What's in a Bottle?
Conquest and the Origins of California Wine
If you’re making the trip to San Francisco for the AHA annual meeting, perhaps you will have the opportunity to share a bottle of wine with colleagues. You might indulge in an oaky Sonoma chardonnay or a delicate Los Carneros pinot noir. Or maybe a robust, juicy zinfandel from the Central Coast is more to your taste as you unwind with friends after a day of conference sessions. This future glass of wine will undoubtedly elicit a pleasurable sensory experience. It may also evoke romantic postcard images that we in the 21st century have come to associate with California wine—gentle, vineyard-covered hills and fragrant, barrel-lined wine cellars, to name a few.
Prominent among these cultural stereotypes are the distinct racial and class connotations that accompany California wine. For some, wine is an exclusive product associated with elite populations and white racial groups. This perception is not without merit. Despite the predominance of Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers in California, both in the wine-growing Napa and Sonoma Valleys and beyond, these groups have faced significant barriers to entry in other segments of the wine industry. Since 2010, the Mexican-American Vintners Association has broken new ground in publicly claiming a space for Mexican American vintners and wineries, highlighting the importance of populations of color to California’s contemporary wine industry. But Mexicans are not new to this industry. They were part of wine growing in California well before the industry’s commercial successes in the 20th and 21st centuries. This history of the genesis of California’s storied wine industry is the story of diverse groups who planted vineyards and fermented wine against the backdrop of conquest and colonization that defined the region in the 18th and 19th centuries.
California’s first vineyards and wineries originated in the Spanish conquest and colonization of the region. As part of their colonizing work, Franciscan missionaries needed a dependable supply of sacramental wine. Without this, they could not say the mass and consecrate the Eucharistic bread and wine or convert Mission Indians to Christianity. The Franciscan friars conscripted California Natives to plant vineyards, gardens, and grainfields and, of course, to construct Mission churches. Establishing vineyards required California Natives to clear land, plant grapevines, and harvest the crop before crushing and fermenting the grapes into wine. In overseeing vineyard cultivation, the Spanish Franciscans also disrupted local environments through the introduction of foreign grapevines (later named the Mission grape) and European agricultural methods. Rather than draw on Indigenous agricultural and land-management practices, the Franciscans relied on agricultural and horticultural manuals imported from Spain to dictate how vineyards and grainfields were planted and how crops were harvested and processed.
The vineyards at Mission San Juan Capistrano or Mission San Gabriel likely produced California’s first vintages by the mid-1780s. Prior to this, the missionaries relied on irregular shipments of wine from Mexico and other parts of New Spain. By the early 19th century, over 60 percent of Missions had vineyards on their properties, ensuring a more dependable supply of wine for the colony in Alta California. From these grapes, the missionaries produced sacramental wine as well as table wines and distilled grape liquors for their own enjoyment and for trade with Spanish imperial soldiers and colonists across Alta California. Although California Natives labored to produce wine from Mission vineyards across the system, Spanish imperial regulations prohibited them from freely consuming wine, the fruit of their labor, outside of the mass. Colonial laws also forbade Natives from accessing other distilled liquors.
Franciscan friars conscripted California Natives to plant vineyards, gardens, and grainfields.
Thus, California’s first wine industry directly emerged from the work of Mission Indians. Although today’s consumers may not associate their wines with the conquest, colonization, and unfree labor of California Natives, the legacy of this nascent wine industry remains visible at some Missions, such as San Juan Capistrano’s famed grape arbor and wine vat. By situating wine growing within this history and highlighting its significance to the history of conquest, colonization, and enslavement of California Natives, historians further complicate the controversial legacy of the Missions in contemporary California. We also claim a space for California Natives in this history by acknowledging their labor in helping to establish one of the region’s most storied agricultural industries.
