Los Angeles wine history dates back to the 18th century when missionaries from Mexico started a northward expedition to conquer new lands and convert natives. In May of 1769, under the command of Captain Gaspar de Portolá, the Sacred Expedition set north from the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The expedition, consisting of missionaries and its followers, arrived in California and established several missions. Father Junipero Serra, of Spanish origin, led the missionaries. They were the first to introduce vineyards and winemaking to California.
Los Angeles was once referred to as the city of vines. Surprising as it may seem, California’s early days of winemaking were not set in Napa Valley, but in Los Angeles. It was poised to be the epicentre for wine production on the west coast due to the rising number of vineyards. However, history changed, and now no one thinks of Los Angeles when talking about wine.
Los Angeles wines were produced from the Mission grape variety until 1860. The San Gabriel Mission supplied these grapes until other grapes were introduced. These grapes were made into both table wine and a sweet fortified wine called Angelica.
San Gabriel Mission
The first vineyards and wineries were located in El Pueblo de Los Angeles. In 1782, Spanish missionaries harvested the first vintage at San Juan Capistrano Mission. They also cultivated massive vineyards in the San Gabriel Mission. While the first vineyards were introduced at the heart of Los Angeles, they also started flourishing in the city’s outskirts. San Gabriel Mission, in particular, cultivated many vineyards in the San Gabriel Valley. The valley was located a few miles northeast of Los Angeles.
San Gabriel was the most successful winemaking mission and large source of wine in Pueblo. Vineyard cultivation began earlier, but winemaking was first recorded in 1797. After its introduction, winemaking continued for the rest of the mission’s life. One striking feature is the increased vineyard cultivation and winemaking after Father José María de Zalvidea took charge of the mission in 1806. Under his watch, San Gabriel valley production exploded, increasing the number of vines to 53,686 by the year 1818.
“In 1834, the year in which Mission San Gabriel was secularized, the vineyard was reported to have then 163,579 vines, or approximately 160 acres, making it by far the largest producer among the California missions.” The mission was hospitable to the surrounding community and visitors, who shared their wine. During Father Zalvidea’s time, wine was drunk as often as desired or necessary.
The San Gabriel Mission was the leading wine producer until 1797 when San Fernando Rey de España was established. The mission became one of the top wine producers in present-day Los Angeles County. Winemaking here began in 1804 and continued until the mission was secularized in 1835. Until then, the mission led in wine production and vineyard cultivation, coming second only to the San Gabriel Mission.
The belfry of Mission San Gabriel, 1905
Anaheim: Orange County
Anaheim has a fascinating story, from a promising colony with a great organization to destruction and disintegration. Vineyard cultivation flourished in the Anaheim settlement, present-day Orange County (created in 1889). It had a bright future only to be destroyed by a mysterious vine disease. Anaheim lies 25 miles from the city of Los Angeles. The settlement began in 1855 when John Frohling and George Hansen travelled to San Francisco to meet Charles Kohler and Otto Weyse. The two started Anaheim’s largest winemaking company, Kohler and Frohling.
In 1857, Kohler and Frohling formed the Los Angeles Vineyard Society. The society was responsible for the expansion of vineyard cultivation and wine production. Kohler and Frohling marketed the wines of Anaheim’s residents until 1859, when individual farmers created Anaheim Wine Growers’ Association to consolidate their productions. The association grew tremendously, and by 1871, it was the central wine marketing establishment despite owning no vineyards.
The second half of the 19th century was prosperous for Anaheim vineyard cultivation and winemaking. Several merchants set shops in the settlement, and vineyards and wine production increased. However, the success could not last. In 1885, farmers noticed a vine disease. Production was not affected that year, but the effect was significant the following season. For the next five years, the disease decimated vineyards in Anaheim. People never understood the illness and often referred to it as “The Mysterious Disease.”
In 1891, Newton B. Pierce, an investigator from the state department, was sent to understand the disease. “By that time, 25,000 acres of vineyard were dead, not just in Anaheim but in the San Gabriel Valley and east into San Bernardino County and what is now Riverside County.”
The disease claimed most of Los Angeles’ vineyards. Present-day Orange County was where the disease originated that destroyed the Los Angeles wine industry, putting California’s wine industry on a different course.
Image from page 16 of “Anaheim, southern California, its history, climate, soil and advantages for home seekers and settlers” (1885)
The Fate of Los Angeles as a Wine City
The Mysterious Disease was later dubbed “Peirce’s disease.” The disease destroyed vines in southern California, halting its status as the most extensive wine producer in California. In contrast, wine production in northern California was flourishing. While the south faced difficult times, winemaking in the north was vibrant, especially in Napa Valley and Sonoma. Wine trading declined in Los Angeles and was replaced by Napa Valley and Sonoma as California’s wine regions.
Los Angeles’s wine industry was dealt its last blow in 1920 when Prohibition took effect. Additionally, in the late 1880s, many vineyards in Los Angeles’s city center started being ripped up to make space for growing urbanization due to a land boom in Southern California.
The most striking fact about its history is how it has been completely forgotten. Any existing vineyards were replaced with orchards. Most of the vineyards were converted into housing projects. Besides, any building previously used for wine was converted and used for other purposes. Any history of its once-booming wine trade has been erased.
This Day in Wine History
May 16, 1778 – The first vine cuttings arrived in San Diego. After arrival in California, Father Junipero Serra created missions. They needed a steady supply of wine for their missions, especially with the increasing population. In 1777, Serra started writing to the old Jesuit missions in Mexico asking for vine cuttings to be sent. Serra writes that most of the wine in government stores was expensive and could not sustain them. Besides, shipment lines were hectic and the Missions located in the interior. As a result, the missions could be left without wine for mass for long periods. His writing bore fruit when a ship from Mexico delivered the first vine cuttings under Don Jose Camacho’s command. These vines were planted and used to make sacramental wine.
August 30, 1812 –Agoston Haraszthy was born. Haraszthy was among the first people to cultivate vineyards in California. His knowledge on the subject was revered, and he is often referred to as the father of modern winemaking or father of California wine alongside Father Junipero Serra. Haraszthy arrived in California in December 1850 and transformed the wine industry. He planted vineyards and established the Bueno Vista winery in Sonoma. He was also a writer on early California viticulture and winemaking. “In 1861, he was appointed by Governor John Downey to a commission to assess ways to improve and promote grape growing in California.” He travelled to different European countries, including France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, where he observed vineyard cultivation, bought vines and brought them to the United States.
September 12, 1862 –John Frohling died. Frohling played a significant role in the wine production industry in Anaheim, present-day Orange County. Frohling was among the first people to understand the wine industry in California. He was an experienced winemaker and had grand ambitions for the Anaheim settlement. Frohling and Charles Kohler established the leading winemaking firm in Anaheim.
Want to read more? Try these books!
 Katie Richardson, “Guides: Southern California Wine and Wine Industry Collection: History of Wine in Southern California,” libguides.library.cpp.edu, August 4, 2021, https://libguides.library.cpp.edu/c.php?g=729463&p=5210138.
 Kevin Knight, “Catholic Encyclopedia: Jose Maria de Zalvidea,” www.newadvent.org, 1912, https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15746a.htm.
 Thomas Pinney, The City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles (Berkeley, California: Heyday; San Francisco, California, 2017).