Following Fray Junípero Serra’s landmark planting of the first Californian vineyard in 1769 and the events of the famous judgment of Paris in 1976 one event significantly impacted Californian wine production. This was the Gold Rush.

When James W. Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 it started a chain of events that oiled the gears of California’s economy. At least 300,000 people made their way into California to get their share of gold. The unprecedented influx created a huge market for every sector in the region, including the wine industry.

The gold-seekers, or “forty-niners” (derived from 1849; the peak of the gold rush) as they were called, came in from every route — at least half of the approximately 300,000 visitors arrived by the sea while others made their way via the Gila River trail and California trail. Between 1846 and 1852, California transformed from a small town that used to be home to about 200 residents into a teeming and booming city with over 36,000 residents.


Even though most of the people that came into California during the Gold Rush were Americans, people from other races and tribes also joined. The Rush attracted people from faraway China, Latin America, Australia, and Europe.[1] Agricultural activities increased exponentially as there was high demand for food and beverages. Within a short time, churches, roads, and schools, among other development, began to sprout all around California. The area continued to develop until the first Constitution was written in 1849. A new constitution and governor were chosen almost immediately, and California became a state in 1850.

The Gold Rush and Wine Production in California

While gold prospectors scouted goldfields, streams, and rivers, wineries in California were under pressure to fill the workers’ stomachs and quench their thirst. Before the Gold Rush, Southern California was the seat of commercial wine production. However, the influx of people to the North quickly triggered and awakened wine production in Northern California to meet the explosion in demand for wine.

Did You Know: Prior to the gold rush, most wine produced in California was produced in the south in and around Los Angeles.

The Gold Rush also led to the establishment of wine centers in El Dorado, Sonoma County, Sutter County, and Napa Valley, among other areas in Northern California. Massive investments into the wine industry in the North were highly profitable as they ramped up the wine production capacity of California and the United States. By the 1900s, the Californian wine industry was already selling wine bottles, in their tens of thousands, to England, Australia, Asia, and Central America.

The ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 threw a wrench in the working of things as it ushered in Prohibition and stopped the sale of alcohol. Commercial wine production ground to a halt. However, a loophole in the law was exploited, and many continued to make wine in small quantities in their homes. The law allowed the fermentation of fruit juice and non-intoxicating cider at home but limited the amount to 200 gallons per year. As one would expect, a lot of Americans began making wine at home, and the surge in amateur winemakers across the country led to scarcity and increasing prices of fresh grapes. Because of the mounting demand for grapes, most wineries immediately replaced their fine wine varietals with lower-quality varieties.

By 1933, after the Prohibition was repealed, the once-booming wine industry in California was almost non-existent — production had dropped by 94%. Earlier, in the 1920s, the United States boasted of over 2,500 commercial wineries, but by the end of Prohibition, this figure had fallen to just 100.[2] Efforts were made to revitalize the wine industry, and support came from many stakeholders, including the University of California, Davis. Despite the persistent efforts of wine experts from UC Davis and Maynard Amerine, getting the industry back on its feet was painfully slow. Eventually, the number of commercial wineries rose again to 271.

While the wine industry remained on a slow growth trajectory, wineries in Northern California joined the competition to deliver fine wine to the international market as part of their efforts to reinvigorate their local wine industry.

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The hard work of California’s winemakers paid off in 1976 when their wines joined in a blind tasting competition in France. California wines went head-on with their French counterparts. Shockingly, the California wines won in all categories — this event was dubbed the Judgement of Paris. Ever since, California wines have gained international recognition, and California has taken its spot as one of the world’s leading wine-producing regions.

On this day in history

March 9, 1842: Even though James W. Marshall’s find triggered the Gold Rush in Coloma in January 1848, gold had been discovered earlier at Rancho San Francisco by Francisco Lopez when he was out looking for stray horses. His search led him to the creek around present-day Placerita Canyon. As he dug up wild onions, he discovered nuggets of gold attached to the roots. He scouted the area and found more gold which he took to the authorities to verify its value.

January 24, 1848: This date marked the start of the famous California Gold Rush following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. The New York Herald was the first major print media to announce the discovery on August 19, 1948. The discovery led to an influx of gold seekers traveling to California from all over the world in search for gold. The increase in population brought about a boom in agriculture and winemaking activities to meet the demand created by the thirsty and hungry miners.

Want to read more? Try these books!

The City of Vines- A History of Wine in Los Angeles Zinfandel- A History of a Grape and Its Wine (Volume 10) (California Studies in Food and Culture)


  2. “A Short History On Wine Making In California”. 2022. Library.Ucdavis.Edu.
Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , By Published On: July 29, 2022Last Updated: February 21, 2024

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