The La Mesa library recently placed California Wine a Sunset Pictorial, published in 1973 and edited by the estimable Bob Thompson, in a cardboard box outside the building’s front door. A visual history of the industry, free for the taking. I took it and am now taking it upon myself to give its contents one more day in the sun before they are consigned to the dustbin of history. As the introduction notes, “Having started 5800 years behind Europe, and having run on a rough track most of the way since, California’s winemakers have been forced to rely on science to do much of their catching up…With change a daily fact of life, this is no time to make lasting judgments on what California wine is. Likely it will be something different by tomorrow. But this is a fine moment to capture impressions of some of the old faces that have brought California wine this far, and some of the new faces that will take it to some new level.” (A touch of context: back then, Gallo’s storage capacity was a mere 165 million gallons, with another 50 million gallons of fermenters.)
“Forced to rely on science.” The tension between technology and tradition was already fomenting. “Although it pains purists to think so,” reads one section on the newly arrived mechanical harvesters, “the big machines may end up doing a better job than human hands. Already, mechanical picking gets grapes from vines to fermenters far faster than hand picking does, to the benefit of the wine…To date, harvesters rigged to crush grapes right in the vineyard produce better wine than those that only pick, leaving the crushing until later. Only more years of experience will give answers to some of the long range effects.”
UC Davis was already a power in 1973, already tinkering in the hopes of improving on tradition. Though in one case, at least, the tinkering served only to affirm tradition. California Wine tells us that, thanks to research at UC Davis and Fresno State, “we have hybrid varieties based on Cabernet Sauvignon that will grow in a hot place and still make good wine…Dr. H.P. Olmo of UC Davis has grown some 225,000 crosses between two or more of the classic European varieties of Vitis vinifera, always seeking to develop new varieties attuned to California sun and soil…From this program have come increasingly familiar grape names: Emerald Riesling, Flora, Ruby Cabernet, Royalty, and Rubired…Now, there is about to appear a new generation, led by a red grape called Carnelian, that seems likely to improve upon the best of these earlier successes.” Mmmm, Carnelian. Wait, what?
(Charming — and illuminating — academic aside: a photo of a hand-lettered sign advertising “Employment Opportunities for Enology Students: Summer Jobs! Three tour guides needed, Robert Mondavi Winery…Do you like IDAHO? Enologist needed at once…Permanent Work, Charles Krug Winery, See Peter Mondavi…Summertime Job! To call on liquor stores. Chance to learn French wines.”)
Reading through, certain categories suggest themselves. One such: The French! “A largely forgotten man named Jean-Louis Vignes recently has been put forward as a more suitable Father of California Wine than Agoston Haraszthy, who has held the post…Vignes fell into obscurity as a matter of chance…the entire district he helped found disappeared beneath downtown Los Angeles by the turn of the century, while Haraszthy’s estate has survived almost intact through the years…” Still, “Vignes was a remarkable force in his day. He came from Cadillac, near Bordeaux, in 1833…Most of his wine came from Mission grapes, but some was from varieties he imported from France…He induced a considerable number of his own countrymen to emigrate to California, provided nursery stock to other vineyardists…and established coastwise commerce in wine as far north as San Francisco.”
Why did Haraszthy nab the title? Marketing. “Agoston Haraszthy…was above all an aggressive promoter. One of the things he promoted was the Buena Vista Viticultural Society, in 1855, Sonoma town. Once he and his partners had their winery going, Haraszthy promoted the first grand-scale importation of cuttings from great European vineyards, in 1861.”
The subject of marketing brings up another common theme: Plus ça change…The book makes more than one mention of “a certain kind of winemaker, one willing to lavish care on a 37-gallon lot of Pinot Noir just to see what will come of it.” In other words, a cult winemaker. In other words, Martin Ray, a man willing to charge $37 (and them’s 1973 dollars) for a bottle of Chardonnay when his neighbors were charging $.89 for cheap rosé. (Though it is worth noting that another of his neighbors was Paul Draper at Ridge. “Echo of the struggle,” reads the caption for the photo of a terraced hillside dotted with chaparral. “In 1894, Dr. Ozea Perone terraced his Montebello Vineyards into the ridge west of Cupertino that still bears their name. The terrain defeated its cultivators even before Prohibition.” Ridge Vineyards famously staged a comeback on behalf of the cultivators, and the winery’s Monte Bello is now among the great California reds.)
The text on Ray’s region, Santa Clara, also provides this delightfully agricultural tidbit, one that ties grapes into the world of farming in a way you rarely hear about anymore: “John Daniel, when he owned Inglenook, liked Napa Valley soil that was not quite rich enough to grow commercial prunes. Norman Bundgard, Paul Masson vineyard manager at Soledad, favors benchlands that drain just a little too quickly for lettuce to prosper. Such local signs ultimately provide the keys to the finest vineyard lands.”
Continuing with The French! “The late James D. Zellerbach built his Hanzell winery in 1956 to prove or disprove a theory that had long haunted him: that the barrel a wine ages in has a good deal to do with how the wine finally tastes. A lifelong admirer of great Burgundies, Zellerbach chose to grow Burgundian grapes in California soil, then age the wines in barrels from the French oak forest at Limousin…The wines he made stirred such interest that every California grower of varietals found himself obliged during the 1960s to decide for or against using European barrels in his cellars.”
Plus ça change…The hunt for terroir was already underway. “It looks the same, but,” runs the caption for a panoramic photo of Napa, “veteran winemakers in the valley swear they can identify a dusty taste imparted to wine by these soils around Rutherford town. There is a geologic difference from other Napa soils.”
The French! “Livermore… started out to be a little corner of Bordeaux. Before Prohibition, Frenchmen dominated winegrowing there, having been attracted by the similarity of its rocky soil to Graves.” There’s that terroir again… “Louis Mel was…the most lasting contributor (Mel had obtained cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Chateau D’Yquem…)”
Plus ça change… “Most early wineries snugged into hillsides. Grapes could arrive at a door on the high side and wine could depart from a door on the low side, having been moved through the fermenting and aging processes by gravity.” Today, gravity-feed wineries are cutting-edge again — gentler than the gentlest of pumps on tender grape skins.
Like Carelian, however, some things seemed destined to fade, even some aspects of smart marketing: “Brookside first found the most effective of the current keys to prosperity in the Los Angeles basin: direct sales from winery to consumer. Between 1952 and 1972 Philo Baine and his family built a rambling empire of winery-owned tasting rooms-cum-retail stores all over California. With these, Brookside outstripped everybody else whose grapes grow in California.” It’s hard to imagine a winery ever managing this kind of market penetration again.
Speaking of Brookside, the book includes a hopeful note — as fine a place as any to conclude this meander into the past. “New hope: Rancho California. Some 1,100 acres of pioneer vineyards dot the rolling hills east of Temecula and US 395. The potential exceeds 10,000 acres, all within reach of irrigation, all washed by sea air flowing through a gap in the coast mountains. Fittingly, the much-traveled Brookside Vineyard Company is the major owner of vineyards, and the almost exclusive user of the crops from half a dozen independent growers.” The other great hope for Los Angeles–regional winemaking? Santa Barbara.