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Sonoma Coast Wine Production History

Early settlers lived in a politically fragmented society. The Mexican and Russian establishments rarely mingled. There were also a number of Americans in the region that did not fit into the mold of either society.

The Russians still had a strong presence in Northern California centered at Fort Ross. Russian fur trappers were the other early European inhabitants of Sonoma County. Many lived in the Russian River Valley. They were major players in the lucrative sea otter pelt trade. Established in 1812, Fort Ross was the center of this business.

In 1823, Father Jose Altimira founded a mission in the Sonoma Valley. Vineyards were planted and simple wines were made with the Criolla, or Mission varietal.

The availability of relatively inexpensive land attracted Irish, German, French and American settlers to the region. They were also drawn by the temperate climate and the proximity to the Bay Area. During these years, livestock and subsistence farming dominated the economy.

After the initial years of the Gold Rush, most of the surface placer was found. Many individuals became disillusioned with the difficult and increasingly poverty-ridden life of a gold miner. Some settled in Sonoma Valley, and along the Sonoma Coast to start more stable lives. They raised livestock and planted agricultural products, including vineyards. Some of these rugged pioneers produced the first wine on Sonoma Mountain.

Phylloxera devastated vineyards all over the state during the late 19th century. After the discovery of phylloxera resistant rootstocks, the industry bounced back in the early 20th century. There were over 100 wineries in Sonoma on the eve of Prohibition.

Prohibition decimated the wine industry and caused a major gap in the region’s viticultural history. A few producers survived, including Sebastiani Winery. This was due to a coveted and rare contract to make wine for ecclesiastical use.

The decades after Prohibition catered to America’s undeveloped taste for wine. Some great vintages were made by Sonoma Wineries during these years, but most production was generic or fortified to the point of barely being wine. These fortified wines were not fine ports; they were made to get people drunk cheaply.

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