America’s First Wine Country: Few regions have more of the character of old California than Sonoma County, and grapes and wine have been integral to its history.
As early as 1821, Russian colonists planted and cultivated grapes at Fort Ross on the Pacific Coast. (Watch a beautiful video about Fort Ross.) But it was the Spanish Franciscan fathers who laid the foundation for the wine industry in 1832 when Padre Jose Altimera planted several thousand grapevines at their northernmost mission, San Francisco Solano in Sonoma.
In 1834, political upheaval brought an appropriation of the missions by the Mexican government. During this period of disarray, cuttings from the Sonoma Mission vineyards were carried throughout the northern California area to start new vineyards.
By the time of the “Bear Flag Revolt” and the subsequent annexation of California by the United States, the vineyards of General Mariano Vallejo, the military governor of Mexican California, were providing an annual income of $20,000.
Other areas in the county were developing at this time: Rocky Mountain trapper Cyrus Alexander in northern Sonoma County first planted grapes in what would become Alexander Valley; the county’s first “feminine vineyardist,” Senora Maria de Carrillo, had 2,000 vines in what would be Santa Rosa; Captain Nicholas Carrigan, probably the first American settler, had vineyards in the Valley of the Moon; and, later in 1852, his neighbor William Hill, planted the first non-mission grapes in the county.
All of this activity took place prior to the arrival in 1855 of the man considered “The Father of California Wine Industry,” Count Agoston Haraszthy. The Hungarian purchased the Salavador Vallejo vineyard in Sonoma Valley, renamed it Buena Vista, and soon was producing fine wines from the vineyard.
In 1861 he was commissioned, but never paid, by the California legislature to study viticulture in Europe. He returned to Sonoma County the following year with more than 100,000 cuttings of prize grape varietals from France, Italy, and Spain. Haraszthy is credited with first promoting the concept that fine table wines could be produced in Sonoma County as well as Europe.
And, as they say, the rest is history. We’ll drink to that.