vintage wine

By: Mike McCoy, Kern County Museum

Four young easterners came out to California in 1849 following the siren call of gold. John Tone, David Hudson, Charles Valentine and John Stevens planted a vineyard North of Stockton remembering the vineyards of New York. Although the early Spanish missions of California also cultivated grapes and had significant wine production, this was the first effort of Anglo-Americans to bring wine grapes to the southern San Joaquin Valley. This effort was soon followed by brothers William and George West who established a nursery and vineyard in Stockton in 1852. 

With the valley’s hot summer days and warm nights, early grape growers and vintners soon learned that sugar levels were pushed far into the sweet range. By the 1880s, the San Joaquin Valley from Madera to Kern County, was the dessert wine center of California’s young wine industry. With the cultivation of table grapes and the start of the raisin industry, the San Joaquin Valley from Lodi-Stockton in the North to Kern County in the south, soon became the major grape growing region in California. In 1870 the San Joaquin Valley had only 4% of California’s grapes. By 1890, the Valley had 38% of the state’s grapes. This trend continued so that by 1925, 72% of all the grapes in California were in the San Joaquin Valley including 40% of all the wine grapes. 

Box Cars full of grapes going to crush at the El Pinal winery in Lodi in 1895
Box Cars full of grapes going to crush at the El Pinal winery in Lodi in 1895

Mammoth wine making facilities were established throughout the valley by the beginning of the 20th century. Many of these early wines were fortified sweet wines such as port, madeira and flavored brandy. By 1909 Fresno County had 27 wineries producing 7.5 million gallons of sweet wine with half going to port and the rest to Muscat and Tokay. 29 San Joaquin Valley distilleries also produced 1.2 million gallons of brandy that same year. The San Joaquin Vinicultural District included the counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern, soon became the largest wine making region in the country. Kern County vinicultural lagged a bit behind the northern counties, but by the 1920s it had well established vineyards and a wine industry thanks to Italian and Croatian immigrants. 

Prohibition almost destroyed this burgeoning industry forcing a shift away from wine and brandy toward raisins and table grapes. When the wine industry struggled back in California after the repeal of the 18th Amendment, the San Joaquin Valley slowly moved back into bulk wine and non-premium production. 

Advertising Croix Royale sherry and port, typical of the sweet fortified wines of the San Joaquin Valley
Advertising Croix Royale sherry and port, typical of the sweet fortified wines of the San Joaquin Valley

Fast forward to today and the Kearney Agricultural Research Center just south of Fresno is working to create a premium wine market in the San Joaquin Valley and serves as a resource for the region’s grape growers and wine makers. Noting that 85% of the U.S. wine production is in California, the San Joaquin Valley is not overlooked in developing new varietals that can tolerate the summer heat. The 56 varieties of grapes being evaluated at the Kearney Center for the valley all came from similar warm climates in Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain. The new research is a challenge to the mindset that the San Joaquin Valley is just bulk wine country. 

According to the USDA Grape Crush Report, 25% of the wine in California is either Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Bringing forward new varietals and even creative blends with the new grapes will help to bring the valley back as a premium wine growing region. The Kearney Center is also considering such variables as drought tolerance and nematode resistant root stock. A Sicilian variety called Nero d’Avola is showing a lot of promise for valley vineyards as is the French grape Petit Syrah. As the world continues to shift to premium wines and away from bulk wines, the San Joaquin Valley will meet the challenge of a changing market. 

(Thank you to the Kearney Agriculture Research Station for all of the information.)

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