Once they arrived in California, the Spanish military and missionaries quickly expanded their reach. They established the first mission in San Diego in 1769 and landed in San Francisco Bay that same year. One year later, they established their second mission at Carmel-by-the-Sea on Monterey Bay. By 1823, the twenty-first and final mission had been established in Sonoma.
The Spanish era in California didn’t last long, but it established settlements, roads, and other infrastructure that allowed for rapid expansion from 1848 on. In the north, growth was explosive, due to the Gold Rush. South of the greater San Francisco Bay Area, populations and economies grew more slowly. Economic drivers were ranching, farming, and quarrying things less lucrative than gold, such as limestone.
Monterey County, which was later divided to form San Benito County, saw its vineyard acreage shoot up dramatically in the 1850s. The wine was sold out of town, rather than to locals though. That was especially true in the San Benito area. It was never heavily populated. Even today, the county numbers just 63,000 residents.
So while San Benito County is a good viticultural zone, it doesn’t have extensive vineyards. The population is low and doesn’t get a lot of tourism, with the county hidden from travelers on Highway 101 by the Gavilan Mountains.
A vast expansion of acreage occurred in the early 1970s. Almaden planted extensive vineyards to fuel their jug wine sales, before moving its interests to the Inland Valleys, which was bigger, more accessible, and higher yielding.
Planted acres in San Benito County are once again on the rise, and have now returned to the level of those Almaden years. Fortunately, these days the focus is largely on quality rather than volume. In addition, the high prices of land and grapes from Napa County, Sonoma County, and even parts of Monterey County, make San Benito increasingly attractive to growers and producers.
The drive for quality actually began even before the arrival of Almaden. The first big step was pioneer Richard (Dick) Graff’s purchase and improvements at Chalone. The next was Josh Jensen founding and developing Calera. Those two companies remain the best-known wineries in the area. Other high-quality wines made from San Benito grapes came from out-of-the-area producers such as Kenneth Volk.
With the ease of transporting grapes in refrigerated trucks and the large number of wineries producing vineyard designates from all over the state, more and more outside producers are now working with San Benito vineyards. However, the pull of the area, ancient vines, are scarce, both in acreage and yield.
The old vines of San Benito County aren’t necessarily older in general than those which can be found in some other regions. However, the varietal mix and climate do make some of the San Benito vineyards quite unique. For example, the Wirz Vineyard dates to 1963. At less than 60 years, its age is not remarkable compared to many Zinfandel vineyards. However, the old vines are own-rooted Riesling, rarely found in a cool climate in California.The story with old Mourvèdre vines in the Enz Vineyard is similar. As of 2019, there were only 1166 acres (472ha) of that variety in the entire state of California. The vast majority of those vines are fairly young, certainly less than 30 years, making 100-year old Mourvèdre quite unique.
The even older Negrette vines at DeRose are even more unusual, since there’s little Negrette planted anywhere. The variety is best-known in the area of Toulouse in Southern France, where it is a principal grape. But, there are only about 3,000 acres (1,214ha) of the variety in all of France. There’s so little in California that the variety isn’t listed in the annual California Grape Acreage Report.
First Spanish mission established in San Diego de Alcalá
Second mission established at Carmel-by-the-Sea (Monterey County)
Spanish missionaries arrive in San Benito County
Mission San Juan Bautista established
The mission adds a vineyard
Theophile Vaché plants vines at what is now DeRose and Eden Rift in Cienega Valley.
Monterey County (which included San Benito) has 10,000 acres (4,047 ha) of vines
Monterey County vineyard acres reach 50,000 acres (20,234 ha)
San Benito County created. The land was formerly part of Monterey County.
The vineyard now known as Enz is planted.
Charles Tamm establishes a vineyard at Chalone, planted to Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, selling sacramental wine
Francis William Silvear plants Pinot Noir near Tamm’s vineyard
Mourvèdre is added to the Enz Vineyard.
Vineyard at Chalone expanded; Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir added
Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Vertigo” features Mission San Juan Bautista
First Chalone wine under Dick Graff produced
Josh Jensen establishes Calera’s first vineyard in the vicinity of Mt. Harlan
San Benito County AVA, along with sub-AVAs Chalone, Cienega Valley, Lime Kiln, and Paicines, established
Pacheco Pass AVA established
San Benito AVA established
Mt. Harlan AVA established