You’re four days into a coastal road trip, winding your way up a hillside just off Highway 1. You pull into the first winery you see, step out of the car and inhale the scent of manzanita and coast live oak trees. Ten minutes later, you sink into a Spanish-style chair on a sunny patio with a glass of buttery Chardonnay or fruit-forward Cab in your hand. You’ve made it.
Wine might feel as if it’s been a part of California forever, but it was actually introduced to the region fairly recently. As Spanish settlers established missions along the California coast in the 16th century, they planted wine grapes they had brought from Mexico. When the Gold Rush caused the state’s population to swell in the 19th century, California wine found a viable market, and several pioneering entrepreneurs founded the region’s first commercial wineries.
When the United States prohibited the commercial sale of alcohol in 1919, the California wine industry nearly disappeared. What was left had a poor reputation; even decades after Prohibition was repealed, California was primarily associated with sweet, cheap wine. A few winemakers bucked this trend, though, producing top-notch wine behind the scenes. When those winemakers were invited to a blind tasting in Paris in 1976, they shocked the world by sweeping the competition. From that moment on, several California wine regions became known for the world-class wine we’re familiar with today.