My forthcoming book, Tangled Vines, focuses on the largest crime involving wine in history: an arson fire that destroyed 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million.
The book also traces the life one of the bottles lost in the fire. It was made in 1875 in a vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga in southern California by my great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman.
I did a lot of research on the history of California wine for my book and found some fun things.
Here are five little-known facts about California wine:
1) The Franciscan fathers were the first to plant grapes in California. Father Junipero Serra wrote to his bosses in Baja California in the late 18th century and asked that they ship grapevines north. The grapes were planted at Mission San Juan Capistrano near Los Angeles. They were named Mission grapes and became the primary grape used for making wine throughout the 1880s, even though the wine they produced was flat and bland. Historians think the first harvest in California was in 1782.
2) Southern California, not Napa or Sonoma, was the heart of the early wine industry in the 19th century. Settlers in the pueblo of Los Angeles, including Californios, Americans, and Frenchmen, planted vineyards along the banks of the Los Angeles River. In the 1870s, there were so many grapevines that Los Angeles was nicknamed the “City of Vines.” A disease had wiped out most of the grapevines by 1886. Urbanization did the rest.
3) The action moved to San Francisco in the 1890s, when wine houses – large operations that bought grapes, made wine, and shipped it around the world – dominated the industry. San Francisco’s temperate climate, with its summers cooled by fog, made it an ideal place to store wine. By the 1890s, there were more than 100 wine houses in the city.
4) In 1894, after the price for wine and grapes hit rock bottom, seven of these wine houses merged to form the California Wine Association to stabilize the market. After a bruising and brutal wine war, the CWA became a monopoly, eventually controlling 80% of the production and distribution of wine in California.
5) After the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, the California Wine Association built the world’s largest winery on Pt. Molate near Richmond. (See photo above.) Winehaven was a city-state, with housing for workers, a school, a big house for the boss, train tracks, a port, and the capacity to store 10 million gallons of wine at once. It is still there, decaying on the edge of the bay. You can see it to your left as you drive east across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.