There was a time when California wine country was not, well, California wine country. Winemaking in the Golden State has a long, somewhat complex history that dates back to the 1700s. The first wine was produced by missionaries and used primarily for religious purposes. (Any guess where Mission grapes got their name?)
It wasn’t until the 1800s that California began to develop a commercial wine industry; during those formative years, Napa and Sonoma put American wine on the map. But making wine back then was a lot of work. Take a scroll through these vintage photos to see how wine was made in Sonoma County in the 1940s.
Sonoma County is an ideal place to grow grapes. It’s warm climate and variety of soils are perfect for cultivating vineyards. And back in the day, the land was also very affordable. Gundlach Bundschu, one of the first wineries in Sonoma, was founded in 1857, and it remains a great spot to grab a glass and catch a rock show.
There is a certain magic to making a great bottle of wine. But making a perfect cask—now that’s another art. Coopers (craftsmen who, among other things, make wine casks) apply heat to wood to shape it into barrels. It’s an ancient technique that dates as far back as 800 BCE, and it has made all the difference for wine production throughout the years.
Over 30 grape varietals are grown in Sonoma County alone. Each has its own unique characteristics, but the color, flavor, and tannic qualities of the wines they produce also change depending on the types of barrels they are aged in. This photo shows wine agiing in a barn; today, barrels are stored in warehouses and underground wine caves.
When photographer Russell Lee snapped this photograph of women labeling bottles in Sonoma, California wine was still in its infancy. Today, there are 951 wineries in the area (including our 13 current favorites).
By the time these bottles of sparkling wine were produced, there were numerous Napa and Sonoma estates producing quality wines. But California wine country was only getting started. Some years later, the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976—which ranked a California wine above French wines in a blind competition—changed everything for the area. And the rest, as they say, is history.