Santa Clara Valley Wine

The Ohlone were the orginal inhabitants of the Santa Clara Valley, thriving from San Francisco Bay to Monterey Bay and Salinas. They did not consider themselves a distinct people, instead divided into separate land-holding groups (tribes) which interacted freely in trade, marriage, and religious ceremonies. They suffered an occasional squabble amongst themselves, but for the most part lived peaceably, hunted and fished in what they called “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.”

Their lives changed forever when the Spaniards arrived in 1769 to construct a collection of twenty-one missions, from San Diego to Solano.


Over time, history becomes blurred, sometimes becomes legend, and often becomes myth. Not so much with wine, because the grapes and the vines upon which they grow have a documented geographical genealogy, which is often attached to a specific human genealogy. Wine grapes are a legacy passed from one generation to the next, and the bloodlines that link people to grapes remain strong — particularly when the vines are relocated half a world away from their origin.

The Spaniards had mapped and claimed California in 1542, but for nearly two hundred years the entire region remained ignored, left to the indigenous people who had lived here for ten thousand years. But in 1769 Spain decided to expand its colonialism and appointed Franciscan monk Junipero Serra as President of the Missions, and gave him the mission to establish missions in Alta California (land north of Baja).

Serra began in Baja California and walked his way north. July 1, 1769, his expedition arrived at what become San Diego. Fifteen days later he founded Mission San Diego de Alcalá. He also planted mission grapes, California’s first winegrape vines. One year later, Serra founded a second mission — Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Carmelo — on Monterey Bay, and it was there, just seventeen miles west as the crow flies from where some of the richest history of California winemaking would take root, he planted more mission grapes. Over the next thirteen years, Serra founded seven more missions… and planted more grapes. Father Fermin Lasuén, Serra’s successor from 1782 to 1798, also founded nine missions. He planted grapes. Three other Franciscan monks established three more missions from 1804 to 1823… and they planted mission grapes.

With the establishment of twenty-one California missions, the legacy of the Santa Clara Valley wine industry had sprouted in the fertile valley soil.


Spain’s primary control of Alta California lay rooted in the missions, but because the monarchy had no burning desire to expand much farther beyond San Francisco Bay, Alta California remained largely remote, left to its own devices.

In 1821, after an eleven-year struggle, Mexico won its independence from Spain, but the revolutionaries who gained Mexico’s sovereignty had no plan or strategy for self-governance, thus the makeshift governments remained in disarray and in bitter conflict with themselves, unable to effect any substantial political clout in its newly acquired landholding — Alta California.

The Franciscan monks managed to retain control over missions lands, and continued to convert the indigenous people, but the Mexican war of independence changed things. Alta California experienced an influx of immigrants from the U.S., France, and Russia, who began to form trade routes and established permanent outposts and settlements. Those who came were mostly trappers, traders, and more significantly farmers.

Even before the war, secular vineyards were already established in Alta California. Only five years after the war, Joseph John Chapman (a Massachusetts pirate-turned-farmer) planted his privately-owned Mission grapevines to establish the first commercial vineyard in California.

In 1833 the Mexican government managed to effect the Secularization Act, which divided mission lands into individual land grants. Alta California wasted no time with its new mindset of privatization and ownership. Neither did the world. The region experienced an even greater influx of immigration and commerce, and in 1846 — ignited by the U.S. annexation of Texas — formed an army and declared itself the California Republic, independent of Mexico.

Two years later, it was just that. At the end of the Mexican-American War California was an official U.S. territory — and just two years after that California became the thirty-first of the United States.

And just moments after that, California became ripe with the legacies that propelled it to the fourth largest wine producing country on Earth.


The California Gold Rush (1849) proved to be the catalyst for the growth of wine growing and production in the Santa Clara Valley. California was pregnant with precious yellow metal, but not all who ventured west to seek a fortune had the gumption and wherewithal to stick with it. Mining was arduous work, sometimes a crapshoot, and too often involved danger from looters and robbers. Many who came for gold arrived from other countries, and knew how to do more with their hands than slam pick axes into rock and dirt and to sluice rivers. They knew how to farm. Besides fruit orchards and vegetable crops, they understood the cultivation of wine grapes, and they brought with them centuries-old winestock from France and began to cultivate more varietals than the mission grape planted by the Franciscan monks.

They saw another kind of gold in “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.”

