Today the wine region of LA County may seem like a curious anomaly, but it was once one of the most productive and expansive wine regions in the state of California. In the late 1800s, before the onset of Prohibition in 1920, Los Angeles County boasted 22,000 acres (8,900 ha) planted to vine, compared to 206 (83.4 ha) today. Several factors, from Prohibition, to urban expansion, phylloxera and the arrival of Pierce’s Disease, were responsible for the scale-back of viticultural plantings. The Great Depression of the 1930s further contributed to the disappearance of vineyards in LA County.
Los Angeles wine growing began to flourish due to the Mission of San Gabriel, which was known to have established plantings in the late 1700s, but picked up momentum in 1806 with the arrival of Father José María de Zalvidea. The Missions were responsible for the proliferation of many vineyards throughout what is now Los Angeles County. After the secularization of the missions in 1833, San Gabriel’s substantial vineyard became neglected, but vineyards attached to the nearby San Fernando Mission persisted and were sold off to wealthy entrepreneurs. Determined and eager, these early entrepreneurs became wine growers and commercialization began to occur, notably in the person of Jean-Louis Vignes, an ambitious French settler who planted over 100 acres (40.5 ha) of vines in Los Angeles and by 1850 had become the state’s largest wine producer.
By the time California became part of the United States in 1850, Los Angeles was the state’s most prominent winegrowing region. Over 100 vineyards existed in what is now urban Los Angeles. In 1854, the original seal of Los Angeles was created, identifying it as a “City of Vines.” This was also the time of the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), a period of rapid urbanization that eventually factored into the repurposing of viticultural land. Yet, for much of the late 1800s grape growing flourished due to an increasing population and tax incentives.
After the railroad reached Los Angeles in 1875, the city went through another period of rapid increase in population and urbanization. Coupled with Anaheim Disease (now Pierce’s Disease) running rampant, attention began to shift to Northern California as the vineyards of the south and Los Angeles were repurposed.
Los Angeles’ wine history is marred by the Christian missionaries’ mistreatment of Native Americans, leading to disease and displacement. Mexican independence left many stranded in Los Angeles, searching for a means of livelihood. From 1850 to 1862 much of the laborious planting and vineyard work was carried out by indentured Native Americans due to the 1850 Indian Indenture Act.
While the 206 acres (83.4 ha) of land currently under vine in Los Angeles County is but a fraction of plantings in the mid-1800s, it is largely made up of boutique producers who are committed to the storytelling of the region’s historic significance, developing their unique parcels of land and experimenting with a wide range of grape varieties. Today, Hollywood meets vines, in some cases quite literally, with vineyards such as those of Moraga less than 10 miles (15 km) from the iconic Hollywood sign. Vineyards are widely spread out, some of great repute, some re-emerging, and some in seemingly inhospitable landscapes.
The Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Alliance purports that the Malibu Coast area is “California’s Oldest Wine Region,” due to early establishment of Spanish General José Bartolomé Tapia’s vineyard, planted in the early 1800s. By the mid-nineteenth century, hundreds of acres were planted to vine in the Solstice Canyon which was named the Rising Sun Vineyard by owner Matthew Keller. Currently there are more than 50 vineyards along the Malibu Coast. The Malibu Coast AVA was established in 2014 and comprises the two separate AVAs of Saddle Rock-Malibu (established in 2006) and Malibu-Newton Canyon (established in 1996). They all share similar geology and soil types, but the greater region of Malibu Coast AVA is slightly cooler and less sheltered than the two smaller AVAs that lie within.
The Native American Shoshone Tribe originally populated the area until the mid-1800s, when immigrants from Spain and Mexico arrived for cattle ranching. At the same time, homesteaders from Nebraska, France and Germany divided the ranches into farms. Grape growing began in the early 1900s with the John Ritter family, who later created the Belvino Vineyards winery, which eventually ceased production in the face of Prohibition. Old Zinfandel and Mission vines planted early in the twentieth century can still be found.
Viticulture began in the nineteenth century in Lancaster, but a combination of drought in the late-nineteenth century, followed by Prohibition, ended grape growing in the region. The creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and subsequent advances in mechanization and agriculture saw renewed momentum in the Antelope Valley, leading to the planting of five acres (2 ha) of vines by Steve Godde in 1981. Since then, the land under vine has increased considerably, although the desert conditions remain challenging. The Antelope Valley of the California High Desert was the first appellation of the three clustered High Desert AVAs to receive a designation in 2008.