For most of the wine-drinking world, wine is much more than a beverage. It is bound up in history and tradition.
The first plantings of wine vines (the lowly Mission grape) in California came at the hands of Spanish Jesuits in about 1770--some half-dozen years before those 13 colonies on the other side of the continent banded together to demand independence from Britain.
It was the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 that caused grapevine plantings in California to explode as winemakers did their best to satisfy tens of thousands of prospectors infected with both gold fever and a powerful thirst.
It wasn't long, however, before troubles set in.
By the 1890s, a nasty insect (phylloxera) had infested California's vineyards (and indeed, the vineyards of most of the world) putting a big hurt on the industry. A couple decades later, Prohibition finished the job that phylloxera started, killing off the weakened industry almost entirely.
With Prohibition, California winemakers were finished. Grape growers often found ingenious ways to skirt the letter of the law--selling grape juice to individuals along with packets of yeast and explicit instructions on how to keep the two ingredients apart lest combined they turn into wine. Unfortunately, the thick-skinned grapes they planted were designed to endure bouncy train trips East, not to taste particularly good as wine. These sad homemade wines could only tarnish California's image as a legitimate winemaking state after Prohibition's repeal in 1933.
Recovery from Prohibition was a long, slow journey. Quality grapes had been replaced by sturdy grapes built for travel, wineries had closed down, equipment was in disrepair. It was a mess. Public tastes were not up to snuff either: wine had become more associated with winos than epicureans. As a result, most of the wines in the first decades after Prohibition were sickly sweet or fortified.
It wasn't until the 1970s that Americans began to catch on to wine as an enjoyable and important mealtime companion. By then, varietals like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot had been planted in California vineyards and wine makers had done away with the unfortunate habit of calling California wines "burgundy" or "chablis" (generic labels designating nothing other than that one was red, one was white) in favor of varietal labeling. Now wines would be labeled according to the grapes that were in the bottle.
California knew it had arrived on the world wine scene in 1976, when California wines went head to head against the best French wines in a blind tasting held in Paris. California wines were judged best in both red and white categories. With that, California wine was back on the map.
Since then, quality has continued to improve as grape growers identify the best spots to grow their grapes and winemakers increase their skills in the cellars. Demand for California wine continues to rise as Americans learn of the health benefits increasingly associated with moderate wine drinking.
Today, 9 of every 10 bottles produced in America come from California wineries. And the industry itself is a major tourist attraction, drawing some 14.5 million tourists every year, making it the second largest tourist attraction in California, bigger than Hollywood and second only to Disneyland.