The Origins of California Wine

California is one of the world’s most acclaimed wine production regions. It makes up roughly 90% of the wine industry in the United States. And if California were its own country, it would be the fourth largest producer worldwide, behind only the old giants of France, Italy, and Spain.

Moreover, it is not simply the sheer size of the Californian wine industry that is noteworthy, but the quality of the wines made in Napa Valley and other parts of the state. For instance, in 1976, at a Paris wine tasting event, blind tasters ranked California wines above their highly successful French challengers.[1]

This is especially unusual because the California wine industry is comparatively very young. It only emerged around 250 years ago along the west coast. Much of its origins can be traced to one man, Fray Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary often referred to as the Apostle of California.

Fray Juniper Serra and His Missions

Fray Juniper Serra was a Spanish Franciscan monk and priest that is considered the ‘Father of California Wine’. Originally, he began his missionary work in Mexico in the mid 18th century. But by 1767, he decided to move northwards into what is now California. [2]

Fray Junípero Serra

Serra set out with several fellow Franciscans in 1769 from Baja California, the region of northwest Mexico immediately south of today’s US state of California. On the 16th of July 1769, he and his followers arrived at the site of what is now the city of San Diego. Here, they established the first of their religious missions in California, effectively a settlement run by the Franciscans. It would also become California’s first permanently settled Spanish and European town.

Over the next thirteen years, Junipero and an ever-growing number of fellow missionaries established further religious missions up and down the western coast of California. For instance, in 1776, they established the missions of San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco. The mission of Santa Clara followed early in 1777. In 1782, Serra established his ninth and final Franciscan mission, Mission San Buenaventura, in what is now Ventura.[3]

These missions were geared towards establishing relations with the natives of western and southern California and attempting to convert them to Roman Catholicism by preaching and establishing churches and schools. It is estimated that there were over 300,000 natives in California by the mid-18th century, people such as the Chumash, Luiseno, Cahuilla, and Cupeno. Thus, as Serra and his fellow Franciscans would have perceived, there were many souls to be saved.

Read more of Fray Juniper Serra’s life

The Birth of California Wine

All of this missionary work soon happened upon an issue. As Roman Catholicism is centered on the celebration of the Mass to recreate the Last Supper, this involves wine – and with nine missions along the coast of California preaching to tens of thousands of natives, a lot of wine was soon needed.

As Spanish settlements in California had been non-existent prior to Serra’s arrival, and the natives did not have an indigenous wine industry, Serra and his followers initially imported large amounts of wine from Spanish settlements further to the south in Baja California. However, given the effort and expense involved in doing so, it wasn’t long before Serra and his fellow Franciscans elected to begin making their own wine.[4]

Indeed, Serra had predicted the need for wine-making facilities even before arriving in Upper California. When he and his party arrived in San Diego to establish their first mission in 1769, they brought cuttings from vineyards in Baja, California. And soon, they began planting them to establish California’s first vineyards.[5]

The vines which Serra arrived in 1769 were the legendary ‘Mission Grape.’ This was a type of vitis vinifera which had first been brought to Mexico from Spain all the way back in the 1520s following the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The exact varietal involved remains a mystery, though it is known that it soon became known as ‘Mission Grape,’ so strong was its association with the production of sacramental wine for missionary purposes.[6]

Unbeknownst to them at the time, Serra and his acolytes had actually established their first vineyards in one of California’s most fruitful parts. Later, when they attempted to plant vines near San Francisco, the combination of the cooler climate and the sea air proved less advantageous than the previously warmer climes of southwestern California.

In the years that followed, the level of wine production by the Franciscans across western and southern California expanded as the number of missionaries and their servants at the nine missions increased, and roughly 20,000 natives associated with them. Wine production flourished in particular at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel near modern-day Los Angeles, which eventually transformed into the center of the Californian wine industry for decades to come.

All of this was not without controversy, though. Serra and his fellow Franciscans have been accused of severe mistreatment of the natives of California. Studies have highlighted how the thousands of natives who were involved in the Franciscan missions in the 1770s were subjected to corporal punishment. They were also effectively forced to convert to Christianity and treated as slave labor.

Some of this is partially explained by the severe methods employed by the Franciscans in the 18th century and Serra’s own personal habits. For instance, he practiced self-flagellation, whereby he whipped himself as a way of atoning for his sins. Nevertheless, the brutal treatment of the natives of Alta California casts a dark shadow over California’s early wine industry, much of which was initiated through the forced labor of local indigenous people.[7]

The Early California Wine Industry, c. 1770–1870

By the time Junipero Serra died at Mission San Carlos in California in August 1784, the missions had begun to produce sufficient wine and brandy for their own subsistence. Four different types of wine were being made by this time, a sweet white wine, two different red wines, and a sweet wine fortified with brandy.

The methods used were admittedly primitive. Industrial-type wine presses were unavailable, so once the grapes were harvested, they were crushed using boards on sloped floors. The Franciscans had the natives dance until grape juice ran down the sloped floors into containers. More often than not, these containers were cowhide bota bags in which the grape juice was fermented and stored after it had turned to wine. A French visitor noted the wine they drank was good, but the techniques used to produce it were decidedly not.[8]

For his role in converting the natives of California, Junipero Serra was canonized as a saint in 2015 (despite the opposition of Native American groups) and is generally referred to within the Roman Catholic Church as the Apostle of California. However, for those whose concern has been with wine rather than religion, the state has given him the title of ‘Father of California Wine.’

