1769-1834 California Mission Period

The California Wine Country is centered around the picturesque and historic town of Sonoma. In 1823, the site where the heart of the town now stands was selected for the 21st and final California Mission. The chain of missions of Alta California had begun as a project of Franciscan Father Junipero Serra, under the auspices of the Spanish crown in 1769. The idea was to build a chain of missions and presidios starting in San Diego and extending north up the coast of California. The Franciscans would convert and baptize Native Americans at their mission churches then set them to work on the vast mission plantations. The missions created a foothold in the new untamed land, which helped to promote exploration, settlement and colonization, thus legitimizing Spain’s tenuous hold on the attractive territory.

Shortly after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, an ambitious young priest named Jose Altimira proposed that a new mission be built in the frontier north of San Rafael. Altimira, who was posted at the San Francisco mission, argued that the unfavorable climate and soils of the Mission San Francisco de Assisi – commonly known as Mission Dolores- were contributing to high rates of disease among the converts. The Mexican governor at the time decided to allow construction of the mission at the more northerly site, partly due to concerns about expansion of a Russian settlement up the coast, Fort Ross. The Russians had established the fur trading post on the Sonoma coast in 1812. Although it is not likely the Russians had any grand expansionist designs on California, the Mexican authorities were suspicious of their presence and were eager to promote more Mexican settlements. In addition to the Russians, the English had small settlement in Oregon, the Americans were pushing ever westward and the French always had several ships in California ports conducting trade and doing exploration.

In 1823 Fr. Altimira realized his dream and founded the Mission San Francisco de Solano at Sonoma. Owing to the temperate climate and rich soils the mission was very successful and quickly became one of the richest and most productive in the entire chain. As was common at most California missions, Fr. Altimira planted grapevines along with the other crops of the plantation. The “mission grapes” as the hearty native variety came to be called, were used to make sacramental wines. It is the Russians however who deserve recognition as the California Wine Country’s first winemakers as they too were growing the scrappy local grapes back in 1812.

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