Crush: The Triumph of California Wine

Crush: The Triumph of California Wine

by John Briscoe
Crush: The Triumph of California Wine

Crush: The Triumph of California Wine

by John Briscoe


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Winner, TopShelf Magazine Book Awards Historical Non-fiction 

Finalist, Northern California Book Awards General Non-Fiction

Look. Smell. Taste. Judge. Crush is the 200-year story of the heady dream that wines as good as the greatest of France could be made in California. A dream dashed four times in merciless succession until it was ultimately realized in a stunning blind tasting in Paris. In that tasting, in the year of America's bicentennial, California wines took their place as the leading wines of the world.

For the first time, Briscoe tells the complete and dramatic story of the ascendancy of California wine in vivid detail. He also profiles the larger story of California itself by looking at it from an entirely innovative perspective, the state seen through its singular wine history.

With dramatic flair and verve, Briscoe not only recounts the history of wine and winemaking in California, he encompasses a multidimensional approach that takes into account an array of social, political, cultural, legal, and winemaking sources. Elements of this history have plot lines that seem scripted by a Sophocles, or Shakespeare. It is a fusion of wine, personal histories, cultural, and socioeconomic aspects.

Crush is the story of how wine from California finally gained its global due. Briscoe recounts wine’s often fickle affair with California, now several centuries old, from the first harvest and vintage, through the four overwhelming catastrophes, to its amazing triumph in Paris.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943859498
Publisher: University of Nevada Press
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Edition description: 1
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

John Briscoe is a San Francisco poet, award-winning author, and lawyer. A noted wine and food writer, he is the author of Tadich Grill: The Story of San Francisco’s Oldest Restaurant.

Read an Excerpt


Early California, the Missions, and Their Eponymous (and Tasteless) Grape


The greater part of our vast country — but more especially the Pacific slope — abounds with soil and climate congenial to the culture of the grape, which is its natural home, foreign as well as native. And, therefore, all classes of wines can be made there, more particularly the potent wines, like Port, Sherry, and Madeira, in greater abundance and of as good quality as in any country.

— Matthew Keller, "California Wines"

We know that wine first found its way to the New World via Christopher Columbus's ships. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison writes: "For drink they had wine, while it lasted, and water in casks, which often went bad." In this context, wine was an essential beverage. As for the first vintage produced in the New World: it was also essential, but for an entirely different purpose. The Spaniards who settled Santa Elena, South Carolina, in approximately 1568 are generally thought to have been the first vintners. Their purpose was primarily sacramental: wine was used in mass. As for more established winemaking, that wouldn't occur for another sixty-odd years, produced by Franciscan missionaries across the continent in the Southwest, in what is now New Mexico.

The first grapes of that region took root around 1626, planted along the Rio Grande at the Mission Socorro. One leading authority on the subject, Thomas Pinney, writes that the grapes the missionaries cultivated there were vinifera, the Mediterranean grape used in Europe for winemaking for thousands of years. In which case, the Spaniards and Indians of the Southwest drank wine "as it had been known in Europe since the first apparition of Dionysus." Frank Schoonmaker defines vinifera thus:

Vinifera (vine-f-er-ah): By all odds the most important of the 40-odd species that make up the genus vitis. Appropriately named "the wine bearer," Vitis vinifera, which originated in Transcaucasia in prehistoric times, is responsible for virtually all of the world's wines (the rest are made from hybrids and from a number of native American varieties). There are more than a thousand varieties of vinifera — black, purple, blue, red, pink, amber, yellow, green — of which the most famous include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semilion, Chenin Blanc, and Grenache.

Note that the grape planted in the vineyards of southwestern missions may or may not have been the grape later planted at the California missions, thusly called the Mission grape. And where the missionaries went, so, in time, would wine.

Franciscan hands also planted the first grapes on the Pacific coast, in both Alta and Baja California. To paraphrase another authority, Vincent P. Carosso: the history of the first viticulture in California is essentially the history of the missions. Ergo, the first period of California viticulture was thus the mission period, from 1769 until 1833.

The Discovery(ies) op California

The first colonizers could just as easily have been English, or Russian — in which case Lord knows what we'd be drinking today. But they were Spanish.

Fifty years after Columbus landed on the New World's shores, Europeans discovered and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, named the region California. Spain, though, had acquired "legal title" to California long before any of her explorers or conquistadors even saw the place. On May 4, 1493, less than six months after Columbus discovered the Americas, Pope Alexander VI divided the so-called New World between Spain and Portugal. He assigned to Portugal all lands she might discover east of an arbitrary meridian of longitude, the Line of Demarcation (the eastern "bulge" of the future Brazil, for example), and to Spain all lands west of that line. By this decree, California — if Spain could find it — belonged to the Spanish.

