California Marks 150th Anniversary Of Gold Discovery
May 1, 2006
An Era That Transformed The State's Wine Industry
SAN FRANCISCO - California commemorates the sesquicentennial of the 1848 Gold Discovery on January 24, marking James Wilson Marshall's historic find at Sutter's Mill in Coloma Valley, near Sacramento. The promise of mineral riches caused California's population to soar half a million from an estimated 14,000 (exclusive of Native Americans) in 1848, making the Gold Rush of 1849 one of the largest migrations of people in history. But as gold fever subsided, many newcomers turned from digging gold to pursuing a more enduring wealth born from the earth, the liquid gold that was California wine.
The Gold Rush did much to transform the wine industry by helping it dramatically grow in magnitude. For many, gold fever became "vine fever" as news of winegrower profits spread and many vineyard trials showed that California's sunshine allowed grapes to fully ripen nearly anywhere in the state. In a short period after the rush, vine plantings more than doubled. In 1856, there were 1,500,000 vines; in 1857, 2,265,000; and in 1858, 3,954,000, according to Thomas Pinney's "A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition."
This rapid industry expansion attracted the attention of the California legislature. In 1859, it offered a four-year exemption from taxation on new vineyards. The act encouraged the industry to expand further by allowing winegrowers to produce a crop before having to pay taxes. By 1862, the number of vines in the state reached eight million.
But the wine industry did not begin with the Gold Rush. It was inherited from the Franciscan monks who made the state's first wines to celebrate Mass. Padre Jun’pero Serra established Mission San Diego in 1769, the first in a chain of 21 missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma, nearly all of which produced wine. The Mission variety that the Franciscans brought from Mexico became the grape predominantly used to make wine in the state. However, though it did not make a good table wine, it did make a good sweet wine and brandy.
The use of other grapes besides the Mission variety expanded through the efforts of the early winegrowers after the Gold Rush. California gold had attracted a diverse cultural mix of settlers. The Germans, Dutch, French, Americans and English were among the pioneer winegrowers of this era. California and its wines would benefit from the international style of these immigrants as well as others, such as the Italians who were to later dominate the industry.
The newcomers knew they needed varieties other than the Mission grape to make fine quality table wine. The Germans and French, along with American winegrowers, introduced well over 100 European Vinifera grape varieties in the 1850s. The Zinfandel, a true European grape, quickly became a favorite with California winegrowers, as it is still. These contributions helped place California wine on the road to acclaim and more shipments to other states and abroad.
By the end of the 1850s, the Gold Rush had helped establish the California wine industry's commercial presence. According to the 1859 census, California was producing half a million gallons of wine, almost 10 times the figure for 1850. Wine was produced from regions all over the state, dominated by the Los Angeles region.
Thus began the California wine industry's metamorphosis into an important economic base for the state, thanks in part to the economic revolution created by the Gold Rush. Although the industry was nearly wiped out by Prohibition from 1919 to 1933, today winegrapes have become one of California's leading fruit crops. Shipping over 440 million gallons of wine annually to the U.S. worth an estimated retail value of $16.5 billion in 2005, the state makes 90 percent of U.S. wine. The industry directly and indirectly creates over 207,000 jobs in the Golden State.