The San Francisco Earthquake and Wine
The earthquake of April 18, 1906 hit the city of San Francisco and the surrounding area at a magnitude of 7.8 a few minutes after 5 a.m. It changed the fate of the town in a matter of minutes. The earthquake and ensuing fires caused widespread destruction (est. 400 million USD) and loss of life (3,000 people). It also devastated the California wine industry. It ruined more than 28,000 buildings, including many of the facilities, fields, and cellars of wine production.
In the years following the earthquake, wine production in California decreased by half. The California Wine Association had only recently been established in 1894 and controlled more than 80% of California wines. Despite extensive efforts to save wine, an estimated million gallons were lost.
Not long before Prohibition, the California Wine Association (CWA) built the world’s largest winery called Winehaven. The sprawling property consisted of 47 acres on the San Francisco Bay. If both the warehouse and winery were at capacity it could hold 12 million gallons of wine. In order to efficiently ship that much wine they built an 1,800-foot wharf and a privately owned, electrified rail line so they could easily distribute using both trains and boats.
Also read: This Day in Phylloxera History
Winehaven was the realization of the CWA’s efforts to monopolize all of the California’s wine industry. The company was founded in 1894 and achieved its most audacious goal in building Winehaven. The effects and influence of the CWA was long felt over the California wine industry, even after Prohibition destroyed the company. The winery defined the contours of how California wine was marketed for decades, long after Prohibition stamped the company out of existence.
California Wine Struggles
The history of the California wine industry is full of struggle: drought, Prohibition, phylloxera, economic depressions, earthquake, and fires. Yet the California wine industry has managed to survive and earn a place among the finest wine producers in the world. The first commercial vines were planted by Spanish missionaries, who used wine for religious ceremonies. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that large-scale production began in earnest.
The 18th Amendment’s prohibition of alcohol in 1920 dealt a severe blow to the state’s wine industry. Only a few wineries managed to stay in business by producing sacramental wine for church services. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the industry slowly began to recover. However, it was dealt another setback in the 1960s when a grapevine-killing insect destroyed many of California’s vineyards. Despite these challenges, the California wine industry has persevered and today produces some of the finest wines in the world.
Did You Know: The same grapevine insect, phylloxera also nearly destroyed Europe’s wine industry in the 19th century.
Orange County Archives, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
This Day in History
October 29, 1929 is known as Black Tuesday in commemoration of the Wall Street stock market crash that followed London’s crash in September of that year. This began the period known as the Great Depression (1929-1939). The Great Depression deeply affected the wine industry of America.
Want to read more? Try these books!
UC Davis and California Wines
The Franciscans and Viticulture in the Old World and the New
- Jancis Robinson, “Sacramental Wine,” The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994).