California’s wine country conjures images of pastoral vineyards and cellars lined with oak barrels. As a mainstay of the state’s economy, California wines occupy the popular imagination like never before and drive tourism in famous viticultural regions across the state. Scholars know remarkably little, however, about the history of the wine industry and the diverse groups who built it. In fact, contemporary stereotypes belie how the state’s commercial wine industry was born amid social turmoil and racialized violence in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century California.
In The Grapes of Conquest: Race, Labor, and the Industrialization of California Wine, 1769–1920 (University of Nebraska Press, 2023) Dr. Julia Ornelas-Higdon addresses these gaps in the historical narrative and popular imagination. Beginning with the industry’s inception at the California missions, Dr. Ornelas-Higdon examines the evolution of wine growing across three distinct political regimes—Spanish, Mexican, and American—through the industry’s demise after Prohibition. This interethnic study of race and labour in California examines how California Natives, Mexican Californios, Chinese immigrants, and Euro-Americans came together to build the industry.
Dr. Ornelas-Higdon identifies the birth of the wine industry as a significant missing piece of California history—one that reshapes scholars’ understandings of how conquest played out, how race and citizenship were constructed, and how agribusiness emerged across the region. The Grapes of Conquest unearths the working-class, multiracial roots of the California wine industry, challenging its contemporary identity as the purview of elite populations.
This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose forthcoming book focuses on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.