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 many challenges vintners faced. Today, when speaking of California wine, people think of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. But winemaking started in Los Angeles before it spread north into present-day ‘wine country.’ Follow through as we take you through a brief history of Los Angeles’ wine.
Birthplace of The California Wine Industry
Long before commercial winemaking was a thing in California, and before California was even part of the United States, Los Angeles was the Californiaking 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 unique history has been forgotten in the modern winemaking industry and among wine lovers. Seeing any material trace of Los Angeles’ wine history is difficult in modern times.
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 missions who planted vineyards for sacramental wine. The missionaries, led by Father Junipero Serra, established a series of missions integral to converting the local people. They planted a Spanish grape variety called Mission. Winemaking continued to grow in Southern California as more missions were established, with Los Angeles central to their growth.
Los Angeles quickly became the heart of California’s wine industry following this introduction. Southern California dominated vineyard cultivation and winemaking in the 1830s. However, in 1829, Ysidro Reyes planted a vineyard of Mission grapes in Pueblo de Los Angeles which 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.
Did You Know: At one point Los Angeles was known as the ‘city of vines’.
In 1831, Jean-Louis Vignes, a French vintner, arrived and helped Reyes improve his winemaking skills. Vignes 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 grew well, it did not impress Vignes, who imported better quality grape varietals from Bordeaux. He insisted on making good quality wine, something that changed Los Angeles’s wine industry. Previously, many were more concerned with quantity over quality. He also introduced wine aging; the common practice at the time to drink wine as soon as it was fermented.
In Los Angeles, vineyards grew and expanded into neighboring regions. San Gabriel mission, a few miles away from present-day Los Angeles, 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 the missions, including San Gabriel in Los Angeles. After its secularization in 1834 and the rise of Vignes, the region’s wine industry took a different turn.
Vignes was joined by another major winemaker, William Wolfskill in 1838. Together they became influential to California’s wine industry in the mid-19th century. Vignes was the first to realize the potential of commercial winemaking in Los Angeles. Since the Los Angeles market was small, he transported and sold his wine to Northern California in 1840. Wolfskill eventually expanded his vineyard, owning 55,000 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 largest in the region, producing 1,000 barrels of wine annually from 40,000 vines. Los Angeles dominated California viticulture for the first half of the 19th century. The 1850s gold rush opened Northern California for viticulture, but Los Angeles was still 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 influx of European immigrants who introduced other varietals. Viticulture flourished in Los Angeles until 1885 when Pierce’s disease was first spotted. The Los Angeles’ wine industry faced a major hurdle with this disease, which wiped out many vineyards. Vintners were unable to identify the disease 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 transition period for the Los Angeles wine industry. In addition to Pierce’s disease, other pests destroyed existing vineyards. Land prices also shot up due to the gold rush, which 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’ place was taken by Northern California, whose wine industry was flourishing while Los Angeles was in peril. The north 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 for 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 replanting old vineyards, establishing a relationship with the past, and maintaining the city’s gnarled winemaking history.
September 8, 1771 – San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles was established. Missionaries of the Franciscan order under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra opened this Mission during “The Feast of the Birth of Mary.” This mission was the most successful of the Spanish missions before Mexico’s independence. The Mission’s vineyards were large 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 grapevines. San Gabriel’s Mission played a significant role in the flourishing Los Angeles wine industry before it declined due to disease, urbanization, and Prohibition. As a result, it was dubbed the “Mother of Agriculture in California.”
April 9, 1780 – Jean-Louis Vignes was born in France. Vignes, a cooper and an adventurer, sailed to America, landing in Hawaii on July 6, 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 and viticulture in California. His entry into California’s wine industry transformed it. Vignes was the first person to import and plant French grape varieties. He also began selling his wine to Northern California. By the mid-19th century, he was California’s largest winemaker.
November 1, 1942 – The United States government banned whiskey production. 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 the war, sharply reducing the availability of whiskey. This development was profitable for distillers, but a risk for their retail business as their supply chains were diminishing. Therefore, they bought wineries and started selling wine. Due to their large capital, they marketed wine throughout California, creating new wine lovers. Additionally, the war led winemakers to start bottling their own wines instead of depending on regional bottlers. These outcomes were felt throughout California. Due to war the government also diverted harvests of Muscat, Sultana, and other grapes for making raisins rather than wine. As a result, winemakers in California turned to using only quality winemaking grapes, leading to higher quality wine. In some ways World War II positively impacted the California wine industry, helping it revive itself from the effects of Prohibition.
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 Thomas Pinney, The City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles (Berkeley, California: Heyday; San Francisco, California, 2017).