Interview with Sherry Monahan, Author of California Vines, Wines & Pioneers

This spring, the History Press will toast to the deep roots of the West’s wine heritage with a new addition to the American Palate series. In this interview with History Press West, Sherry Monahan, author of the forthcoming book California Vines, Wines & Pioneers, shares insights about her writing process and California’s wine industry.

Inglenook Vineyards. Courtesy Sherry Monahan.

HPW: Did you approach this story from a love of history, a love of wine, or a bit of both?

SM: Both. I got the idea for this book a couple of years ago, when I was sampling wine at a local store. They said, “Hey, you’re going to love this wine and the history behind the winery.” They went on to tell me the story of Edoardo Seghesio and as the French say, “Voila!”

It was the Franciscan missionaries sent over from Spain who planted the first grapes in Southern California. They set up missions beginning with San Diego in 1769 and ending with Sonoma in 1823, planting mission grapes along the way. Historian Lyman L. Palmer in 1881 wrote this about mission wine, “…It was sour, unpalatable and dreggy stuff, yet it answered the purpose, and was relished by those accustomed to its use from youth to old age…”

HPW: What was your research process like for this book? Were there any surprises along the way?

SM: Are you kidding? The research was awesome for this book. Who doesn’t like getting exceptional free wine? I had a great time interviewing the wine makers and winery owners, although I will say there were a couple that could have fit the 1980s TV show, Falcon Crest, family. There weren’t any surprises, other than Los Angeles being the first big wine area in California.

Josephine Tychson. Courtesy Freemark Abbey.

HPW: Can you briefly introduce a couple of the lesser-known pioneers in California’s wine history?

SM: Well, there’s Josephine Marlin-Tychson who established Freemark Abbey in the 1880s in Napa Valley, General Sherman who was a partner in the winery we know as Valley of the Moon today in Sonoma County, and Irish immigrant James Concannon who began his winery in Alameda County in 1883.  

Niebaum Winery. Courtesy of Inglenook Winery.

HPW: What role do Old World traditions and vines play in today’s wine industry?

SM: Many of California’s wine roots can be traced back to France, Italy, Germany, and other Old World countries. When they arrived in California, they found the Mission grape being used to make wine. But the grape makes sweet wine like Angelica, and they wanted the wine they were used to having back home. They brought vines with them or had them shipped over to America. Without the immigrants, California’s wine industry today could look quite different.

Chapin Tubbs, grandson of Chateau Montelena’s founder, was quoted in a newspaper interview, “It is my hope that the wine makers of this district will be able to prove to the world the excellence of our products, thereby bringing fame to this beautiful and fruitful country.” He was right, and shortly thereafter, under the leadership of Jim Barrett, Chateau Montelena stunned the wine world with its win at the 1976 Paris Tasting.

HPW: In you opinion, what are some of the ingredients for California’s success as a wine growing and wine making state?

SM: Well, California has great terroir, which is the air, soil, and all the other factors that make it a great wine-producing area. I believe the tenacity of the wine growers and makers, both then and now, is the main ingredient to their success.

Buena Vista. Courtesy Sherry Monahan.

HPW: What are some of your favorite destinations or stops when touring California wine country?

SM: Wow, that’s tough. Everyone treated me so nicely when I was there doing research, but I did have a couple of favorites. Buena Vista, Fulton, Nichelini, Inglenook, Langtry/Guenoc, Seghesio, Schramsberg, and Foppiano.  

HPW: I know you have a few other books in the pipeline. Will there be more food or wine histories in your future?

SM: Yes, I’d like to do one on all the historic wineries in America and some historical-style recipe books.


Sherry MonahanSherry Monahan is Vice President of Western Writers of America and author of several books on the Victorian West, including Taste of Tombstone, The Wicked West: Boozers, Cruisers, Gamblers, and More, and Tombstone’s Treasure: Silver Mines & Golden Saloons. Sherry also writes a Frontier Fare column for True West and works as a marketing consultant and professional genealogist. As the “Genie with a Bottle,” she traces the genealogy of food and wine. She calls it Winestry and says, “History never tasted so good.”

California Vines, Wines & Pioneers by Sherry Monahan will be available from the History Press and booksellers throughout California in April 2013.

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