In 1513, the Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa reached the west coast of Panama, and named the ocean he saw there the Pacific. Twenty-two years later, in 1535, another Spaniard, Hernán Cortés, discovered an "island" (in fact a peninsula) that he named California (today called Baja California). Later still, in 1542, the Spanish viceroy for New Spain, Don Antonio de Mendoza, sent Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo — a navigator (likely a Spaniard long said to have been Portuguese) — to further explore the coastline. On September 28, 1542, in San Diego Bay, Cabrillo noted in his log: "We discovered a port closed and very good," which he decided to call San Miguel. Sailing north from San Diego, they next encountered Santa Monica Bay and the Santa Barbara Channel, ultimately exploring as far north as today's Point Reyes. But, just as others had done, Cabrillo's ships missed the Golden Gate altogether. (This is an understandable oversight, as it's often enshrouded in fog.)

After Cabrillo's death in January 1543, thrashing winter winds and spoiled supplies forced his crew to return to Mexico. His voyage was the end of the first phase of Spain's limited exploration of the California coast. Having lost their faith in the prospect, Spanish officials decided that the New World north of Mexico contained "neither wealth nor navigable passage ... between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans." And so they ignored the region altogether, for more than two hundred years.

The Jesuits and the Baja California Missions: 1697–-1767

A hundred and fifty years after Cabrillo's death, in 1697, the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus — better known as the Jesuits — was granted permission to establish missions in Baja California. This sort of endeavor, of course, concerns the fervent desire to share the teachings of God with native peoples. And, as we have seen, since the Catholic mass requires sacramental wine, with missionaries comes winemaking. The first vineyard in Baja might have been planted by Father Juan de Ugarte, at Mission San Francisco Xavier, which was founded circa 1699. Later a number of the other Jesuit missions developed their own vineyards and wineries.

Accounts differ as to whether the wine produced at the missions of Baja California was ever offered for sale. In his 1789 book The History of Lower California, historian and teacher Father Don Francisco Xavier Clavigero writes: "The missionaries of [lower] California never sold their wine. ... They used it for mass, the table, and the sick; and what was left over they sent as a gift to their benefactors or exchanged for those provisions which they received from Sinaloa and Sonora." In addition: "There was wine at only five or six of the existing missions, and all that was made did not amount to one hundred casks, as I well know from the very ones who made it" Add to this the following from Father Jacob Baegert:

Five of the missions had vineyards; and the grapes were sweet and delicious. For wine-making the berries were pressed out with the hands and the must collected in large stoneware jars brought from Manila. The wine was excellent. There was no want of cellars; but the difficulty was to find such as were cool enough; and it was not infrequent to have the wine overheated and spoiled. As, however, very little was used except for church purposes, there was enough to supply all the missions of the peninsula and a number of those on the other side of the gulf. (Emphasis added.)

The above text, which appeared in the first volume of Theodore H. Hittell's 1898 History of California, was translated from a 1773 German text, Nachrichten Von Der Amerikanischen Halbinsel Californien (Account of the American peninsula of California). That German work was later published by the University of California Press, providing more of the original text in a translation that is intriguingly different in parts:

It was not necessary to buy sacramental wine elsewhere. The land produces it, and without doubt it could become an excellent and generous product if cool cellars, good barrels, and skilled vintners were available, because the grapes are honey-sweet and of superior flavor. Five missions have vineyards. The juice is merely pressed from the grapes by hand and stored in stone jars. These jars hold approximately fifteen measures (one measure is two quarts, approximately) and are left by the ship which makes a yearly visit to California on her way from the Philippine island of Luzon to Acapulco in Mexico. The storage cellar for the wine is an ordinary room on level ground and — in California — necessarily warm. Therefore usually half of the grape juice, or even more of it, turns to vinegar. Ten or fifteen jars full of sacramental wine were sent each year to the missions across the California Sea and to the four or six missions in California which had no vineyards. When it left the cellar, the wine was good, but it did not always arrive in the same condition because it had to be carried on muleback in the hot sun for fifty or more hours. As a result, the wine often turned sour, sometimes on the way, sometimes soon after it was delivered.

It was not permissible to give wine to the Indians. Some of the missionaries never tasted any except during Mass. One measure of it sold for six florins, so that neither soldier nor sailor could afford to get drunk frequently. Yet there was no aged or choice wine in California.

