- Author: Judi Gerber
Many people might be surprised to find out that California’s first commercial wine country wasn’t in the Napa or Sonoma Valleys, but Los Angeles County.
Grapes were first planted in Los Angeles in the late 1780’s, as Spanish missionaries planted cuttings they brought with them from Spain and Portugal. Unlike the vintners of today, the Franciscan fathers made their wines strictly for private consumption. Not surprisingly, the grapes they produced became known as “mission” grapes.
Because wine grapes followed the slow expansion of the missions, vineyards planted by individuals were few and far between, and mission vineyards dominated through the early 1830s. As a result, Southern California was the primary winegrowing region of the state with Los Angeles being the largest area in the region.
Even as the mission variety of grapes spread to private growers, they didn’t sell or grow them for commercial purposes either. There were exceptions. In Los Angeles, some early Mexican growers including Tiburcio Tapia, Ricardo Vejar, and Tomas Yorba did sell to the locals but not as a large-scale commercial industry.
In 1826, Joseph Chapman put in 4,000 vines and became the first American grower on record in Los Angeles. For the next decade, he grew grapes in Los Angeles, eventually moving to Santa Barbara.
Then, in the 1830s, as European immigrants moved into Los Angeles, they started to plant other varieties, and planted them with the intention of making money.
In 1831, Frenchman Jean Louis Vignes moved to Los Angeles and purchased 104 acres of land and created a commercial vineyard where Union Station is today. He called the ranch El Aliso, named for the large Alder tree on his property. As a result, he became known as Don Luis del Aliso.
It was Vignes who made winegrowing a commercial enterprise in Los Angeles, leading directly to it becoming California’s first commercial winegrowing region. Not happy with the grape quality here of the “mission grapes” he brought in Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc from France.
He was soon followed by others and Los Angeles was on its way to becoming the state’s wine growing capital. In 1831, more than 100,000 vines were growing within the current city limits of Los Angeles, or, one-half of those in the state (Carosso 1951).
And, in 1833, Los Angeles had six wine growers owning nearly 100 acres of vineyards and approximately 100,000 vines (Carosso 1951).
By 1839, Vignes had over 40,000 vines thriving on his acreage and shipped wine at San Pedro, using ships he chartered for regular wine and brandy shipments to the ports of San Francisco, Monterey, and Santa Barbara. In 1849, he had the largest vineyard in California.
By end of the 1840s, the Gold Rush led to demand for winemaking, and viticulture became one of the most profitable agriculture industries in California.
By the mid-1850s, there were over 100 wineries in the Los Angeles area, with at least seventy-five within the town itself (Carosso 1951).
Watch For Part Two: Commercial Winemaking Explodes in Los Angeles
Carosso, Vincent P. (1951) The California Wine Industry: A Study of the Formative Years. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Sullivan, Charles L., (1998). A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking From the Mission Period to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Workman, Boyle, (1936). Boyle Workman’s The City That Grew. Los Angeles: Southland Publishing Company.