8 History-Making Northern California Wineries to Visit

The stories behind the stalwarts that put California wine country on the map

In the case of California wine, oldies are goodies—even without tipping a glass. Though the vast majority of wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Alameda counties only have existed for the past few decades, a select handful have been around far longer than that. Together, these stalwarts represent the pioneers of the region—the ones who quite literally put California wine country on the map. Here’s a closer look at the wineries and their stories.

Napa Valley

Charles Krug Tasting Counter

All stories about historic wineries must begin with Charles Krug, the oldest winery in the Napa Valley. Krug, an immigrant from Prussia, founded the winery in 1861 and spent decades building it from the ground up. He introduced a cider press for winemaking. He carefully selected rootstocks and sites and became a local celebrity.

After his death in 1892, the winery was run by James Moffit, who sold the place (for $75,000) to Cesare Mondavi in 1943.

Cesare died in 1959, leaving his two sons, Robert and Peter, in charge. Robert left to found his own winery (you probably have heard of it: Robert Mondavi), and Peter took the helm at Krug. Peter and his son, who is also named Peter, still run the business.

Today, the winery does a wonderful job of blending the old with the new. The tasting room is housed in a building erected by Krug in 1872 but recently renovated by the Mondavis as part of a $22 million rehabilitation of their properties planned for this decade. A stroll around the tasting room brings visitors face-to-face with other pieces of history: historic photos, documents and other artifacts from yesteryear.

“With over 150 years of history, it seems we are uncovering a new story every week,” says Paul Englert, vice president of marketing. “We balance our priorities, sharing the winery's latest releases and innovations alongside authentic, priceless tales from our winery's storied past.”

Beringer Vineyards' Rhine House

Other local wineries have colorful histories, too. Beringer Vineyards, also in St. Helena, was founded in 1876 by Jacob Beringer, who got his start working for Krug. Georges de Latour, who founded Beaulieu Vineyard in 1900, made his fame by importing rootstock from Europe that was resistant to Phylloxera, an insect infestation that crippled the California wine industry a number of times last century. Then, of course, there’s Chateau Montelena, which was founded in 1882 but made a name for itself by supplying the bottle of Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris wine-tasting contest in 1978.

Another history worth telling is that of Schramsberg Vineyards, the oldest sparkling-wine house in the county.

Schramsberg was founded by Jacob Schram in 1862, just one year after Krug founded his place. Schram and subsequent owners made mostly still wine at Schramsberg until Jack and Jamie Davies bought the winery in 1965 for a very explicit purpose: to make sparkling wine.

Today, Hugh Davies, Jack’s son, runs the winery and has introduced still wine back into the product mix. A visit to the winery includes a walk through original caves, as well as a crash-course in history.

“We are enthusiastic about the history of our winery, and we recognize that if it weren’t for the Schrams in 1862 and my parents in 1965, we simply wouldn’t be here,” says Davies. “They made it possible, they laid the groundwork upon which our winery is built today.” 

Sonoma

Buena Vista wine cave

There are historic wine properties outside of the Napa Valley as well. No. 1 on the list: Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, the oldest winery in all of wine country. Count Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa, of Hungary, purchased the property in the mid-1800s and founded the winery in 1857. Once he realized he had struck “purple gold” with this spot, he expanded operations—to 250 acres—by 1860. He also inspired countless others; one of them was none other than Charles Krug.

Today, the original winery is on the National Register of Historic Places—a formal designation that recognizes the significance of the place throughout the recent past. A new owner, Jean-Charles Boisset, has transformed the winery into a place that celebrates old and new.

Tastings are held in the (recently refurbished) historic winery and press house. Above the sparkling-wine cellars is a first-of-its-kind museum showcasing a collection of historic viticulture tools from France. On certain days, visitors even can take tours of the ground with a costumed guide who calls himself The Count.

“We’re once again making wine in the historic cellars,” says Tamara Stanfill, a spokesperson for the winery. “We’re bringing the whole building and the history back to life.”

Buena Vista Winery harvest

Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma is almost as old. Jacob Gundlach bought some of the land to start the winery in 1858 and planted the first 60,000 vines on the ranch the following year. Charles Bundschu joined the winery a few years later.

Today, a visit to the winery incorporates history at every turn. When hospitality mavens aren’t describing an old photo, they’re regaling guests with stories of the olden days. Katie Bundschu, the sixth generation of Bundschu to work at the winery, is now vice president of sales and marketing for the winery, believes authenticity and good products are a winning combination.

“In an era where people are more conscientious about where their food comes from, where their clothes are made and generally the story behind many of the goods we consume, a story that is authentic and rich in history is a point of differentiation in a cluttered and busy marketplace,” she says.

Alameda County 

Pre-harvest grapes at Wente Vineyards

Finally, in Alameda County, Wente Vineyards claims the title of the country’s oldest, continuously operated family-owned winery. According to winery materials, C. H. Wente, a first-generation immigrant from Germany, purchased 47 acres in the Livermore Valley in 1883. As the winery has continued to grow, subsequent generations of Wentes have taken over portions of the business.

It’s hard to visit the winery without coming face-to-face with some piece of history. At the same time, the winery has opened a fine-dining restaurant and a stage for concerts.

In wine country, it seems, the best way to do, “old,” is to combine modern life with the stuff from yesteryear and blend them together as if they’re in a Bordeaux-style red. The result: a present with an appreciation for the past and an eyeball on the future. Every industry should be so lucky.

Matt Villano
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