A community of Frenchmen who arrived at the outset of the Gold Rush settled in Santa Clara Valley, because of the comfortable climate and the richness of the soil. Among them was Etienne Thée, who in1852 purchased eight thousand acres of the Rancho San Juan Bautista land grant. He planted vines of mission grapes. That same year, fellow Frenchman Charles Lefranc — who would later become the “Father of California’s Commercial Winemaking” — went to work for Thée. The two formed a partnership and founded New Almaden Winery (what was once the oldest winery in California). Lefranc, unimpressed by the luster-less body of the mission grape, replaced the mission vines with superior French varietals he brought from the “Old World,” and produced California’s first Bordeaux. He married his partner’s daughter, Marie Adèle in1857 and inherited the business. Three years later, New Alamaden was the first and largest commercial winery in California.

Lefranc also instilled innovation into the Growing California wine industry. In particular, he used redwood barrels, which impressed the California Agricultural Society, which reported the barrels were “… half as costly, and will last longer than casks made from the best of oak. Worms never touch them, and they impart neither taste nor color to the wine.”

The wine industry began to ripen into the future.


The future of California wine arrived in 1878, when Paul Masson migrated from Burgundy, France, to Santa Clara Valley and became the winemaker for Charles Lefranc at New Almaden — a productive and financially successful, nine-year relationship.

Masson married his boss’s eldest daughter, Louise, in 1887. Two months later tragedy struck. Charles Lefranc was trampled to death in a freak horse-and-buggy accident. That same year, Masson and Henry Lefranc (son of the wine pioneer) formed a partnership, and they began to concoct a bottle-fermented sparkling wine, which they released in 1892 to unprecedented acclaim. With that triumph, Henry sold his share of the partnership to Masson, who took sole control over New Almaden, though the children of Charles Lefranc retained ownership of the winery.

Masson eventually grew dispirited with Almaden, yearned for his own vineyard — one situated on a hillside, which he believed would yield a more crisp, robust grape. In 1896 he quelled his longing and purchased 573 acres acres in the Saratoga hills. He christened his new creation Le Cresta, and planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He aimed to establish a hallmark of sparkling wines, and toward that end formed the Masson Champagne Company.

Masson’s dream became his legacy. His sparklers became what wine expert Charles Sullivan has dubbed “The Pride of California.”


The California wine industry shot like a rocket toward success, but when navigating uncharted territory anything can happen, and beginning in 1873 anything bad that could happen did… for the next fifty years.

Phylloxera is an aphid-like insect that feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines. The effect on the vine is devastating. The infestation was noticed in California in 1873, ten years after the scourge decimated European vineyards in much the same way the plague wiped out people.

At first not much was done about the blight. Many winegrowers were slow to acknowledge the problem, perhaps not wanting to reveal their vineyards were infested. Whatever the reason, no one could mistake the reddening leaves, the dried bunches of grapes hanging dead on the vines, and the black rotting roots. By 1880, the problem could no longer be ignored. California had already lost acres of vineyards by the thousands.

The blight became such an epidemic that the California legislature created the Board of State Viticulture Commissioners and the Department of Agriculture at the University of California in Berkeley. Both institutions were tasked with finding the means to mitigate the massive destruction wrought by phylloxera. They discovered that vines which grew in dryer climes were resistant to the infestation, and proposed the solution to graft vines onto vines which proved resistant to the nasty bug.

Though not a cure, the technique of grafting gave winegrowers more than a fighting chance to stay in business.

San Francisco Earthquake
Phylloxera claimed many vineyards in Santa Clara Valley, had chewed a large whole in the valley’s wine production, but the fraction of the winemakers who remained began in ernest with the new grafting technique to regain their previous success.

The newfound hope, however, was shortlived. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake became an even heavier blow to the California wine industry — one which pinned winegrowers to the ropes, and dropped many to the canvas.

San Francisco had become the hub of the wine industry, with warehouses, wine houses, and enough ports to transport California wine toward world recognition, but when the two largest tectonic plates on the planet decided to no longer play nicely together, the city of San Francisco crashed to the ground. What little remained standing burst into flames — dubbed by writer Jack London as the “Great Fire.”

Seventy percent of the city smoldered in ruin.

The earthquake ravaged everything from Santa Clara County to Sonoma. Almost nothing was spared, which brought the California wine industry to just a skinny husk compared to its former rising glory. The California wine Association lost eight million gallons of wine all its own. Hotels, restaurants, pubs… all of it was gone. Fifty million gallons of wine was decimated in San Francisco. Two-thirds of California’s wine was gone. What remained of much of the wine in San Francisco was used to put out fires.

Still, the California wine industry, all but uprooted and completely trampled, kept whatever hold it could on the fertile soil and released new sprouts whenever it could for the next eighteen years.

