In the 1830s, under Mexican rule, the generals began awarding large land grants to prominent military personnel and citizens, making way for the shift from sacramental wine to commercial vineyards. The name “Los Carneros” itself is connected to one of the original land grants, Rincon de los Carneros (“Corner of the Rams”), but that land lies in what today is Monterey County. The most significant of the grants in terms of Carneros was Rancho Caymus, 12,000 acres (4,856.2 hectares), which in 1836 General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo gave to George Calvert Yount, comprising much of southern Napa Valley, including parts that would later become Los Carneros.
In 1848, at the end of the Mexican war, California was ceded to the United States. That same year, gold was discovered in the state, and the influx of fortune-seekers greatly expanded commerce in San Francisco; as a result, the wine industry to the north began to expand. Documents show that in 1872, there was at least one vineyard and winery in Los Carneros, and by the end of that decade, over 20 wineries were located here (close to the number today, interestingly enough), with almost 360 acres (146 hectares) under vine—about 10 percent of Napa Valley’s total at the time. One of the most prominent vintners during this early period of expansion was Judge John Stanly, who established a vineyard that, by the mid-1880s, had grown to 200 acres (81 hectares), with a 100,000-gallon (378,541-liter) winery.
Before recovery was possible, the Volstead Act of 1919 was passed in the United States, leading to the era of Prohibition, from 1920 until 1933. With only sacramental or homemade wine allowed, most commercial wineries were decimated. World War II soon after shifted attention, resources, and business priorities away from any potential wine enterprise, ensuring there would be no quick recovery for the wine industry.
Napa Valley’s Louis M. Martini was one of the early producers to see the value of the cool climate here, cooler than the rest of Napa Valley, for planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Indeed, he had bought the old Stanly Ranch in 1942 and had started replanting soon after. Ahead of most winemakers of the day, Martini understood the importance of site in the production of high-quality wine. The legendary André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards was perhaps most influential in promoting distinct terroirs, and he championed Los Carneros for Pinot Noir (and would go on to advise many others to plant the cool-weather-loving variety here as well). Incidentally, Tchelistcheff was also a silent partner in the historic Buena Vista Winery, with extensive vineyards in Los Carneros at the time.
Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, a professor in the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis, also focused his attention on research in the region, notably introducing irrigation. And Francis Mahoney of Mahoney Vineyards and Fleur de California, in conjunction with UC Davis, also played a key role in ongoing clonal trials on the best Pinot Noir for the region.
International producers appreciated the high quality that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay had achieved here, and with the founding of houses like Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg, Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa, and Codorníu Napa, Los Carneros became a hub of California sparkling wine production. (High-profile producers outside the region included Roederer Anderson Valley, Iron Horse in what would become the Green Valley of Russian River Valley, and J Vineyards & Winery.) The 1980s, too, marked a surge in the popularity of Chardonnay in California, prompting an expansion of plantings of the variety.
Sonoma’s historic Buena Vista Winery, with extensive vineyards in the region (and André Tchelistcheff as silent partner, and now-well-known vintner Anne Moller-Racke as Vice President of Vineyard Operations), was a material force in the effort behind the designation.
This time, however, knowledge of wine farming was considerably more advanced, and more effective rootstock available for new plantings (most vineyards had been planted on AXR or St. George), as well as Dijon clones from France, better for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here than the earlier Martini and Swan clones. By the early 1990s, more than 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) were under vine in Los Carneros, up from 1,300 (526 hectares) in the 1970s.
And, in general, vineyard acreage was measured with large outlines—scale that made sense primarily for large companies to acquire. Much of the fruit from these vineyards was, and still is, sourced by well-known wineries outside the AVA, and since the appellation name on bottles is legally allowed to state just Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley, without including Los Carneros, the region possibly failed to earn as much credit as it deserved for its excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Still, individual family growers have honed their farming through the decades, and have produced increasingly nuanced and elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (joined by Merlot, Syrah, and interesting whites—Albariño was planted here in 1996, possibly the first in the U.S.). Fruit from blocks farmed by generations of the Sangiacomo Family on the Sonoma side of Los Carneros are highly sought after. Larry Hyde has made the Napa-side vineyard he launched in 1979 into the source of some of California’s most highly rated Chardonnays. (He also partnered in the early 2000s with Burgundy’s legendary Aubert de Villaine, co-owner and -director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, in Hyde de Villaine winery, prized for its Chardonnays.) And in 1981, Lee Hudson purchased the Hudson Ranch, with 200 acres (81 hectares) planted now to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, among other varieties. Many of California’s most notable producers source top wines from these vineyards, and their vineyard-designated bottles—often broadly appellated from Napa or Sonoma Valley—carry a silent torch for Los Carneros.
But in recent years, a number of wineries—Bouchaine, Cuvaison, The Donum Estate, Hudson Ranch—have opened beautiful tasting rooms, making Los Carneros a new must-see (and taste) for California wine visitors. All these hospitality centers are the public face of skillful vineyard farming, fine-tuned in small blocks and row orientations taking advantage of the myriad low hills and varied aspects across the region. At The Donum Estate, on acreage that used to be part of the Buena Vista property, split off after a sale, President and Winegrower Anne Moller-Racke (formerly of Buena Vista and now proprietor and winegrower at Blue Farm) began replanting in 2014, with the experience by this time to know how vines would perform on each ridge and in every swale, as do her talented cohorts regionwide.