In 1850, when California was granted statehood, San Luis Obispo County was formed as one of twenty-seven original counties. The western border is the Pacific Ocean. Present-day Monterey County shared the north border and present-day Santa Barbara County shared the southern border. Kern County was located beyond the eastern border.
San Luis Obispo County was geographically isolated by the ocean and mountains along three sides of the county so access was primarily by ocean travel. The small community of San Luis Obispo had grown up around Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra and 29 ranchos established during the Mexican Period (1832-1848). It was named the county seat in 1850 when California became a state. The 1850 United States Census recorded 336 residents, the largest number is known as Californios with a few Americans and Europeans. The primary language spoken was Spanish. The Native American residents were not counted. There were two tribes, the Chumash in the San Luis Obispo area and the Salinan in the San Miguel area.
In the 1850s the rancheros began moving their families onto their ranchos to protect them from bandits and squatters. The town of San Luis Obispo was lawless and dangerous.
The rancho that included the Edna Valley was named Rancho Corral de Piedra and was owned by José María Villavicencia. The Edna Valley had previously been used as grazing land and farmland to support the mission’s agricultural economy before Mexican rule which established large ranchos, a total of twenty-nine in the county. The name Corral de Piedra refers to the rocks that were used to build the walls to surround the grazing area. The Edna Valley also featured one of the nine volcanic cones, known as the Nine Sisters, named Islay Hill and is a favorite hiking spot today.
In the mid-1860s, a severe drought decimated the cattle population. Most rancheros sold their land in small parcels to farmers who wanted to establish farming operations and dairy farms as they settled throughout the county. Edna Valley had rich soils and was an ideal location for dry farming crops of garbanzo beans, grains, and orchards. Raising livestock including cattle, sheep, hogs, and horses was also revived in the late 1880s.
The raising of garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) can be traced back to the local Franciscan padres at the San Luis Obispo and San Miguel missions. Legumes were planted at both missions and were an important nutritional part of the daily diet. According to an article written by local historian Dan Krieger in the Times Past column of the San Luis Obispo Tribune published on February 28, 2019, there is a document in the National Historical Archives of Spain which describes the supplies sent to the first Spanish settlements in Alta California. That list includes 4,700 pounds of garbanzo beans, 3,000 pounds of lentils, and 3,000 of beans. The missions grew the crops and also developed seed farms. The Padres traded their seeds with Native Americans and travelers passing through during the Mission Period (1769-1832). The fields went dormant during the Rancho Period (1832-1848) but the industry was revived after pioneers began to settle in the Edna Valley after California acquired statehood in 1850.
The Wine History Project has found no documentation that grapes were grown in the Edna Valley during the Mission Era (1769-1832) or at any time prior to becoming a state in 1850. The Mission Vineyards were planted adjacent to the San Luis Obispo Mission in what is now known as downtown San Luis Obispo. Grapevines were tended there and wine was made at the same location.
The first bean seed farmer that is remembered is the entrepreneurial Ah Louis who owned stores, lumber, and brickyards and operated construction crews throughout the county. He planted a large seed farm in the Edna Valley along what is now known as Biddle Ranch Road. Bean production rose during the first World War when beans were shipped abroad to feed the fighting troops and the starving populations in Europe. In the 1920s locals referred to San Luis Obispo County as the “bean capital of the world.”
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Liz and Andy MacGregor with Jack Foott, circa 1980. Dinner at Claiborne & Churchill. Courtesy of Clay Thompson.
In the 1960s when wineries began to experience a shortage of wine grapes because urban development in Alameda and Santa Clara counties was transforming former vineyards into highways, homes, and businesses, they met with viticulturalists at the University of California at Davis. These viticulturalists had already developed a system using heat summations above 50 degrees Fahrenheit from April to October to identify five Climate Regions. Region I was identified as the coolest region and Region V as the warmest.
Throughout California with the help of local Farm Advisors, potential wine grape growing regions were identified. Edna Valley was classified a Climate Region II as were areas of Napa and Sonoma Counties. All three regions have proved they had the potential to grow premium grapes.
Jack Foott, the Agricultural Advisor to San Luis Obispo County in the 1960s, planted experimental vineyards, known as Agricultural Experiment Stations, in different Climate Regions to see which grape varieties thrived. In 1968 he planted an experimental vineyard on the Righetti Ranch east of Orcutt Road with four varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine made from these grapes at UC Davis in 1972 was praised for its quality. This convinced two important modern pioneers, Norman Goss and Jack Niven, to purchase acreage in 1972 and plant vineyards in 1973 in the Edna Valley. They both achieved much acclaim for the quality of their Chardonnay grapes and later the Pinot Noir grapes when the proper clone was planted. Retired aerospace engineer Andy MacGregor planted two vineyards in 1974.
Jack Niven had the largest vineyard and established the Paragon Vineyard Company with his wife Catharine. Norman Goss, a longtime wine collector and restaurateur, established the Chamisal Vineyard with his wife Carolyn. As more top wineries sought their grapes, Jack Niven decided to organize the local growers to help him with research to apply for the status as an American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Read the full Edna Valley Petition here.
The application described the Edna Valley as a natural elongated valley consisting of approximately 35 square miles. It is oriented along a northwest-southeast axis and is well-defined by the Santa Lucia mountains on the northeast side; by a low hilly complex on the southeast; and by the San Luis Range on the southwest. The upper or northwest border merges into the Los Osos Valley just beyond the City of San Luis Obispo. The inland areas of San Luis Obispo County generally experience substantially higher summer temperatures and substantially lower winter temperatures than the Edna Valley. This is because of the mountain barrier which runs along the San Luis Obispo County coastline, shielding the inland areas from moderating ocean influences. In the Edna Valley, killing frosts are rare which is not the case in other inland areas of the county that are denied the benefits of the ocean influence by the mountain barrier.
There is a gap in this mountain barrier where the Los Osos Valley meets the ocean in the Morro Bay area, fifteen miles northwest of the Edna Valley. Los Osos serves as a wide-mouthed funnel, providing an unobstructed sweep from the ocean into the Edna Valley, bringing frequent morning fog during the summer months and winds in the afternoon. The pocket of hills and mountain surrounding the Edna Valley capture the marine air, tempered by distance from the coastline, flowing in from Morro Bay through the Los Osos Valley, creating climatic conditions which differentiate the Edna Valley from the surrounding areas.
Richard Graff, Chairman of the Board of Chalone Winery and a partner in the Edna Valley Vineyards with the Niven family and Paragon Vineyard Co. described the Edna Valley in a 1981 interview for The Grapevine, a publication of the Central Coast Wine Society. “The Edna Valley has a rich but well-drained alluvial soil, the maritime climate is just ideal; the Edna Valley grapes seem to show higher acids and lower pH than those from traditional premium grapes growing areas. One of the wonderful things about the Edna Valley wines is their balance. They can be big concentrated wines and still have balance.”
This appellation was approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms on May 12, 1982. It was the tenth AVA established in the United States at the time and the first within the borders of the county of San Luis Obispo.