The story of the Southern California grape–in a glass, that is!

I haven’t yet closed the door on my interest in the families closely associated with the founding of Los Angeles.

In March I will be part of a docent-led tour of a new exhibit at the Huntington Library highlighting the Wilson, Shorb and Patton families from 1854 to 1904. That era is precisely where I’m most interested, so won’t I have fun!

And as much as I enjoy talking about this interest…

Entrance to Grapevine Park

I’m aware that much of what most directly intrigues me probably doesn’t translate too well without the benefit of knowing certain landmarks combined with the familiarity of place names.

But I’m hoping that following the trail of the California grape may be interesting to you.

Viticulture is booming business!

The California wine industry contributes $61.5 billion in state economic impact and $121.8 billion nationally. If you don’t enjoy a glass of wine, you might at least be impressed with those numbers.

So how did the vineyards get their start?


It all began when Father Junipero Serra brought vines from Mexico to Mission San Diego. As the padres traveled north they established a winery, the largest in the entire system, at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel.

Grapes from the Old Mother grapevine, planted 1861
Grapes from the Old Mother grapevine, planted 1861

Even after the mission era came to a close in 1833 the San Gabriel Valley continued to boast first-rate vineyards and winemaking.


And then the story jumps forward a couple of decades and we’re back once again on the trail of General George S. Patton’s family.

James DeBarth Shorb, a shrewd and capable businessman,  partnered with his father-in-law, Benjamin Davis Wilson. You may remember that Wilson was the General’s illustrious grandfather. At one time Shorb and Davis owned approximately 1800 acres of land with over 230,000 grapevines in addition to acres of citrus, olive and walnut trees.

The Old Mother Grapevine, root, 1861
The Old Mother Grapevine root, 1861

Following Wilson’s death, Shorb expanded the original “B.D. Wilson & Co.” to include a new and larger winery, The San Gabriel Wine Company.  The business was  capable of crushing 250 tons of grapes a day, and with the capacity of 1,500,000 gallons of wine the company owned a one-and-a-half mile stretch of Southern Pacific Railway for shipping purposes.

The company called itself the largest winery in the world.

In the mid-19th century there were hundreds of wineries in the region and for a time, Southern California wine production was thought to rival European enterprises.

But then along came a little insect!

An insect-transmitted bacteria caused a blight that created enough havoc to scare investors and before long orange and walnut production took the place of grapes.

Following the blight, Short struggled along until 1892, then closed the San Gabriel Wine Company shortly before he died.

The Sierra Madre Vintage Company in Lamanda Park, a town later annexed to Pasadena, was one of the few wineries to survive throughout the Prohibition Era, hiding behind loopholes allowing wine for religious sacraments.

But by the 1930s, winemaking in the San Gabriel Valley was over!

Fortunately for the state of California, the mission Padres had taken grapes to Northern California and those vines didn’t seem to have the same infestation problem.

Today, of course, Central Coast and Northern California wines are among the world’s best.  But did you know that Southern California also has a significant wine presence?

San Diego County, with its many grape-growing microclimates, provides the perfect conditions for growing unique varietals across the region. There are 50 wineries across the county with additional vineyard development always underway.

Father Junipero Serra, statute in front of San Gabriel Mission
Father Junipero Serra, statue in front of San Gabriel Mission

It seems to me this is a fitting conclusion for my story of the Southern California grape.

I started by telling you that Father Junipero Serra brought the first grapes to the region by way of Mexico, establishing a modest wine production at Mission San Diego. That was 1769.

And today,  wine production in San Diego County is robust and award winning.

I’m always satisfied when a story can be brought full circle!

42 thoughts on “The story of the Southern California grape–in a glass, that is!

  1. We hear a lot about your wines here in Australia however, they aren’t as readily available as I would like them to be. I’ll go to the bottle shop tomorrow and see if I can find one of your wines xx

    1. We have a decent supply of Australian wines, and there are a couple of inexpensive, but very good ones we enjoy! I have followed and enjoyed some of the posts you’ve shared that include information about a particular winery or label. I have noted that some of the better labels aren’t available, but it may be more a matter of cost! I must admit I’m not one to spend too much on wine…but I can sure enjoy a better bottle when someone else is hosting! 🙂

  2. I do enjoy your historic posts… and find this fascinating… I’ve often wondered about the history of our South African wines… maybe something for me to investigate in the future… thanks for the share quite delightful… like a good glass of wine..(not that I’ve had any for the last 25 years… but still..)

    1. I am sure there is a great deal to know about South African wines, Rob. We have similar climates, from what I can tell, and we do carry South African wines in our local shops. I’ve had several and find them very nice. South African, Chilean, Australian…we have a very large population so I guess we need to carry a lot of wine labels? LOL!

  3. My dear, you now have me in the mood for watching “A Walk in the Clouds” while I sit sipping a glass of wine.
    Isn’t that root amazing? I remember seeing it on our visit there when Katy was at Fuller.

    1. I haven’t seen A Walk in the Clouds for such a long time. Now I’d like to see it again, too! 🙂 Oh how I wish I had known you when Katy was here! That grapevine is practically in my yard. I can see the vine from my yoga class. LOL!

