Some relatives of mine from Kansas are planning a visit this fall that includes wine tasting and learning about the local wine industry. I admit that although I have been wine tasting many times, I am no expert on wine. In fact, I realized how little I knew about wine — its history, the science of making it, the different varieties and its contribution to our local economy.
So as not to seem ignorant when family visits, I did a little research. And what I found was fascinating. I hope you enjoy it, too.
The origins of wine predate written history. It is thought that early humans collected and stored berries as they liked their sweet flavor. After a few days, with no refrigeration, juice at the bottom of a container would begin to ferment. A low-alcohol “wine” would be produced. People soon realized when they drank this, they felt different and “had a good time.” Soon, they began to ferment wild berries and grapes intentionally, and the humble beginnings of winemaking began.
Between 10,000 and 8000 B.C., people began to change from hunter-gathers to living in agricultural communities. Grains were the first crops, but orchards and vineyards soon followed. The invention of pottery allowed wine to be made and stored. The earliest evidence of purposeful winemaking is around 6000 B.C. in the Caucasus region of the Middle East in the country of Georgia. After that, wine production spread to other areas such as Iran and Greek Macedonia. Archeologists have found the remnants of crushed grapes at the Greek Macedonia site dating back to 4500 B.C., which shows organized wine production.
The Greeks are credited with being the first to look at wine as more than a “cottage industry.” They planted vineyards in prime locations attempting to produce quality wine and exported it around the Mediterranean. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine and merriment. In Greece, there was an entire month of festivities during the grape harvest.
The Romans picked up where the Greeks left off. Wine was an essential part of the Roman diet, and winemaking became a specific business. The Roman Empire was vast, and as they built civilizations around Europe, they brought their industries with them, including olive oil and wine. As a result, the great vineyards of Spain, France, Germany and Italy owe their origins to the Romans. Romans made a science out of winemaking and wrote down the importance of vineyard site selection, vessel types and types of grapevines to plant to make the best wines.
After the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe was in the Dark Ages, the Roman Catholic Church took over the wine traditions. Gardening and crop production was significant in monasteries, and grapevines were an important crop. Wine was an integral part of the monks’ life and Christian worship traditions. The impact the monks had on our understanding of viticulture is vast. The evolution of wine as a product is often a process of trial and error — even today. The ancient monks put in hundreds of years of groundwork, learning the difference in soils, the effect of the sun, grape varieties, etc. The fact that they could read and write meant that this information was recorded and passed on for future generations to improve upon.
European grapevine varieties were brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s to provide wine for the Catholic Holy Eucharist. Vines were planted at the Spanish missions. In 1779, Father Junipero Serra supervised six peasant farmers (campesinos) to plant the first vineyard in Alta California at Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. The vineyard consisted of 2,000 grapevines. He then established eight other California missions; hence, he has been called the “Father of California Wine.”
One of the oldest vineyards in California was the San Jose vineyard in the Santa Barbara area between what is now Goleta and San Marcos Pass. Mission Santa Barbara had three vineyards: Mission Canyon, La Cieneguita and San Jose.
The San Jose vineyard was named for the San Jose creek that ran along its eastern border. By 1845, the San Jose vineyard had over 2,200 vines and 100 fruit trees. The grapes were used not only to make wine but also raisins. Legend has it that the first building in Goleta was the adobe built by Chumash laborers on the San Jose Vineyard somewhere between 1804 and 1834.
The San Jose vineyard was church property until 1853, when it was leased to an eccentric old pioneer named James McCaffrey by the archbishop of the Los Angeles Diocese. McCaffrey and his sons annually produced 8,000 gallons of the best vintage wines. The great drought of 1863-64 did not negatively affect McCaffrey as it did other farmers in the area due to San Jose Creek.
By 1871, McCaffrey, who had since purchased the vineyard, expanded to over 6,000 vines and continued his successful wine operating until the mid-1890s. He became well known for his fine wines. In 1895, McCaffrey leased the winery to one of his employees, an Italian immigrant named Michele Cavaletto. In 1900, Cavaletto purchased the winery, and it flourished, selling wine to buyers throughout the United States. The Cavaletto family continued the wine operation until Prohibition began in 1919. Fortunately, Cavaletto preserved the old adobe building, which still stands today. The Cavaletto family still operates the San Jose vineyard property, but avocado trees have replaced the grapevines.
The 19th and 20th centuries were periods of significant change for the wine industry. The Industrial Revolution helped the wine industry produce on a much larger scale, especially in Europe. However, two factors hurt the European wine industry while inadvertently helping the U.S. First, in the 1860s, phylloxera, an insect native to the Americas, killed vine roots and infected European vineyards. Large swaths of European vineyards were affected and had to be destroyed.
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The solution was to replant vineyards using American rootstock, which had over thousands of years of cohabitation developed a natural resistance to the insect. The destruction was a considerable setback to European wine production. However, it did allow regions to completely start over and choose the varieties they wanted to replant. The vines selected were mainly the same varieties we now associate with classic European areas such as Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux.
By the early 20th century, the European wine industry was back from the phylloxera plague, only to find itself in the midst of two world wars. The vineyards Europe became battlegrounds, churned up and ruined. The countryside was devastated, millions of people were killed, and European countries struggled to recover for decades after the wars. It was a tragic period, and the European wine industry did not escape the devastation.
By the 1960s, the world had recovered from the world wars, and the wine industry flourished.
Modern winemaking equipment such as stainless steel tanks meant that clean, fresh wines became the norm. Wines no longer required people to lay them down for several years before drinking them. Supermarkets were stocking wine, so it was becoming a household beverage. In the 1970s, California wines were beginning to win prizes at international competitions. Wine education in the U.S. flourished, and the general quality of U.S. wine skyrocketed. California had the best soil, weather, sunshine and sea breeze to become the country’s leader in wine production. This brings us to wine production in Santa Barbara County.
Santa Barbara wine country
California is the leading state in the U.S. for wine production, and Santa Barbara County is a significant wine-producing county. There are 275 wineries in Santa Barbara County with seven approved American Viticultural Areas (AVA). An AVA is defined as “a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown.” Using an AVA designation on a wine label allows vintners to describe more accurately the origin of their wines to help consumers identify the wines they may wish to purchase.
The fact that Santa Barbara County has seven areas shows how our topography and relationship to the ocean create our microclimates. The seven AVA areas are: Alisos Canyon, Ballard Canyon, Central Coast, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Los Olivos District, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills.
Seventy different wine grape varieties are grown in the seven AVAs, encompassing 14,927 acres of vineyards. The average yield per acre is 3.36 tons, with an average price of $2,114 per ton.
The annual economic value of the harvested grapes is $106,078,716. The yearly economic impact of wine for Santa Barbara County is $1.7 billion. In addition, the wine industry provides 9,158 full-time equivalent jobs.
Well, enough statistics. The main thing is to enjoy our beautiful county and its excellent wines. I hope this brief history gives you a little “taste,” or our history helps you enjoy our wines even more.
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