I love this time of year, as the leaves begin to turn and flitter to the rain-soaked soils. We have commemorated this time of year for well over 100 years, and while the Vintage Festival has come and gone, we don’t need such a celebration to remind us that the crush is here. One can’t miss the rich aroma, that pungent deep smell that penetrates our olfactory perceptions, while driving around town. All the buzz is about grapes.Count Agoston Haraszthy is known as the father of the wine industry. Though born in Hungary, he moved to America in 1842. The California gold rush brought him to California, but what he found here were soils and climate perfect for growing grapes. He is noted for developing the first winery in the state, the infamous Buena Vista, in 1857. He was also known as a “Zin Man”, but imported many different cuttings from his field trips to Europe.While Haraszthy may have been the first to develop a winery in the state, he was not the first to plant vines or make wine in the fertile plains north of San Francisco. In 1817, San Rafael Archangel, an asistencia of Mission Dolores, was established. It gained full mission status in 1822, and along with livestock and wheat, vines were planted in this ideal location near the shores of the bay. In 1844, as Governor Pico attempted to sell the mission lands, General Vallejo removed about 2,000 vines and transplanted them at his Petaluma rancho.The Russians were also holding court out at Fort Ross, and are known to have planted grapes in 1821. Right here at home, thousands of vines were planted at our mission in 1832, San Francisco Solano. With the secularization of the missions in 1834, the northern frontier began to see an increase in vineyards, many of the cuttings being taken from the sleepy town of Sonoma. By 1846, Vallejo’s vineyards were providing him with about $20,000 a year.There were others who planted grapes prior to the arrival of Haraszthy. Cyrus Alexander, trapping for the Sublette fur company in the Rocky Mountains, made his way to San Diego in 1833. Alexander arrived to the Russian River area in 1840, settling in what we now call Alexander Valley in 1845. Alexander was a grape grower. According to Charles L. Sullivan, author of “Zinfandel ~ A History of a Grape and its Wine,” it was William McPherson Hill, who founded Old Hill Ranch in 1851, who first planted non-mission grapes, imported from Peru, in Sonoma. Yes, Hill was also a grape grower.Though Sonoma and Marin counties were recognized by early Mexican and European-American colonists as being a prime location for the cultivation of grapes, there was a far less scientific reason for such a deduction. In my humble opinion, both soil and climate were second thoughts. A simple stroll through the wild woods would have provided all the necessary clues. Alas, growing wild and free, Vitis california, a deciduous vine, can be found throughout California and southern Oregon.
The Native people certainly knew it. Though hindsight is 20-20, instead of demanding indigenous people to “take me to your gold”, a more apropos demand should have been “take me to your grapes!” Growing here all along was one of natures pure joys, the scrumptious grape.
Ethnographic accounts of local Native Americans point to the practice of fermenting Manzanita berries. One can’t help but wonder if the indigenous peoples of the region may have also fermented the fruit from the grape, making them the first to create wine here in Sonoma County. Just food for thought. Salute.