      1. I wish we had known each other as well, Debra.
        I haven’t seen it in awhile either. It is such an atmospheric movie with the center of it all being family (and grapes). I especially love the scene where they are all out with the smudge pots saving the grapes, those fans on their arms as they fan the smoke. It is one of the most sensual movie scenes – without anyone taking off their clothes!

  4. Debra, I had no idea that California’s wine history came from that part of the state. Fascinating. Of course, I’ve been to Napa several times. My favorite bottle of California wine at the moment is Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc, though I’ve not tried a wine from that winery that I did not like. 🙂

    1. I will have to find Pine Ridge, Andra. The name rings a bell, but there are just so many! Napa and Sonoma, both, are gorgeous. We stayed with family at a Sonoma vineyard a year ago and I didn’t want to leave! But the central coast has some fabulous wineries in and around Paso Robles, and even further south. More and more land seems to be developed for vineyards. It will be interesting to see what the next couple of decades bring! I think this spring we may spend some time at the San Diego wineries and begin to learn more about them. So far, we really haven’t! I have guests at the house for Academy Award Sunday…I’ll locate a bottle or two from Pine Ridge. A good time to try it out! 🙂

  5. Fascinating, Debra, particularly the Old Mother Grapevine Root. Hard to believe that it’s still alive and producing grapes, 150+ years after being planted. I’d no idea that the wine industry generated such a large amount of money for your state and the US. We should drink more wine to ensure a better future for us all! Where can I get the bumper sticker?

    1. And yes, John, in the spring and summer the vine has beautiful grapes. Unfortunately I took this photo in late fall/early winter when it wasn’t as pretty! If we all decided not to drink the grape our economy would suffer greatly, so it is our mandate! I’d be proud to display that bumper sticker! 🙂

  6. That’s so interesting Debra! And congratulations on your new position – it sounds like it’s perfect for you! 🙂 (PS~ I love the new format of your blog, this is the first I’ve seen of it.)

    1. I am so glad you like the blog format. I upgraded to one of the premiums because I have been trying for so long to find a way to balance between the photos and the text. Every time I experimented with another theme I tended to gain one feature but give up others. I found this one and just so fine! 🙂 You made me smile with the congratulations on the new position. I probably wasn’t the most clear in my language, but I’m just going to be a “follower along” on the tour. But I can easily see how you’d think I’d be the docent…when I retire, I would so love to do this! I’m gathering so much information I need an audience willing to follow along listening to me go on and on! I wouldn’t need to hold back! LOL!

    1. I think vineyards are so beautiful regardless of the wine, don’t you, Nancy? I have traveled all the way to the north to the Napa/Sonoma vineyards and have done very little exploring of the San Diego County vineyards, and they are much closer to home. Maybe this spring! 🙂

  7. Dear Debra, yes, full circle. I have a vague memory that I gave you the blog site for Inger who lived in the California desert and wrote several postings about the California missions. If you haven’t read her postings, you might be really interested in them because of the history she presents. Her blog site is as follows:
    She posted the mission stories in the last months of 2012. Peace.

    1. Yes, Dee, you have introduced me to Inger and I have really enjoyed her posts. She is another kindred spirit, I believe! 🙂 There are so many interesting mission-related stories! I have a few more to share at some point as I participate in a few local events. San Gabriel celebrates it’s 100th birthday this year, the city, not the mission, but I am sure the festivities will include the mission, too! 🙂 oxo

    1. I work at finding inexpensive and not too difficult things to do, Kelly. I’m satisfied with very simple close-to-home adventures. We haven’t taken any “real” trips or travels in a long time, and I am content! I enjoy a good glass of wine, too, and only wish it weren’t so calorie-laden! LOL! It sometimes all comes back to that for me. Hahaha!

  8. I think your blog is just perfect for filling in the gaps of my dismal years learning history in school.. (perhaps I should say, not learning). I think it’s so fascinating now, I wish I had paid attention back then.. but at least I have you now, telling the stories from long ago. I love that original grapevine, isn’t it incredible to think that it all started there? xx

  9. Debra, I’ve been to Northern California vineyards, but did not know this story of wine making in southern california. I’m not out to California often, but next time I go there, I’ll have to check out the mission. Thanks for sharing some history that I didn’t know. I’ll also have to look for some southern California wine in the stores too! Karen

  10. I was never a wine drinker until I went to Italy. I heard about the wine and San Gabriel association before. Thanks for expanding the knowledge, ;). Will get there some time. Those dates are pretty fascinating, as well ss the numbers of production. Awesome historical California post once again, Deba.

  11. What a great tale, Debra. It really is the land of milk and honey, isn’t it? So wonderful to fnd a place where so much will grow. I loved your pictures, particularly that old vine. Great post.

  12. Once again it’s fun to follow along with you and your special interests. I often enjoy drinking California wine, which making it double interesting to read this post. $61.5 billion and $121.8 billion respectively is indeed very impressive. You pictures along with the words are educational as well.

  13. What a perfect post to read with a nice glass of red wine at my side, Debra. 🙂 I would think your climate would be perfect for vines and am glad that your vineyards have recovered from what i presume was the phylloxera blight.

  14. Pingback: Do you have a favorite wine region? Better keep an eye on it! | breathelighter

  15. Pingback: Tastes from three wineries…but we’ll start with just one. | breathelighter

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