An extensive history of Californian wines from their humble beginnings in the 18th century to modern international acclaim.
Briscoe’s (The Lost Poems of Cangjie, 2017, etc.) history of Golden State wine begins with the Franciscan monks who first tended vineyards in the San Francisco Mission and produced wine according to the old traditions that they brought to the New World. These wines were mostly used for religious purposes and were hardly comparable to later, prestigious vintages. Although the 1849 Gold Rush brought a population explosion and international acclaim to San Francisco’s food scene, Briscoe notes that now “California is as renowned for its wines as San Francisco is for its food, though the former arrived much more slowly.” Briscoe examines every detail of that slow progression. Although he rightly focuses mostly on the City by the Bay and its surrounding wine countries, he leaves no stone unturned in his survey of the state as a whole, describing a lost Los Angeles that was filled with vineyards and the numerous efforts to produce a great product across California. Historic events intervened, including devastating pests, Prohibition, and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But Briscoe also tells of the resilience of such figures as Robert Mondavi, who made good on the promise of the West Coast’s grapes, finally earning the recognition of Paris in the late 20th century. Briscoe’s attention to detail is staggering, and as a result, his exhaustive book is filled with tidbits that will make for fine dinner party anecdotes. For example, he notes the extensive efforts to salvage 2 million gallons of wine after the aforementioned quake by pumping it out of wreckage and chemically changing it into a “fortifying brandy.” He also includes small inserts that offer further information about particular people and practices, as well as images of labels from early vineyards. The overall approach is rather dry, which can make the hefty work feel like a textbook at times—or even a bit of a chore. Nevertheless, Briscoe’s passion for California and its wine often shines through, and the book will offer many surprises to patient readers.
A sometimes-dense but essential history for wine aficionados.