Los Angeles Wine History
Los Angeles wine history starts with the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 18th century. However, Los Angeles’ wine history is brief due to the challenges vintners faced and wine evolution. Today, when speaking of California wine, people think of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. These two regions are also known as wine countries since they produce more than 80 percent of California wine. Winemaking, however, started in Los Angeles before it spread north into the ‘wine country.’ Follow through as we take you through the brief Los Angeles wine history.
Birthplace of California Wine Industry
Long before commercial winemaking became a thing in California, before even California became part of the United States, Los Angeles was king of vineyards. It was poised to be the leader, a crown Napa Valley and Sonoma County snatched following the 1850 Gold rush and influx of diseases.
Its history is surprising that it has been forgotten in the modern winemaking industry and among wine lovers. Getting any material trace of Los Angeles’ magic drink history is difficult. Consequently, many people have no idea of the city and county’s wine history today.
Spanish Missionaries and Colonists
Winemaking in California goes back to the 17th century, but it was not until the late 18th century that the first vines were planted in Los Angeles. The Spanish missionaries of the Franciscan order arrived in California in 1769 and established several missionaries who planted vineyards for sacramental wine. The missionaries, led by Father Junipero Serra, established a series of missions integral to converting people. They planted several varieties of grapes later referred to as ‘Mission Grapes.’ winemaking grew in southern California following the establishment of Missions, with Los Angeles central to their growth.
Los Angeles became the heart of California’s wine industry following this introduction. Southern California dominated vineyard cultivation and winemaking in the 1830s. Grapes from Mission vineyards were strictly for making sacramental wine and private. However, in 1829, Ysidro Reyes planted a vineyard of Mission Grapes in Pueblo de Los Angeles; this changed the consumption trend. While mission vineyards dominated, individuals’ vineyards, such as Reyes’s 17-acre vineyard, introduced new dynamics. Reyes acquired viticulture knowledge from San Gabriel Mission, where he was born.
In 1831, Jean-Louis Vignes, a French vintner, arrived, helping Reyes improve his winemaking skills. Besides, he also bought a 104-acre land (El Aliso) spanning between Pueblo and Los Angeles, where he planted vineyards. Vignes helped Reyes in vine cultivation and winemaking until his vines started producing grapes three years later.
While the Mission Grape did favorably well, it did not impress Vignes, who imported better quality vines from Bordeaux. He insisted on the good quality of wine, something that changed Los Angeles’s wine industry. Vignes revolutionized winemaking in Los Angeles by producing quality wine. He also introduced wine aging; this changed the common practice at the time to drink wine as soon as it was fermented.
In Los Angeles, vineyards grew and expanded to neighboring regions. San Gabriel mission, a few miles away from present-day Los Angeles city, became the most successful Mission of the Spanish missionaries, “with more than 150,000 vines,” and central to the development of the Los Angeles wine industry. Spanish colonization ended with Mexico gaining independence; Mexico went on to secularize Missions, including San Gabriel in Los Angeles. After its secularization in 1834 and the rise of Vignes, the region took a different turn in winemaking.
Vignes was joined by another major winemaker, William Wolfskill, in 1838. Together they became influential in California’s wine business in the mid-19th century. Vignes was also the first to realize commercial winemaking in Los Angeles. Since the Los Angels market was small, he transported and sold his wine in northern California in 1840. Wolfskill had expanded his vineyard, owning 55000 vines by 1858.
Los Angeles Wine Industry Flourishes
By 1850, Los Angeles had more than 100 acres of vineyards and was popularly known as the ‘City of Vines.’ Vignes’s El Aliso vineyard was by far the most extensive in the region, producing 1000 barrels of wine annually from 40000 vines. Los Angeles dominated viticulture for the first half of the 19th century. The 1850s gold rush opened northern California for viticulture, but Los Angeles became an important winemaking city in the late 19th century.
Los Angeles planted mostly Mission Grapes introduced by Spanish missionaries and colonists. However, this changed with the coming of European immigrants who introduced Bordeaux, among other varietals. Viticulture flourished in Los Angeles until 1885 when Pierce’s disease was first spotted. The beautiful winemaking story faced a major hurdle in the disease, which wiped out many vineyards. Many vintners never knew it at first sight and referred to it as a mysterious disease. The disease was studied by Newton B. Pierce, a researcher sent by the state department, leading to it being dupped ‘Pierce’s disease.’
