Hernán Cortés (1485-1547)
Hernán Cortés (1485-1547)
California Missions. By Claude G. Putnam, 1949. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
California Missions. By Claude G. Putnam, 1949. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

California viticulture history is distinct from every other region of the United States. It is unique in its origins and in the first widely planted grape varieties that still grow in a variety of microclimates and terroir in our state. There are three important influences to consider to support this claim: early explorations from Spain, the isolation of the land that eventually became California from the rest of the United States, and lastly the Catholic religious heritage.

The first historical event to note is that California viticulture originated with the Spanish crown. The Kings and Queens of Spain were seeking new lands to conquer; they sent explorers by land and sea to claim those lands in the New World. Hernán Cortés first arrived in Cuba with his army. From there, he sailed west with his army to explore the New World and conquer Mexico in 1518. Cortés and his army first discovered lower California (Baja). Cortés then sent his men north along the Pacific Coast to claim Alta California (now known as the state of California) for Spain and King Charles I, who is also known in history as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

It was the following proclamation by Hernán Cortés that marked the beginning of California viticulture: he decreed that each settler in Mexico and lower California had to plant 1,000 grapevines for every one hundred inhabitants on his land. These grapevines, Vitis vinifera, were brought by ship from Spain and later became known in the New World as Mission Grapes. The vines arrived in Mexico around the year 1540. Cuttings from Mission grapes were planted throughout Mexico and found their way north with Spanish explorers in the 1620s. They were planted in the Spanish territory that is now known as the state of New Mexico. To my knowledge, these were the first cuttings planted on land that would become part of the United States. The Mission vines were planted in Alta California by the Spanish Jesuits; eventually, the Franciscans who established the iconic California missions 150 years later, planted them at the sites of all 21 missions. The first cuttings were planted in 1769 at the site of the first mission founded in San Diego.

The second influence that characterizes the unique history of California viticulture is geography. California is physically isolated from the rest of the United States. The west side of the long narrow state of California has 840 miles of coastline, ranging from rolling sand dunes and beaches to steep rugged and rocky cliffs. Most of the mountain ranges run north and south, with elevations reaching 14,505 feet on the east side of the state. There are vast deserts located in between. The Central Coast which includes Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties today are known for their unusual Mediterranean climate which provides unique terroir for winegrowing.

The third and defining characteristic of California viticulture is its Catholic religious heritage that dates back to the mid-eighteenth century. The first chapter of California viticulture and wine history was defined by twenty-one missions with chapels, lodging, and vineyards established by the Spanish Franciscan padres who traveled with Spanish explorers to claim Alta California for the Spanish crown. The expeditions were organized by sea and by land. Those traveling by land included armies, farmers, and padres who brought cattle and grapevine cuttings. Father Junipero Serra was appointed President of the Missions in charge of establishing the location of each mission and performing the ceremony to establish and name each mission in the name of the Spanish crown. Individual Franciscan padres were assigned to supervise the building of missions and the planting of agricultural crops, including vineyards.

The Spaniards were Catholic; the grape and red wine were important symbols in their rituals and their culture. The padres became well known for their drought-tolerant and hedged pruned vines; their viticultural techniques and tools have been passed down to California grape growers. The padres as winemakers made a dull unstable red wine according to historians. However, the padres are remembered for their exciting distilled brandy which is the ingredient necessary for fortifying wine. Viticulture historian Charles L. Sullivan described the introduction of stills to make brandy, aguardiente in Spanish, as “an event which changed the course of mission winemaking.” The earliest reference to distilling brandy in the mission era I can find is dated 1797, based on the research by wine historian Thomas Pinney. Distilling also changed the course of early California winemaking by improving quality and preservation and increasing the range of varietals produced. Legendary winemaker Pierre Dallidet obtained the first license as a distiller in San Luis Obispo County.