Gonzales began its post Alta California history as a 15,000 plus acre Spanish land grant (Rancho Rincon de la Puente del Monte) given to the city’s namesake, Teodoro Gonzalez. This picturesque Monterey County town was settled and designed in the 1870’s by Gonzalez’ sons, Mariano and Alfredo.
Throughout its history, Gonzales has been home to many cultures and industries. In addition to the generations of Mexican families who had lived in Gonzales as part of Alta California, many of the city’s settlers were immigrants of Portuguese and Swiss-Italian heritage. Throughout the town’s productive and ever-changing history, these immigrant innovators were able to reinvent themselves from one generation to the next.
The agriculture economy began with the Mexican “rancheros” and cattle hide ranching for the leather tannery trade. Cows were grazed and processed for their hides upon the rolling hills of John Steinbeck’s storied Gabilan Mountains. Throughout the early 1900’s, Swiss-Italian immigrants settled on the valley floor near the Salinas River and began the dairy milk business that would become the milk and cream source of the famous “Monterey Jack” cheese. During this era, the town was known fondly as “Little Switzerland,” and became home to the Alpine label evaporated milk and cream company.
Gonzales was home to the first successful U.S. manufacturing site of canned milk, giving millions of Americans access to non-perishable milk products. Herb Myer, keeper of the Gonzalez family legacy, developed a patented raised parlor style dairy milking system that doubled dairy herd outputs. Only a few years later another innovation in breeding and feed management allowed his herd’s production to double yet again. Innovations and automations left dairy farmers victims of their own success leading to the slow decline and disappearance of almost all of the hundred or more dairy business in the Salinas Valley.
The fertile soil in Gonzales was a result of the Salinas River’s annual flooding and the rich alluvial deposits left by erosion of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Local ranchers, dairymen and farmers began to break the soil of their grazing pastures and shape linear bed rows for farming sugar beets and potatoes. As the sugar beet and potato chip industries moved on from the valley, they were replaced with the production of specialty vegetable row crops.
Almost year-round production of crops such as head lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower soon had Gonzales established as the “Heart of the Salad Bowl.” Today, Gonzales is home to companies such as Gonzales Packing Company, Silva Farms, Jackpot Harvesting, D’Arrigo Brothers of California, Taylor Farms, Pure Pacific Organics, and Misionero Vegetables.
In the 1970’s, the rocky benchland soils of the Santa Lucia Highlands that were considered “marginal” for row crop production were being converted by new generations of farmers who recognized the potential for wine grape production in Gonzales’ ideal Mediterranean climate. The last forty years has seen a renaissance in artisanal winemaking and Gonzales sits firmly in the center of the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) wine appellation
that has been lauded for its fabulous chardonnay and pinot noir grapes and winemakers. Because of production quality and volume, wine grapes grown in Gonzales are coveted by winemakers throughout the state. Gonzales is home to a large number of well-known boutique wines and wineries such as Talbott Sleepy Hollow, Pessagno, Pisoni, Tondre, Percheron-McFarland, Manzoni, Boekenoogen, Puma Road, and Mer Soleil as well as large-scale wine producer Constellation Wines, US. The city and its residents relish Gonzales’ status as the “Wine Capital of Monterey County.”