Between 1806 and 1808, the Spanish army conducted the first organized exploration of the Sacramento Valley by Europeans. The indigenous Miwok and Maidu tribes, however, had been living there for a long time, likely for thousands of years. The expeditions’ reports to Spain were positive with respect to the area’s potential for development and agriculture. Catholic priests also visited in 1811. However, neither the Spanish government, the church, or the post-independence Mexican government considered settlement of the valley a priority. To some extent, they all deemed the reports too good to be true!
Various explorers and settlers passed through the area thereafter. But, it wasn’t until 1839 that settlement took place in earnest. In that year, John Sutter (of Sutter’s Mill fame) established what he called New Helvetia. A Swiss immigrant, Sutter agreed to become a Mexican citizen in order to secure permission from that government to develop and manage the area. Essentially a miniature empire, Sutter’s land holding initially comprised 180 km square (69.5 square miles), but eventually grew to three times that size, stretching all the way from the Sierra Foothills to Fort Ross on the Pacific coast. Sutter ran New Helvetia quasi-independently, even maintaining his own military.
Though the growth was tremendous, bad weather, Sutter’s political miscalculations, the Bear Flag Rebellion, and the Mexican-American War made Sutter’s tenure far from smooth. In January 1848, discovery of gold at his mill in the Sierra Foothills, southeast of his main settlement, hastened the end of the Mexican-American War, and attracted great attention—along with a deluge of people—to the area. That influx and the new United States administration soon ended his hegemony. Sutter retired to his farm, turning administrative duties over to his son, John Sutter Jr.
In 1849, Sutter Jr. established Sacramento City at the junction of the American and Sacramento Rivers. There was already thriving trade and development in the vicinity, due to wharves facilitating movement of people and goods to and from San Francisco via the bay.
Despite its ideal location and tremendous mining-based revenues, things didn’t go well for Sutter’s Sacramento: floods, fires, cholera, speculators, squatters and rustlers made the next two years a nightmare for him. The family’s “empire” collapsed and they fell deeply into debt from which they would never recover.
Floods and other issues continued to trouble the area (managing water levels remains an issue to this day). But, Sacramento gradually became increasingly important. First came the Pony Express (1860), then the transcontinental telegraph (1861), and finally the Transcontinental Railroad (1869), making Sacramento a primary hub for communication with the East and Midwest. Completion of the state capitol building, also in 1869, further solidified Sacramento’s status in California.
Agriculture came to the Sacramento Valley before the Gold Rush. Wheat was a major source of revenue for New Helvetia, with ill-treated Native Americans doing much of the work. When the Gold Rush attracted multiple new settlers, additional crops, including wine grapes, were planted to meet their needs. Wheat, though, remained the primary crop until about 1870.
Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 had two major effects on agriculture in the valley. Firstly, it meant wheat from other parts of the country, such as the Midwest, was readily available. Secondly, it meant that high-quality fruit grown in the Sacramento Valley had many new markets. So, the valley’s primary focus shifted from wheat to fruit, including grapes.
From the mid-1850s through the mid-1870s, Sacramento Valley was one of the most significant growing regions in the state, representing up to 16% of California’s total vineyard acres. The valley featured many small vineyards, but also large ones, including an 809-ha (2,000-acre) planting near Folsom in Sacramento County.
From the late 1870s to Prohibition, Sacramento Valley’s share of overall vineyard plantings in California hovered around 10%. There were a variety of reasons for the drop, including phylloxera, changes in the market for grapes and wine, and increased plantings in other areas. Throughout the roughly 65-year period, Sacramento County always led the valley in vine plantings by a substantial margin.
The region was a center not just for wine grapes, but also wine production. The city of Sacramento itself included four wineries, three of which lasted until Prohibition. As in other regions, growers and wineries tried to endure Prohibition by catering to sacramental, medicinal, and home-winemaking markets. It wasn’t enough to sustain the wineries, but many vineyards survived, particularly by shipping grapes such as Zinfandel and Alicante Bouschet around the country to home vintners.
Therefore, upon repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Inland Valley was well positioned. It could supply high volumes of fruit to new wineries. And, of course, it could support wineries starting up within the valley.
To help growers and winemakers grow to satisfy America’s increasing demand, U.C. Davis, located in Yolo County, established a program for viticulture and enology in 1935. It quickly became one of the world’s premier centers for wine-related research and training. Groundbreaking work was done on climate, soils, varieties and clones, disease mitigation, viticulture, winemaking equipment and techniques, and more. It would also create and distribute disease-free vine material to vineyards in the U.S. and abroad.