From these facts it can be seen that only a small quantity of wine was successfully produced. It was not surprising that many times I and my colleagues had no wine, even for the Holy Mass. Yet it has been claimed that the missionaries of California sold much wine and sent it to other lands. (Emphasis added.)

In 1767, following the lead of Portugal (in 1759) and France (in 1764), a Spanish court opted to force the Jesuits from the New World — that is, from South America, from Central America, and from western North America. Exactly why the Jesuits were expelled remains a mystery to historians; one lasting theory — or, as Caughey puts it, "wild rumor" — is that the Jesuits were suspected of operating for personal gain, perhaps — again from Caughey — "hoarding vast treasures from secret mines [or] pearl fisheries," or simply extorting from the natives.

Next began the process of transitioning oversight of the missions from the Jesuits to the Franciscans; regarding that endeavor, Father Junípero Serra was named president of all California missions. Six months later, on July 16, 1769, the Franciscan padres dedicated Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of a string of California missions that would begin European colonization of California, as well as incubate the California wine industry. The Franciscans established twenty-one missions in all, the last in Sonoma in 1823. Some missions had presidios (military garrisons) and pueblos (towns) established nearby as well, as befit Spain's colonization approach for all its "far-flung" possessions.

The Franciscans and the Alta California Missions: 1767–1833

The missions were the centerpiece in a system of colonization that was the reverse of the English system on the eastern coast of North America — notwithstanding the use of violence on both coasts. Some have said that the Spanish did not look upon the native Californians as enemies or savages that had to be subdued or eradicated, but rather as fellow human beings, to be given the word of God, converted to Christianity, and taught the arts and industries of "civilization," the fruits of which they were to share. But the subsequent maltreatment of many of the native Californians seems to belie, or at least shade, this outlook. The mission, which was never replicated — nor even approximated — on the eastern frontiers of Anglo-America, was the most prominent institution of Spanish America. The center of a mission was the church. Clustered around it were the housing quarters: for the missionaries, for the Indians, and for the soldiers — garrisoned there to protect from without and preserve order from within. There were also granaries and storerooms. There were shops used for carpentry, blacksmithing, and weaving, as well as for the making of pottery, candles, soap, and wine. Beyond were corrals for horses, vegetable gardens, irrigated fields, grazing lands for cattle, and vineyards.

The mission system never fully worked. The "natives" did not wish to be subjugated, and the soldiers intended to keep them in order were underpaid and ill-disciplined. In 1821 Mexico won its battle for independence from Spain. Then, in a series of decrees starting in 1833, the new Mexican authorities in California ordered the "secularization" of the missions, stripping most of the mission lands from the Franciscans. This secularization gutted the mission system, effectively emancipating the neophytes and making a majority of the most valuable coastal land in California — from San Diego to the Sonoma Coast — available for distribution to favored grantees of the new government. When Mexico lost its war against the United States in 1848, it lost all its "Alta" states, including California.

The overall effect of this history on the native Californians was dire. European disease and a harsh, unaccustomed mission life proved fatal for many (as did the "homemade brandy" sometimes given in payment for their labor). Add to this consideration the ways white incursions of lands reduced food resources. In his 2016 book An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, Benjamin Madley offers the following sobering figures: in 1542 (at first European "contact"), there were approximately 350,000 native Californians; from then until the end of the mission period (1834), the population dropped to approximately 150,000. In the fifty years following secularization, the native population plummeted far more dramatically — to approximately 18,000. Over the course of just two and a half centuries, foreigners managed to annihilate 95 percent of the native population.

Those native Californians who lived within the mission system, and survived it, provided the bulk of the labor for the planting and tending of the mission vineyards — not to mention the olive groves and fruit orchards — the harvesting of the grapes, and the making of wine. And, fortunately, there were at least a few white settlers whose eyes and hearts were open to the plight of the Indians.

The First California Vintages

It was mentioned previously that where the missionaries established roots, so, in time, would wine. As for when California winemaking specifically began, some have asserted that the first vineyards were planted at the first mission, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, in 1769. Three formidable "witnesses" attest to this assertion. The first is no less than General Mariano Vallejo.

In 1833 Mariano de Guadalupe Vallejo, the military commandant of Alta California, was dispatched to locate sites for outposts to ward off any Russian expansion of its 1812 settlement at Fort Ross — not to mention the English settlement farther north on the Columbia River. With a handful of settlers, Vallejo established communities at Petaluma and Santa Rosa. He later became one of the first wine-grape growers in Northern California, as well as a friend of his pioneer neighbor, Agoston Haraszthy.

