Los Angeles Wine
Who knew that when someone spoke of California wines in the 1800s they were speaking of wine from Los Angeles? Or that during that era, the two largest wine producing regions in the United States were Los Angeles and sections of Missouri? Who would have thought that perhaps the first commercial batch of wine in California – arguably the birth of the California wine industry – was grown and produced in Glendale? Or that the Crescenta Valley was once covered in vineyards?
It’s all true, and it’s documented in a new book “Los Angeles Wine” by Crescenta Valley resident Stuart Byles; it’s just hitting the bookshelves this week. It’s the first book ever about this major chapter in wine history, a chapter that has never been addressed before, and it comes at a time when the science and art of winemaking is experiencing a renaissance in Southern California.
Stuart is a longtime friend of mine and one of the founders of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Stuart had always had an interest in wine and winemaking. A decade ago when the historic Le Mesnager winery barn was made a central feature of CV’s new Deukmejian Wilderness Park, the City of Glendale planted a demonstration vineyard in the park. At that time Stuart became an active volunteer in resurrecting historic winemaking methods using those grapes. He and his wife Marie ultimately formed the Stone Barn Vineyard Conservancy, a non-profit organization of volunteers who maintain the vines and produce limited quantities of red wine for its members.
As Stuart read up on winemaking, he began to realize the important but heretofore undocumented role the Greater Los Angeles area had in worldwide wine history. He had always known that the Crescenta Valley was heavily planted in grapes, but he didn’t know that this was in response to the leading role L.A. had in wine production. He was fascinated to find that the vaunted California wine industry of Napa-Sonoma actually began here in Southern California with the Spanish Missions, the first vineyards in California being at San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel using cuttings brought from Mexico. When Don Jose Verdugo received his vast land grant that is today Glendale and the Crescenta Valley, he brought to his new rancho cuttings from San Gabriel Mission. He produced the first wine outside the sphere of the Missions at his vineyards in lower Glendale, near the L.A. River in the 1790s. In the 1800s, Los Angeles became a mecca for immigrants from France. They brought with them both cuttings from French vineyards and more sophisticated winemaking methods. Frenchmen like Jean Louis Vignes, Remi Nadeau, the Sainsevain family and our own Georges Le Mesnager dominated the booming winemaking industry of early Los Angeles. As the 19th century progressed, other immigrant groups, such as Germans and Italians, brought their winemaking traditions to Los Angeles.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that production in the Northern California vineyards finally overtook the southern vineyards. Sadly many Los Angeles vineyards succumbed to development. The final nail in the coffin of the L.A. wine industry was Prohibition. Only one L.A.-based winery, San Antonio Winery, survived thanks to its contract with the Catholic Church to produce sacramental wine. It’s still with us today in its original location near downtown.
Stuart ends his book on an optimistic note, as he celebrates a revival in winemaking in L.A., particularly in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu and in the Rancho Cucamonga area. He doesn’t ignore good old La Crescenta either, documenting his own efforts in Deukmejian Park, and private backyard vineyards like that of the McDonald family up on Briggs Terrace.
The book is a joy to read, enlightening and vivid, and is chock-full of historic photos. It includes a color photo section with gorgeous pictures of local modern day vineyards and wineries, such as J. Filippi, Galleano and San Antonio. It’s on sale at local bookstores and online and direct from the author who is available for speaking engagements. This is just the book to enjoy with a glass of California wine, perhaps even one from the L.A. area.