The Triple Threat That Almost Killed Wine

Wine dumping is for losers. | Courtesy Foundation for Economic Education

Wines sales are at an all-time high, vineyard acreage is growing like a series of sub-divisions, quality has never been better and California’s wines are finally being recognized among the world’s best. It’s clear that the good times will never end and with its excellent consistent climate and resources, it’s obvious California will go on to worldwide wine domination. Yep, 2017 is a great time to be in the wine business on the West Coast.

California’s wine industry was brought to its knees by three major events, but it has risen like a phoenix to once again be a world leader.

But, wait it’s actually the 1860s and although all the previous statements hold true, as J.R.R. Tolkien would write: “There is a dark cloud about to move over Mordor!” Actually, three dark clouds almost destroyed California wine producers, and the effects lasted until the 1980s.

This legendary and dastardly triple threat began with a bug – phylloxera – to be exact. This little critter bores into the roots of grape vines leaving the plant susceptible to infections of all kinds, much like an open sore on your skin. The plant then dies from the infections.

This had happened in Europe, as well, and a frantic effort on both sides of the big pond finally yielded a solution in the 1890s. It was discovered that American root stocks were resistant to the advances of phylloxera and vineyards were re-planted with the Vitis vinifera, or common grape vine, grafted to American rootstocks. This disease made a comeback a century later, but that’s another story.

Napa alive and well. | Courtesy Paul Hobbs Winery

California’s wine industry recovered rapidly and by the turn of the century was going gangbusters. Grapes were being grown in Sonoma, Napa and other regions, but most of the wine was made or stored in San Francisco so it was easier to deliver to markets. Then came that little trembler in 1906 and among the many tragedies was the destruction of millions of gallons of wine. This was a devastating blow, but the resilient wine producers rebuilt in the wine-growing regions and, in a few years, were again prospering.

Then came a wrath even more powerful than Mother Nature’s best: the Volstead Act, aka prohibition. This not only strangled the wine industry from 1919 to 1933, but its repercussions were felt for decades. Infrastructure from wineries to vineyards to marketing were dismantled and California wine was all but dead.

But, of course, those scrappy Cali kids made another comeback and by the 1980s infrastructure was back in place, Americans were again appreciating fine wine and the rest is happy history.

So, there you have it. California’s wine industry was brought to its knees by three major events, but, as we have witnessed, it has risen like a phoenix to once again be a world leader.


Lou Phillips

Lou is a Level 3 Sommelier based on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, who loves traveling the wine world doing research for his writing. He also consults for collectors and businesses buying and selling fine wine and creating special events.