This is a reasonably appropriate appellation for Serra to be given. The wine had not been produced in California before his arrival, and he and his followers truly set the state’s industry in motion. Indeed, when an extensive record of the amount of wine being produced was made in the mid-1830s, it was noted that over 160,000 vines were being cultivated at Mission San Gabriel alone.[9]

As a result of all this, when California was ceded to the United States by Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848, a sizeable wine industry already existed. The gold rush which followed from 1849 onwards brought huge numbers of settlers and riches to the southwest coast. As a more cultivated market for fine wines emerged, the industry matured. Buena Vista Winery was founded in 1857, and the Hungarian-American viticulturist, Agoston Haraszthy, imported new grape varietals and wine production methods into the state in the 1860s. Thus, the seeds of California wine that Serra had begun to cultivate in the 1770s fully matured decades later.[10]

Wine and Pueblo de Los Ángeles

The Spanish pueblo of Los Ángeles was El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Ángeles, meaning the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, was established as the second Spanish civilian town in California in 1781. Five years later, the first vine cuttings were brought here from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, a Franciscan missionary settlement founded by Fray Junipero Serra nearby in 1771.

In the decades that followed, Los Angeles became the main urban center of Alta California, first on the back of its many cattle ranches and then during the Californian gold rush of the mid-19th century. Simultaneously, it grew into one of the main markets for Californian wine.[11]

The Mexican-American War, 1846–1848

The Mexican-American War erupted as a result of a dispute over where the Mexican-American border would lie in what is now Texas. The US favored the Rio Grande as the border, but the Mexican government argued it should lie at the Nueces River further to the northeast. War broke out in 1846. In the two-year conflict which ensued, the United States achieved a total military victory, advancing into Mexico and taking Mexico City itself.

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo saw Mexico cede an enormous expanse of territory to the US, stretching from Texas through to the modern-day states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. One of the often-ignored benefits this conferred to the United States is that the States acquired total control of the nascent Californian wine industry, one which had been in development since the 1770s and which had begun to expand significantly following the war as American settlements out west exploded from the late 1840s onwards.[12]

Also read: Sonoma Coast AVA was established

On this Day

28 September 1542 – On this day in 1542, the explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo landed with his expedition on behalf of the Spanish monarch, King Charles V, at San Diego Bay in southern California. It was the first time that a European expedition had reached California. In the weeks that followed, his small armada of three ships explored much of the coast as far north as the current San Francisco. However, because of how geographically remote California was from the main centers of Spanish settlements in Central Mexico, the Spanish did not establish colonies there for over 220 years. When they finally did, it resulted from Franciscan missionaries led by Fray Junipero Serra. These established settlements such as San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, Ventura, and San Francisco. The Franciscans along the coast began planting vineyards in the 1770s and 1780s to make sacramental wine. Thus, well over two centuries after the Spanish first discovered California, Junipero Serra and his followers established the California wine industry.[13]

16 July 1769 – On this day in 1769, Fray Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary from Spain, founded the first of his nine religious missions, which he went on to establish along the coast of California between 1769 and 1782. This first mission was Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá on the south bank of the San Diego River in what is now San Diego Old Town. Father Serra and his followers aimed to convert the tens of thousands of Native Americans who lived in southern and western California to Christianity and to pave the way for Spanish colonization of the region. Roman Catholicism is centered on the celebration of the Mass and thus requires wine. It is, therefore, not surprising that Serra and his followers quickly introduced the so-called ‘Mission Grape’ to California, a type of vitis vinifera which had been widely grown by the Spanish in the New World since the 16th century. By 1782, when Serra established his last mission, Mission San Buenaventura, vineyards had been planted by the Franciscans next to many of their missions, the first step in the development of the Californian wine industry.[14]

Want to read more about wine history? Try out these books!

A History of Wine in America- From the Beginnings to Prohibition Junipero Serra- California's Founding Father


[1] ‘California’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[2] Steven W. Hackel, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father (Berkeley, California, 2013).

[3] Robert H. Jackson, From Savages to Subjects: Missions in the History of the American Southwest (London, 2019).

[4] [accessed 30/6/22]; Irving McKee, ‘The Beginnings of California Winegrowing’, in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March, 1947), pp. 59–71.

[5] Desmond Seward, Monks and Wine (Second Edition, London, 2021), chapter 11.

[6] ‘Mission’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[7] [accessed 1/7/22].

[8] [accessed 30/6/22].

[9] Irving McKee, ‘The Beginnings of California Winegrowing’, in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March, 1947), pp. 59–71.

[10] ‘California’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[11] Thomas Pinney, ‘Winegrowing in the California Mission Period’, in Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, Volume I (Berkeley, California, 2007), pp. 237–243.

[12] Karl Jack Bauer, The Mexican War: 1846–1848 (Omaha, 1992); Peter Guardino, The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War (Cambridge, 2017); H. W. Brands, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (New York, 2002).

[13] Harry Kelsey, Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo (San Marino, California, 1986); Wendy Kramer, ‘Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo: Citizen of Guatemala and Native of Palma del Rio: New Sources from the Sixteenth Century’, in The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 62, Nos 3–4 (Summer – Fall, 2016), pp. 217–248; [accessed 29/6/22].

[14] Steven W. Hackel, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father (Berkeley, California, 2013); Irving McKee, ‘The Beginnings of California Winegrowing’, in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March, 1947), pp. 59–71; Randy Leffingwell, California Missions and Presidios (Stillwater, Minnesota, 2005).

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!