Wet or dry? During the two years that followed the end of World War I, that question had nothing to do with the weather. It spoke about the heated division in the United States between those who wanted to ban alcohol and those who did not.

On January 1st 1920, the U.S. Congress and the House of Representatives ratified the Volstead Act, to set Prohibition into motion for the next thirteen years. Two days after ratification, the country went dry.

Prohibition made it illegal to manufacture, import, sell, and transport alcohol, though It did, allow the homebrewing of wine and cider, and the use of wine for religious purposes.

It did not, however, provide a means to enforce the law, thus deferred all enforcement and legal aspects to the Individual states.

California, ever a state which loves to enact laws into its books, had its share of bills written to provide the financial means to enact the national law. All but one was voted down by referendum.

It is ironic the one bill California did enact, and which had potential to end winemaking in the State altogether, was authored by T. M. Wright, the assemblyman from Santa Clara County — the same county which can lay claim as the birthplace of commercial winemaking in California.

Almost immediately, the country began to ease the restrictions imposed by The Volstead Act, but turning the wheels of government is a slow process, and by the time the U.S. repealed prohibition, only 25% of California’s previous wineries and vineyards remained.

Yet, a few sparks still glowed in Santa Clara Valley. Paul Masson survived prohibition with great success by making “medicinal” champagne. Some growers made wine for sacramental use, and others dried their grapes into raisins or made juice to ship across the country. A few remained under the radar and bootlegged their wines to any of the speakeasys prevalent in San Francisco.

Emilio Guglielmo made a daring move in 1925, in the belly of Prohibition, and started his 15-acre winery in Morgan Hill because of the rising demand for wine at the time, and because he knew the back-firing law would eventually end.

But though embers remained, only a smattering of wineries still existed in the Valley, and many of those had fallen into disrepair, or were unable in the coming years to reclaim their former glory. It would be another thirty years before the Phoenix of the wine industry rose from the ashes left by Prohibition.

The Dark Age
The Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam… The path to recovery for the California wine industry later Laden with obstacles, and that too many of the post-prohibition wineries grew grapes that could be fermented into what connoisseurs called only belly wash.

But the fertile Santa Clara Valley soil remained just that, and sprouted three significant people with a pocketful of dreams, who kept the embers of Santa Clara Valley glowing through the dark years of rehabilitation.

Louis Benoist of San Francisco purchased Almaden Vineyards in 1941, and with help from renowned wine writer and connoisseur Frank Schoonmaker managed to distribute Almaden wines across the country — enough to make them one of the most popular wines in the U.S.

Martin Ray, a protegé of Paul Masson, purchased Masson Champagne Company in 1943 and wasted no time reinvigorating the stature of Masson wines — even established the Santa Cruz AVA. Ray was a boisterous, egotistical fellow with an overzealous passion for wine. Anyone who came in contact with him became implanted with that passion. It could be said he was responsible for the rebirth of modern winemaking in Santa Clara County.

Emilio Guglielmo, who founded his winery against all odds in the midst of Prohibition, also remained to lay claim as the oldest continuing winery in Santa Clara Valley, and was ripe for the planting of the future.


The defining mark for all of the California wine industry came in 1976 with what is now called the “Judgement of Paris.”

For too many years only three wines existed: the good stuff (French), the very good stuff (also French), and everything else. Primarily the world felt the best wines came from “old world” vines, which remained landlocked in France. What few in the world of wine remembered, however, was that stock from those vines was imported to the US in the mid 1800s, and survived the phylloxera infestation, the San Francisco Earthquake, Prohibition, and more than 30 years of revitalizing the California wine industry.

Good winestock to be sure, but France could not lay claim to exclusiveness of those vines.

Steven Spurrier, a renowned British Wine Cellar and educator, organized a blind wine-tasting competition held in Paris, France. His goal was to pit unlabeled French and American wines against one another, and have them judged by nine French experts. The competition was poo-pooed by journalists worldwide. Only one reporter (from Time Magazine) covered the event. The results of the blind tasting, however, became global news, and tossed the world’s wine market on its ear.

May 1976, ten French white wines were set side-by-side with ten white wines from the United States. Ten French red wines were also set side-by-side with ten American reds.

When the final tastes were spit into the cuspidor and all the scores were tallied, the U.S. wines had bested the French wines. Of course France rebuked the results, and even tried to ignore them. But the results of the competition did make the news, and did more than bolster the continued growth of wineries in Santa Clara Valley.

Even today, new Vineyards appear in the soil which retains a history from before California was even a state.