During the 19th century, the changing political landscape in California enabled different generations of winegrowers to assume the helm of the industry. Following Mexican independence in the 1820s and 1830s, legal changes allowed Mexican Californio landowners to begin trading wine on the open market. This brought forth California’s first commercial wine industry. After US conquest in 1848, migrants from the eastern states and European immigrants to the region expanded vineyard acreage and commercial trade. By the 1850s and 1860s, viticulture had expanded in Southern California such that Los Angeles flourished as California’s viticultural hub.
German immigrants were among those who took up viticulture in Los Angeles and its environs. In other parts of the United States, Americans often viewed German immigrants as foreigners. The opposite occurred in the far west, where Americans celebrated them for bringing European culture to Southern California and for helping to racially whiten the region. In the late 1850s, a group of German immigrants to San Francisco formed the Los Angeles Vineyard Society, a joint-stock wine-growing cooperative. With the help of a Los Angeles–based surveyor, they purchased land in Los Angeles County and founded Anaheim in 1857 as a wine colony. Soon, Anaheim—or Campo Aleman (literally “German country”), as it was known by its Mexican Californio neighbors—became renowned across California and beyond for its vineyards and wines. Numerous groups labored to make Anaheim’s vineyards a success, including Yaqui Natives, Sonoran migrant workers, and, later, Chinese immigrants.
Although they are not often associated with the wine industry, Chinese laborers were instrumental to the success of wine growing in 19th-century California. Following the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, they labored in vineyards across the state. Beyond Anaheim, they planted grapes and worked the harvest in numerous vineyards northeast of Los Angeles, most notably in present-day Pasadena and San Marino. In the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Chinese laborers applied the skills they developed in the gold rush and in building the transcontinental railroad to dig into the local volcanic rock and construct subterranean tunnels and wine caves. These structures were used to age and store wines. For example, Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant, relied on Chinese laborers to construct the wine caves at his Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma during the 1860s. Many of these wine caves are still in operation today across Napa and Sonoma. Visitors to Buena Vista can explore the winery’s original wine caves that Chinese workers dug out over 150 years ago.
Agoston Haraszthy relied on Chinese laborers to construct the wine caves at his Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma.
By the 1870s, the rising tide of nativism prompted mobs of white Americans to target Chinese communities across California as outsiders, and, at times, with violence. Such nativist campaigns extended to rural communities where Chinese men labored in vineyards. For example, Haraszthy’s neighbors protested his hiring of Chinese workers, a choice that he publicly defended in newspapers and agricultural groups as economically prudent given the low wages he could pay them. Farther north in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, local nativists protested Leland Stanford’s hiring of Chinese vineyard workers at his Vina Ranch. As has been well documented in the history of California, white Americans (who were newcomers to California themselves) racialized Chinese immigrants as noncitizens and targeted them with racial violence across the state. As with the conquest of California Natives, this complicated past also is part of the history of wine in the region.
The history of viticulture and wine making in California challenges the romanticized imagery and polished veneer surrounding its contemporary iteration. Wine growing developed from the conquest and colonization of California. As a religious project of colonization and conquest, viticulture and wine production necessitated the labor of racialized groups in the 19th century. At its roots, California’s historic wine industry was a multiracial, multiethnic, and, at times, working-class venture that relied on the labor of diverse groups ranging from California Natives and Mexican Californios to migrants from China, Germany, and the eastern United States. This legacy continues in contemporary vineyards, which largely rely on Mexican American and Mexican farmworkers, including guest workers who travel to California for the harvest. Like their predecessors, these laborers, too, are often racialized as outsiders in the contemporary United States. Vineyard laborers today also are not included as part of the public-facing wine industry. For tourists to California’s numerous wine regions, and for consumers like you and me, these farmworkers are largely rendered invisible.
As you enjoy your wine in the company of old friends in San Francisco, take a moment to reflect on the rich history found behind each bottle of California wine. Let us raise our collective glasses to the populations who planted the seeds of this vibrant industry, as well as those whose labor makes it possible for us to enjoy wine today. Salud!
Julia Ornelas-Higdon is an associate professor of history at California State University, Channel Islands, and the author of The Grapes of Conquest: Race, Labor, and the Industrialization of California Wine, 1769–1920(Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2023).
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