A tour through Irish American wine country in California (PHOTOS)


Guinness, whiskey and tea might be the first drinks that come to mind when you think about Ireland, but what about wine? As it turns out, Ireland has an extensive wine story – one that continues today in the Irish American vineyards of California’s Napa Valley.

The relationship between the Irish and wine reaches far back into history. A 16th century stained glass window from the Church of St. Patrice in the French city of Rouen depicts St. Patrick drinking wine with the High King Laoighre at Tara in 433 AD. Along with the gospel, Irish monks carried and planted vines throughout continental Europe.

“The Irish saints Patrick, Columbanus, Fiacre, Nessan, Gall, Fridolin and Killian are honored in the vine-growing regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône Valley and the Loire Valley in France; and in the cantons of St. Gall and Grisons in Switzerland, Lombardy in Italy, Jerez in Spain and Franken in Germany, where St Killian is the patron of wine-growers," writes Ted Murphy in his astonishing book, "A Kingdom of Wine, A Celebration of Ireland’s Winegeese," published by Onstream Publications of Currabaha, Cloghroe, County Cork.

There is one city in Ireland whose name appears over and over again, whether you’re talking of centuries ago or the roots of winemakers today in California, and that name is Cork. Yes, Cork is well-fixed, and has been well-fixed for centuries, in the wine trade.

The art of grafting has played a major role in the development and preservation of the wine trade, and the grafting of Irish and French cultures upon each other is also notable. After the fall of Rome and the Germanic invasions of Gaul, French scholars fled to Ireland. In 1685, many French Huguenots were exiled to Ireland, where they established themselves in the wine trade.

Conversely, there was the 16th and 17th century exodus of Irish people to France, which saw many Irish settle in Bordeaux and become active in the French wine business as growers, developers and world-wide traders of the vine and its products.

These Irish entrepreneurs supplied wine to the American armies fighting the Revolutionary War, and afterwards provided their expertise in stocking the wine cellars of Washington, Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They also shipped cognac to the Czar of Russia.

In 1844, a family of Irish immigrants named Murphy led the first wagon train across the Sierras into California, and their descendants were not delinquent in getting into the business of vineyards and wineries in the Golden State. There are fifty or more wineries of Irish-America heritage in California today.

Here are the stories of just a few of these California Irish-American wineries, told mostly in their own words.

Waits-Mast Family Cellars

San Francisco, California

Brian Mast and Jennifer Waits recently visited Ireland and Irish wineries, and even brought back real Irish wine.

Brian’s late mother grew up in Louth Village, Co. Louth. His father was a visiting scholar from the States and met his mother in Ireland in the late 50s. “Our family always stayed close to our mother’s Irish heritage, and we spent a few summers there when we were kids,” he says.

Jennifer’s heritage is a little more distant, dating back to the 18th century and the McShanes from Country Tyrone.

After starting to make wine in 2005, Waits-Marst Family Cellars quickly gained acclaim, with inclusion in the San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Wines of 2009 and a Gold Medal in the 2010 S.F. Chronicle Wine Competition.

“Our goal is to continue making the best small lot, single vineyard Pinot Noir that we can. Our current production is 200 cases and we’ll likely continue on that scale for the foreseeable future.”

Sullivan Vineyards

Rutherford, Napa Valley, California

The Sullivan family left Ireland in the 1840s/50s and landed in Eureka, California. During a trip to Ireland in the late 1970s, the family traced their roots back over 150 years to the small town of Kilmurry in Co. Cork.