In 1874, General Vallejo wrote that California pioneers — including his father, a Spanish soldier among the first sent to California — had told him that Father Serra had brought wine grapevines from Baja California and planted them at Mission San Diego in 1769. Of course, we can't know if this report originated from Father Serra himself or in fact from someone else.

The second "witness" to the planting of wine grapevines in 1769 — or, more correctly, witness once or twice removed — was Arpad Haraszthy, the son of Count or Colonel Agoston Haraszthy. Like General Vallejo, Arpad Haraszthy was reporting what his father had told him, or, perhaps, what his father-in-law, General Vallejo, had told his father.

The third witness was California's early in-depth chronicler of its wine industry, Frona Eunice Wait. A professional writer who had worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, Wait published Wines and Vines of California in 1889. In it she states that Franciscan padres had planted the first wine grapes at Mission San Diego in 1770, and that by 1774 "these holy fellows had pipes of piquant inspiration in their mission cellars." But, since Wait had interviewed Arpad Haraszthy at length for her book, it's highly likely all three witnesses rely on the putative statement of one man: General Vallejo's father.

It so happens that Father Serra himself seems to have contradicted these accounts. As Thomas Pinney notes in his first volume of A History of Wine in America, Serra complained throughout the mission-founding process of how wine for mass was so hard to come by in Alta California — and what wine he did get came from Spain or Mexico. If San Diego was indeed producing wine in 1774, as Frona Wait reported, it's hard to imagine that Serra would go to the trouble of importing wine as well.


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Table of Contents

Part I Beginnings — Mission Vines, Vignes, and Buena Vista,
Chapter One Early California, the Missions, and Their Eponymous (and Tasteless) Grape: 1769–1833, 3,
Chapter Two "City of Vineyards" — Commercial Winemaking Takes Root in Southern California: 1790s–1890s, 18,
Chapter Three Northern California — The Gold Rush, Agoston Haraszthy, and the Roots of the Modern California Wine Industry: 1836–1869, 38,
Chapter Four After Haraszthy — Sonoma, Napa, and the Confluence of Wealth and Wine: 1860s–1890s, 65,
Part II A Bug, a Tremblor, a Sunken Liner, and One Bummer of a Law — Four Setbacks,
Chapter Five Phylloxera and Other Perils: 1873–1900s, 97,
Chapter Six The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: 1906, 122,
Chapter Seven A City Rebuilt, a "War-Ending" War, and an Underattended World's Fair: 1906–1915, 137,
Chapter Eight The Ignoble Experiment of Prohibition: 1920–1933, 159,
Part III After Prohibition-Doldrums, Mondavi, and a Tasting in Paris,
Chapter Nine Repeal, Replant, Replenish, Revive: 1933–1940s, 187,
Chapter Ten Robert Mondavi's Contagious Passion for Wine: 1950s–1970s, 220,
Chapter Eleven Stellar Cellars and the Judgment of Paris: 1960s–1976, 240,
Chapter Twelve Now That They've Seen Paris — The California Wine Industry Meets the Twenty-First Century: 1976–Present, 262,
Conclusion, 299,
Acknowledgments, 305,
Chronology, 309,
Bibliography, 320,
Index, 330,
About the Author,

What People are Saying About This

Christopher O'Sullivan

​​“An entertaining and insightful story of California seen through the state’s wine history, Crush is an essential addition to any California bookshelf. Readers may never look at their glass of California wine in the same way.”

Kevin Starr

“In a tour de force of scholarship, fine writing, and multifaceted format, Crushdescribes the process of how California introduced wine to America and how wine helped to create contemporary California. With verve and amplitude, Briscoe evokes the alchemy through which wine—as agriculture, as vintners’ art, as connoisseurship in dialogue with advanced and popular taste alike—helped define California as a regional civilization.”

Dana Gioia

Crush is simply superb—both as history and story-telling. The Paris tasting and its aftermath was a transformative moment in California's cultural history. This immensely readable book captures the excitement, the fun, and the astonishment of the event.”

Marimar Torres

​​“An insightful work on the history and development of the California wine industry, its struggles and achievements, until reaching the heights of quality and prestige we have today. Recommended Reading!”

Dana Gioia

​​“Crush is simply superb—both as history and story-telling. The Paris tasting and its aftermath was a transformative moment in California's cultural history. This immensely readable book captures the excitement, the fun, and the astonishment of the event.”

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