The God Who Comes to America

I’ve been doing some research into the history of California wine, as it seemed relevant to honoring local manifestations of Dionysos. After all, the coming of Dionysos to America could be understood as parallel to the introduction and spread of European viticulture here.

The beginnings are problematic; European grapes were brought to Mexico by Cortes in the 15th century, and farmed by native slaves. The practice was taken up by the Spanish missions, and spread north into California to provide wine for the missions to use and sell. Of course, getting native workers to tend the vines was part of the mission genocide of native cultures.

napa-vinyardWhen the missions were shut down, wine production was mostly a southern California thing, and didn’t move into northern California until the economic boom of the gold rush.

California wine went international when a parasite on American vines was carried to European vinyards for experimentation. The American vines had long since evolved to deal with the parasite, but the European vines had no resistance. European vineyards were decimated, and California vineyards surged onto the markets.

So, by the 1920s, California wine was a booming, international trade. Which was promptly killed by Prohibition. Most vineyards were converted to other crops or built over. Most of those that remained were converted to juice grapes, which are bred for different characteristics than wine grapes. A few wineries stayed open to produce wine for medical or religious use.

European vineyards had recovered in this time, and took the market back. When prohibition was lifted and wineries either expanded or started up, they were stuck with vineyards full of juice grapes, which make for poor wine. California wine was the poor cousin of European wine for decades, until the vineyards had been fully restored and several California wineries entered into European wine competitions in the early 1980s, and regained international respect.

There were some problems with unfavorable weather and parasites after that, but nothing that seriously harmed the industry, though some of the wines suffered. The recent fires and drought will have a serious effect on California wine, but it’s too soon to tell exactly what.

So this brings up two questions: How does one go about mythologizing this story, and how to reconcile the exploitation and genocide of native populations with Dionysos as I understand him.

About Ashley Sarver

Ashley Sarver is a queer, nonbinary trans femme, polytheist, gamer, and disability caregiver living in the San Francisco Bay Area. View all posts by Ashley Sarver

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