish Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

June 20, 1980: The first American Viticulture Area (AVA) was established. The AVA was not in Napa Valley or Sonoma but in Augusta, Missouri. Many other appellations were formed later, classifying wine-producing regions.


[1] Yara Simón, “Meet the Latino Winemakers of Napa Valley,” Remezcla, May 25, 2016, https://remezcla.com/lists/food/napa-valley-latino-winemakers/.

[2] Libbie Agran, “The First Father of California Wine: Fray Junípero Serra,” Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County, September 17, 2018, https://winehistoryproject.org/the-first-father-of-california-wine-fray-junipero-serra/#:~:text=Father%20Serra%20and%20his%20padres.

[3] The Wine Cellar Insider, “Complete Napa Valley California Wine History from Early 1800s to Today,” The Wine Cellar Insider, 2017, https://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/california-wine/california-wine-history-from-early-plantings-in-1800s-to-today/.

[4] Yara SIMÓN, “Meet the Latino Winemakers of Napa Valley,” Remezcla, May 25, 2016, https://remezcla.com/lists/food/napa-valley-latino-winemakers/.

[5] Anthony Zhang, “Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley: 10 Best Wines, Vineyards,” Vinovest, 2022, https://www.vinovest.co/blog/robert-mondavi.

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