The Test of Time: The history of California wine

Since Greece has been boozing it up for centuries, California’s wine scene seems infantile in comparison. Still, California wine does have its history. Sonoma Valley, although not quite as steeped in history as Napa, is home to California’s oldest operating winery, Buena Vista, dating back to 1857. Napa’s oldest is 1867. Prohibition and vine diseases knocked out most of California’s wine industry, but a few wily wineries held on through the years, plugging away at the market.

You might say older is better in the wine business. Experience is the key factor, but vineyard holdings play an active role. Besides the advantage of having bought cheap land years ago, many mature wineries still cultivate aging, stumpy vineyards. The Zinfandel vine sometimes grows to a ripe age of 100, producing fewer and fewer grapes each harvest. The hearty remaining berries yield a richer, concentrated, more flavorful wine. Cabernet, which has vines that don’t produce as long, also follows the same pattern.

Napa’s elite fraternity of older wineries reads like a Who’s Who: Beaulieu Vineyards, Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug, Louis Martini and Beringer. Because of their dedication to excellence, the Mondavi family reigns as the most highly regarded by the industry. In 1943, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi purchased the legendary yet struggling 1861 Charles Krug Winery. They re-infused a passion equal to the winery’s namesake and reestablished the brand. Today, Cesare’s son, Peter, runs the show. Cesare Mondavi’s other son Robert — you may have heard of him? — resides down the road at Robert Mondavi Winery, established in 1966 after Robert and his son Michael broke off from Krug to spread their wings.

A bit to the south lies Beringer Winery, billed as the oldest continually operating winery in Napa. Created in 1876 by the Beringer brothers, the winery still uses the deep cellaring tunnels dug out of the hills right after they purchased the property. Today, Beringer is practically a household name in the U.S., appreciated for its high quality.

Beaulieu [BOOL yuh] Vineyards (BV for short) recently celebrated their 100th anniversary of continuous wine production, a momentous occasion considering Prohibition’s 13-year reign. They stuck it out by producing sacramental wine, biding their time until the madness ended. George de Latour, BV’s founder, became synonymous with wine excellence throughout the valleys, and that description still fits.

Louis Martini Winery, established right after Prohibition ended in 1933, is in its third generation of winemaking. It continues to win awards and accolades for its juice; Italian immigrant founder Louis Martini would be proud. To this day, his 250-acre Monte Rosso vineyard in Sonoma, purchased in 1938, still produces legendary Cabernets and Zinfandels.

Buena Vista’s 1,000-acre winery straddles both Napa and Sonoma valleys in the Carneros region. The mild weather in the vineyards is perfect for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, the centerpieces of Buena Vista’s wines. But older doesn’t necessarily mean better. In the past, they’ve produced great juice, but their recent vintages have lacked earlier quality.


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