Recognized as the birthplace of California’s wine industry, Sonoma Valley isn't just home to 183-year-old vines, it lays claim to a certain pioneering resilience. Despite General Vallejo’s efforts, the town of Sonoma lost its place as the county seat once the booming Gold Rush redirected the flow of commerce south to San Francisco. In the 19th century the Valley's wine industry would survive an epidemic of the root disease phylloxera; in the 20th, it would weather Prohibition. After World War II, the region's wine trade rebounded and flourished, steadily evolving ever since. Although it has grown, it has remained isolated enough to keep its original beauty. Rich in agricultural heritage and recognized as the birthplace of California’s premium wine industry, Sonoma Valley is home to vineyards planted as early as 1824 by the Mission’s Franciscan Fathers. Today, Sonoma Valley remains a vigorous hub for the wine industry and a popular tourist destination. Visitors can sample local varietals at more than 40 premium wineries and tasting rooms.
FROM FRONTIER TO BYWAY Immediately after the annexation of California to the United States, the U.S. Navy governed Sonoma in a loose confederation with the Bear Flaggers. Fremont was sent back to Washington and eventually court-martialed for his unauthorized raids on Mexicans. In 1847, a regiment of Army volunteers from New York arrived to garrison the town of Sonoma as a frontier outpost, a military goal similar to that of Mariano G. Vallejo’s when he oversaw the town. One of its commanders, John B. Frisbie (who married one of General Vallejo's daughters,) in fact speeded the financial ruin of the general.
California became a state in 1850, and Vallejo was elected a state senator. He lobbied vigorously to locate the state capital in one of two nearby towns (formed largely from his extensive land holdings): Benicia, named for his wife, and which lay on the Carquinez Straits at the northeast tip of San Pablo Bay; and an adjacent town previously called Eureka, but later named Vallejo in his honor. Benicia briefly served as the capital. Vallejo’s power grab fast becoming futile, he tried to keep Sonoma the county seat, battling a challenge from the upstart Santa Rosa. The latter city won in a countywide election in 1854--a result some Sonoma historians still dispute. The town of Sonoma further lost its political significance when residents of Santa Rosa removed all the county records in the middle of the night.
Sonoma Valley retained, of course, its favorable surroundings, experiencing a period of gradual development as a rural agricultural and social center. The Gold Rush had temporarily drained the Valley many of its males, but Sonoma did feel the impact of California immigration and its growing wealth. With U.S. rule came the appropriation of many land holdings, and Vallejo lost much of his real estate, which once amounted to 7 million acres. Later, his son-in-law, Commander Frisbie, involved him in a series of disastrous financial speculations that left him nearly penniless. His Sonoma home on West Spain Street was all that remained when he passed away in 1890.
The Valley has always grown grapes, and the Mission fathers planted primitive vineyards, whose berries were crushed under the feet of their indigenous religious proselytes. Vallejo continued the tradition. Then, in the late 1850s, a Hungarian immigrant, Agoston Haraszthy, arrived in the Valley. Haraszthy had turned a scientific eye on viticulture, and he convinced the state of California to send him on a long research expedition to study propagation methods in Europe’s legendary wine growing regions. What he saw there convinced Haraszthy that Sonoma Valley's red, gravelly soil offered the perfect conditions for grapes whose wines would rival Europe's. Haraszthy helped found the state’s first official winery, Buena Vista Winery. Others quickly followed, and by 1876 the Valley was producing more than 2.3 million gallons a year.
But Sonoma soon had to contend with a worldwide epidemic: the phylloxera vitifoliae, an aphid-like root parasite that had begun to ravage and kill vines. Not until resistant strains of native California vines were discovered in Sonoma and Napa was the blight alleviated.
For some decades in the late 19th century, Sonoma Valley lay more or less isolated. In the 1880s, the town of Sonoma languished, and the Plaza fell into a state of neglectwild with weeds and overrun with cattle. The Mission decayed and deteriorated. Transportation was infrequent and slow. Boats from San Francisco took a day’s travel, and not until 1890 did a standard gauge railroad run through the Valley. This line ran along Spain Street, and included a depot on the Plaza, a turntable and engine house.
As the wine industry began recover from phylloxera and renew itself, Sonoma life picked up again in the 1890s--with many resorts springing up after a hot water source was found at Boyes Hot Springs. Trains brought droves of visitors to the resorts. Electric light arrived in 1895. Author Jack London came to the Valley in 1904 and mythologized it in his novel, The Valley of the Moon. London settled in Glen Ellen, where he undertook the construction of a huge mansion that burned down before he and his wife could ever move in. Some 40 acres of his London estate, including the ruined manse, are now preserved as a California historical park.
The Sonoma City Hall was dedicated in 1908 (shown in the picture at the top of the page) and carefully built with four identical facades--so that merchants on all sides of the Plaza could claim that it faced them. During World War I, the Valley sent 117 of its sons to war: only 98 of them returned.
The sacrifices given and bravery shown by these Sonomans is now forever commemorated by Sonoma Valley’s stately Veterans Cemetery, the centerpiece of which is the recently completed Veterans Memorial sculptured Star Fountain. Just beyond the Veterans Cemetery lies the much older Mountain Cemetery.Deeded by General Vallejo himself and founded in 1841 the cemetery winds up the pastoral, tree-strewn slopes of Schocken Hill, and serves as the resting place for countless historical figures, from Donner Part survivors to Vallejo himself--entombed alongside his wife.
With growing taxes on alcohol and increasing restrictions on its use, for years winemakers had seen a complete ban on alcohol lurking on the horizon. And in 1919, the onset of Prohibition almost destroyed the Valley’s wine trade and economy. Winemakers did their best to defeat or work around it, but were overwhelmed by the national Prohibition movement. The passage of the 18th Amendment spelled the demise of many Valley wineries. Some converted to canneries; only Sebastiani Winery--licensed to make sacramental and medicinal wines--was able to maintain its winemaking operations. Prohibition’s stunning effect was evidenced in the Great Fire of 1911, when winemaker Agostino Pinelli allowed firefighters to pump a thousand gallons of his own red wine to extinguish the flames.
Despite the "dry" triumph of Prohibition, the area remained vigorously "wet" during the 1920s, with several illegal stills operating and selling liquor to the resorts. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the wineries reopened, but Sonoma’s vines had been abjectly neglected and the Depression stifled potential markets. The opening of the Golden Gate Bridge made the area more accessible, but there was little reason for visitors to come.
Like much of America, Sonoma mobilized itself on the home front during World War II, supporting blood drives, scrap metal drives and a USO, driving at the wartime speed limit of 35 mph and learning to tell a Zero from a P40. Mayor C. C. Bean formed a “Home Guard” to protect the local water supply, posting two armed civilians every night to patrol the cistern behind General Vallejo's old home.
After the war, Sonoma’s long sleep ended. Outsiders discovered the Valley, just as the Mexicans and Spanish had discovered it before them. The population flourished, sprouting schools and a new hospital. The population surged from 20,000 inhabitants in 1960 to 40,000 in 1980.
But growth was managed. A contentious proposal to construct a freeway down Sonoma’s center in the 1960s was abandoned. In 1974, Sonoma adopted a general plan that called for preservation of single-family dwellings and the Valley's natural treasures, and the town prevented a multiple housing unit from being built. In the same spirit, citizens recently voted heavily against the construction of a large resort hotel on the town's last open public space. Sonoma never became the political and economic powerhouse that General Vallejo originally envisioned, but in the long run, this turned out to be a blessing: unlike many parts of California, Sonoma has managed to retain its original charm and pastoral beauty.
Photos courtesy Sonoma Valley Historical Society