While the Franciscan fathers were moving northward into Alta California along the Camino Real, establishing missions a day’s ride distant from one another, they recognized that the climate was highly suitable for planting vineyards. By 1823, when the final mission was established in Sonoma, simple table wines and brandies were already being made of the Mission grape.
When the missions were seized by the Mexican government in 1834, cuttings from the Sonoma Mission vineyards were distributed and planted throughout northern California by pioneering farmers. The wines they produced gradually began drawing international attention, attracting emigration from the wine-making regions of Europe.
Among the new arrivals was Count Agoston Haraszthy, an exiled Hungarian aristocrat. He purchased land and established Buena Vista Winery northeast of Sonoma plaza in 1856. Haraszthy became known as the "Father of the California Wine Industry" after he brought more than 300 classic varieties of grapes back to California from Europe, in 1861. One of his cuttings lost its label and went unnamed for decades, gradually becoming known as the uniquely California wine, Zinfandel.
Ten years later a worldwide outbreak of phylloxera began gradually infecting most of the local vineyards. Undaunted, ingenious, and used to working hard together, the vineyardists of the region identified the pest and developed a resistant root stock that eventually saved the industry throughout the world. When the railroads arrived local wines began to be exported, and won many awards at major expositions including the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the Paris Exposition in 1900.
In 1920 the Volstead Act established Prohibition throughout the country. Wineries closed down, but vineyards were able to survive because each household was permitted to make 200 gallons of wine a year for personal consumption. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, there were very few wineries still active in the valley. However, because World War II made importing European wines impossible, they were able to gradually rebuild. Most of the wine produced then was sold in bulk, with generic names such as burgundy and chablis, and without varietal designation or distinction.
A younger generation of winemakers began taking over at this time, and as taste and demand for wine began growing throughout the country, local vintners began to focus on varietal wines. Appellations that identified the qualities and character of each grape-growing region were established, and wine labels were regulated for the benefit (and education) of the consumer. By the 1970s technology and marketing strategies were having their impact on what was now a century-long and seasoned tradition.
In 1976 the famous Paris wine tasting known as the Judgment of Paris was organized, in which French judges did a blind tasting of the finest chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon from France and California. Much to the chagrin of the French the California wines (many made of grapes from Sonoma Valley) were rated best in each category, establishing California wines for once and for all as indisputably world-class— a reputation it has enjoyed and improved upon over the decades since.
16,000 acres of premium grapes are now planted here in the Valley of the Moon, in three distinct appellations: Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain, and the Carneros near San Pablo Bay. From these vineyards dozens of premium varietal wines, such as the noble Cabernet Sauvignon and the voluptuous Chardonnay, are made by scores of skilled artisan winemakers.