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All About Phylloxera – Part III – California Wine History

This is the third and final post discussing Phylloxera’s impact on the wine industry. The first post was all about the biology of Phylloxera, while the second discussed its impact in France and how that led to the introduction of French hybrids in California.  This final post will be a brief view into the history of California wine industry.

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Mission grapes courtesy of www.lodiwine.com

When Phylloxera hit France in the 1870s some of the vignerons fled to California. The French hybrids were grafted onto the native rootstocks. These rootstocks had a natural resistance to Phylloxera.
Grapes were brought to California by the Spanish missionaries.  The mission grape, also known as Pais in Chile and Criolla in Argentina, had low color and low acid. It is still used as a substrate to be turned into brandy.
California wine making saw a surge when the Gold Rush occurred. The miners liked to drink wine. And after drinking wine made from the Mission grapes, they demanded a better quality of wine.  Enter Zinfandel.   This varietal is originally from Croatia, but was brought to California from the East.
During the 1880s all was good with the California wine industry. Because of the Phylloxera outbreak in France, their wine prices increased and people turned to California for their wine. Importations of European grape varietals increased and the quality of wine improved dramatically. All was good in the California wine world. UNTIL…….
Until the 1890s, when three things occurred. One, France recovered from the Phylloxera, two we entered the Depression, and three Phylloxera came to California because Americans planted French rootstocks.  This led to the clear understanding that rootstock was the only way to beat Phylloxera.

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rootstocks are specialized
courtesy of californiaagriculture.ucanr.edu

Once Prohibition came along, and wine could be made for “medicinal purposes” California saw a growth in acreage of grapes planted.  But the grapes planted were different.  The new varietals needed to have thicker skins and higher acids to allow for easier travel.  Petite Sirah and Alicante were introduced at this time.
Around the time WWII came along, wine sales were increasing again, bulk wine shipments decreased and quality was once again in the forefront.  The government took over the production of distilleries. A large portion of the alcohol being produced was used as a fuel source. Beer became more curtailed, which led to wine being the only true source of alcohol for consumption.  Plus the government took over production of Thompson Seedless grapes to provide raisins in the military food packs. Prices of wine rose and this led to more vineyards being planted.

Once again all was good in the California wine industry UNTIL……
Post war, when distilled spirits became more available along with beer, wine demand decreased.

 

Additionally, post war technology brought cold sterilization, stainless steel, cold fermentation and allowed for new white wines.  Malolactic fermentation was controlled, barrels began to be used as flavoring components and we had pure yeast cultures.  Quality, once again, came to the forefront. But demand lowered again.  People wanted to expand on what they were drinking. So wineries planted new varietals.
There was a huge boom in the consumption of wine in the 1970s and early 1980s, but then the other shoe dropped. Unfortunately, all rootstocks are not created the same.  During this boom, many grape growers used a rootstock known as AxR1. This particular rootstock had failed to prove resistance in many other areas of the nation, but growers thought it was resistant in California.  In the 1980s through evolution of mutant Phylloxera, they began to overtake the rootstock.(in other words, they genetically mutated to survive) Ultimately leading to the complete destruction of vineyards planted on this rootstock.  Entire vineyards were ripped up and replanting of these vineyards needed to be performed and continue to this day.  Currently, grafts are placed onto a hybrid known as 41B.  As of now, this rootstock has proven to maintain its resistance and Phylloxera has once again, and hopefully finally, been controlled. The wine industry, along with science, fought the battle against Phylloxera.
~Slainte!