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  • Writer's pictureCRAIKER

Architecture & Wine Come to America and California

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB

Wines in America have a complex history. The Vikings visited North America and called it Vinland because of the profusion of grape vines, none of which made good wine. The earliest traceable winemaking is to the 1562 French Huguenots settling near Jacksonville, Florida. Using wild Muscadine grapes, still used in Florida wine. Growing the familiar European Vitis Vinifera grapes started in 1619 but the crop failed after native pests and plant disease decimated the crop.

Interestingly, in the 1650’s Spanish missionaries planted Mission vineyards, native to Baja California, as they conquered California and New Mexico. Wine then was supposed to be for sacrificial rites but really for the monks benefit.   The first vines of Vitis vinifera origin were planted in 1629 near  San Antonio, New Mexico and is considered  America’s earliest wine industry.

It wasn’t until 1683 that William Penn planted a vineyard of French grapes in Pennsylvania and the first commercial winery in the US was in 1787 by Pierre LaGoues. Most of the East Coast still uses the French-American highbred grapes.

The first secular California vineyard was established in Los Angeles by a French immigrant, Jean-Louis Vignes who imported vines from France. By 1851 he had 40,000 vines under cultivation and was producing 1,000 US barrels of wine per year.

In Northern California, with its excellent climate for growing grapes,  General Mariano Vallejo, former Sonoma Presidio Commander, became the first large-scale winegrower in the valley. In 1857,  Agoston Haraszthy bought 520 acres (2.1 km 2 ) near Vallejo's vineyards. In contrast to Vallejo and most others, Haraszthy dry planted his vines on hill slopes without irrigation. Dry farming has become a common practice for up to 10% of Northern California vineyards, to many creating a superior wine.

After the Gold Rush, hordes of immigrants from around the world entered California, bring with them new grapes and unique architecture styles. In 1854, John Patchett planted the first commercial vineyard in Napa Valley and in 1858 established the first winery.  In 1861 Charles Krug, a Prussian farm worker for Haraszthy and Patchett, founded a St. Helena winery to mentor the industry to this day.  Karl Wente, Charles Wetmore, Jacob Berringer and Robert Mondavi, all of whom became important vintners.

Interestingly, Napa likes to pontificate about the 1976 “Judgement in Paris”, but at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, Napa Valley wines won 20 of the 34 medals or awards, including four gold medals. Napa wines showed their superiority then, only to be followed by 40 years of natural and political disasters. The outbreak of phylloxera destroyed most Vitis vinifera vines, severe frosts, droughts , the Great Depression and the San Francisco Earthquake where an estimated 30,000,000 US gallons of wine were destroyed. The biggest political disaster was the 1920 to 1933 National Prohibition that limited wine making and purchase to…guess who? The missions and monasteries. This crippled the wine industry for 50 years. Of the 2,500 pre-Prohibition wineries in America, barely 100 survived.

In 1966 Robert Mondavi and his sons created Robert Mondavi Winery that upset the wine industry forever. Not only striving to create better wines, Mondavi built the first major new winery since Prohibition. Up until then, winery architecture was industrial and functional. To design his vision, Mondavi hired Cliff May, a renowned California architect, famous for designing ranch homes. The style was loosely called “Mission Style” or “Modernistic Adobe” with the massive Spanish-inspired arch and Italian- inspired campanile that crossed cultural lines to provide a beacon to curious wine enthusiasts. It wasn’t monastic or chateau-ish. The unusual architecture was a brilliant combination of California’s history and desire to showcase better wines.

In 1976 the famous Judgement of Paris, not only celebrated Napa wines but put the entire industry in high gear to not only create better wines but also build bigger shrines to show them off.

So I ask, as the winery buildings get bigger, grander and more opulent, are their wines equally magnificent? That’s for another discussion.

Next, we will look at what makes good winery architecture.

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB loves visiting wineries and guessing their value

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