Winemaking Decline and Fate of Los Angeles Wine Industry
The 1880s was a transitioning period for the Los Angeles wine industry. In addition to Pierce’s disease, pests destroyed existing vineyards. Land prices also shot up due to the gold rush; this made it difficult to find suitable land for viticulture. In addition, urbanization was taking shape in Los Angeles, and vineyards gave way to new developments. The once-promising industry was dealt a final blow by the ratification of the 18th Amendment, banning the production and sale of alcoholic drinks, including wine. By the time of its repeal in 1933, the Los Angeles wine industry was utterly destroyed. The once-promising industry never recovered.
Los Angeles’s place was taken by Napa Valley and Sonoma County, whose wine industry was flourishing while Los Angeles was in peril. These regions persisted in winemaking and their terroir, ideal for viticulture, allowed them to grow into California’s largest wine-producing regions. In Los Angeles, urbanization took over, and buildings dedicated to winemaking, such as wineries, were converted to other purposes. Today, a few small vineyards and wineries operate in Los Angeles. Besides, new generation vintners are ramping up efforts to revive the industry by fining old vineyards, establishing a relationship with the past, and maintaining the city’s gnarled winemaking history.
This Day in Wine History
8 September 1771 – San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles was established on this day. Missionaries of the Franciscan order under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra Opened this Mission during “The Feast of the Birth of Mary.” The Mission was the most successful among missions established by Spanish missionaries before Mexican independence. The Mission’s vineyards were larges in the 1830s before the Mexican government secularized it. Early vintners in Los Angeles, including Ysidro Reyes, learned viticulture in this Mission and obtained their first Mission Grapes. San Gabriel’s Mission played a significant role in the flourishing Los Angeles wine industry before it declined due to disease infestation, urbanization, and Prohibition. As a result, it was dubbed the “Mother of Agriculture in California.”
9 April 1780 – Jean-Louis Vignes was born in France on this day. Vignes, a cooper and an adventurer, sailed to America, landing in Hawaii on 6 July 1827. He continued his cooperage until alcohol production was banned in the territory by Queen Ka’ahumanu. Vignes then traveled and landed in California’s Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1831. He employed his winemaking skills to improve winemaking in California and also practiced viticulture. His entry into the California wine industry transformed it. Vignes was the first person to import and plant European vines (Vitis vinifera). He commercialized wine selling his wine to northern Californians. By the mid-19th century, he was California’s largest winemaker.
1 November 1942 – The United States government banned whiskey production on this day. War disrupts many things, and the wine business is no exception. During the second world war, the United States introduced measures to support war efforts. Distillers were required to produce industrial alcohol for war, sharply reducing the availability of scotch whiskey that it was rationed. This development was profitable for distillers, but a risk for their retail business as their supply chains could diminish. Therefore, they bought wineries and started selling wine. Due to their large capital, they marketed wine throughout California, drawing new wine lovers. Besides, the war led winemakers to start bottling their wines instead of depending on regional bottlers. These outcomes were felt throughout California. In addition, due to war, the government diverted harvests of Muscat, Sultana, and other grapes for making raisins. As a result, winemakers in California turned to quality winemaking grapes, leading to producing high-quality wine. World war II, therefore, positively impacted the California wine industry, helping it revive itself from Prohibition effects.
Want to read more? Try out these books!
 Thomas Pinney, The City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles (Berkeley, California: Heyday; San Francisco, California, 2017).
 Paula Mejia, “The Gnarled History of Los Angeles’s Vineyards,” Atlas Obscura, June 25, 2018, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/history-of-california-wine#:~:text=The%20city
 Mejia, “The Gnarled History of Los Angeles’s Vineyards,” 1.
Maite Gomez-Rejón, “Cultivating California: The History of Wine in Los Angeles,” Edible LA, July 13, 2016, https://www.ediblela.com/news/cultivating-california-history-wine-los-angeles.
Thomas Pinney, The City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles (Berkeley, California: Heyday; San Francisco, California, 2017).