Russians, Mexicans, Indians and bears! Oh my! They all played a role in the history of the Carneros region, which sits on the north coast of San Pablo Bay and straddles the borders of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley.
According to the Carneros Wine Alliance, in the early 1800s, “California was … under Mexican jurisdiction and few if any pioneers braved the dangers posed by local Indian tribes, bears and the threat of attack by Russian soldiers camped along the Sonoma coast at Fort Ross and Bodega Bay.”
All of this changed in 1823, when the 21st (and last) California mission was established in Sonoma. Its purpose was to convert the natives to Christianity and cultivate the surrounding land. In spite of mixed reviews on the mission’s venture, its existence provided stability and security in the area, promoting a population influx of farmers and settlers.
In 1834, the Mexican government decided to secularize all of the California missions. General Vallejo was put in charge of secularizing the Sonoma mission. Two of his tasks were to free the Indians and grant acreage to anyone who could prove Mexican citizenship and commit to working the land. As it turned out, the land was divided primarily amongst Vallejo’s kith and kin. Four land grants were given that make up what is today known as the Carneros appellation. The largest was to J. P. Leese, a son in-law, who got over 18,000 acres called Huichica. Another was to the area’s actual namesake, Rincon de los Carneros, for just 2,500 acres.
Given the small size of Carneros’s grant, I’m not sure why the appellation retained the Carneros name. Perhaps it is because it is easier to say than Huichica!
What is fascinating about the Huichica and Rincon de los Carneros ranchos is that they appear to be the home of the very first two wineries in northern California. In the late 1830s, according to local wine historian William Heintz, Leese planted the first small vineyard, even before Huichica officially became his land. Twenty years later, an Indiana immigrant, W. H. Winter, planted a second 1,200-acre vineyard on part of Huichica, which he bought from Leese. Winter Winery became the first winery in today’s Carneros region.
Next week, we’ll explore the next stage in the history of the Carneros region.
Until then, I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy some lovely wines (probably Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays) from Carneros.