1850s 1860s Vallejo & Haraszthy

The California Wine Country and California wine making of the immediate post gold rush period would probably have remained an informal affair had it not been for the efforts of a flamboyant Hungarian immigrant named “Count” Agoston Haraszthy. Haraszthy - considered the “Father of the California Wine Industry”, became friends with General Vallejo (Haraszthy’s two sons would marry two of Vallejo’s daughters in a grand double wedding) and the two even had a good-natured rivalry over who could produce the best wines. It was Haraszthy who started the first commercial California winery, Buena Vista, which is still in operation today near the town of Sonoma.

But perhaps Haraszthy’s most important contribution to the California wine country was his introduction of European wine grapes, replacing the old mission grapes. Accepting a commission from the governor of California, Haraszthy traveled to Europe and collected thousands of vine cuttings from about 300 European varietals and brought them back to be planted in the Sonoma and Napa wine country.

Once the local wine grape growers and winemakers got their hands on the fine European wine grapes, the California wine industry grew quickly and the California wine country was born. Throughout the late 1800s the number of acres dedicated to wine grape cultivation in Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley grew steadily as California Wines began to gain a reputation for the highest quality around the world.

Shortly after the introduction of European wine grape varietals to the California wine country, there was an outbreak of a root louse called phylloxera (an aphid–like insect deadly) to grapevines. The devastation was severe, but farmers quickly realized that it was mainly the new European wine grapes that seemed to be affected. The native California wine grapes were immune to the local bug. California wine growers soon figured out that in order to save their remaining vines, they would have to graft them onto the rootstock of native California grapes. The grafting process was slow and intensive but within a few years most farmers had recovered and the crisis was over.

Unfortunately, at about this time, samples of California native grapes were sent to the Royal Botanical Gardens in London to be added to the permanent collection. The samples sent over were infested with phylloxera and the pest escaped to wreak havoc in the European wine country. In the end, the European wine grape growers were forced to employ the same method to stop the pests, they had to manually graft their vines onto the rootstocks of phylloxera resistant native California rootstocks. Because the wine grape growers bothered only to save profitable and commonly used wine grapes, many obscure and little known European varietals were lost to the epidemic.

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