Time Travel

Unearthing California’s Pre-Prohibition Wine Roots

Next time you’re in Napa, Sonoma, and the Bay Area, visit these important historic sites and wineries.

Each year, millions of people descend on Napa and Sonoma counties to taste wine, eat at fine restaurants and marvel at the grapevines that stretch as far as the eye can see.

But few of today’s visitors are aware of what existed in the area before Prohibition forced the hundreds of wineries around the state to shut down. It was a period when California wine was more likely to be labeled Hock, Angelica and Old Port than cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, sweet wines sold better than table wines, and wine was mostly blended—but not aged—in huge redwood tanks.

From the time of California’s first wine harvest around 1782 to the passage of the Volstead Act in 1920, the state has had a twisted and complex winemaking history filled booms and busts. But if you hunt around you can still find traces of the area’s pre-Prohibition roots. These historic sites and wineries offer a glimpse of those earlier times.

Remnants of the Early Days – 1780-1850

Father Junipero Serra is considered the founder of California’s wine industry. He imported grapes from Baja California in 1778 and had his Native American acolytes plant them at Mission San Juan Capistrano in southern California. The first California harvest was around 1782. As a result, most of the 21 missions that were built around California boasted vineyards.

Mission San Francisco Solano, in modern-day Sonoma, was no exception. It was the northernmost and last mission, constructed in 1823. Local Miwok, Wintun and Wappo Native Americans who had converted to Christianity planted its vineyards, often under slave-like conditions. Historians estimate that more than 800 workers died while living and working there.

After Mexico secularized the mission system in 1834, General Mariano Vallejo, the founder of Sonoma, a Mexican military commander and the eventual owner of 175,000 acres, transplanted many of the mission’s vines to his own property. He became one of the largest winemakers in the state.

The Mission San Francisco Solano is now part of the Sonoma State Historic Park and you can see where the padres and converts lived and farmed. You can also visit two of Vallejo’s homes, one on the plaza at 20 East Spain Street and one at the end of 3rd Street.

To honor the Natives Americans whose lives were so greatly changed by the mission system, in 1999 an impressive granite Sonoma Mission Indian Memorial was erected in the park.

The Legacy of Agoston Haraszthy – 1857-1869

In 1857, a Hungarian named Agoston Haraszthy started Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma and turned it into the largest and most modern winery in the state. Haraszthy, a flamboyant innovator, installed one of the state’s first gravity flow presses at a time when most grapes were still crushed by feet. He was also the first to dig caves for aging wine and figured out how to remove the bitter taste from redwood so it could be used for barrels.

Haraszthy was also determined to find varietals that produced better wine than the ubiquitous Mission grape. In 1861, California’s governor commissioned Haraszthy to find out new ways to improve winemaking in the state, prompting him to travel to Europe and bring back 100,000 cuttings of 350 different grape varietals, which he then distributed around the state.

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Buena Vista eventually went bankrupt and Haraszthy died in 1869, as legend has it, when an alligator in a Nicaraguan river ate him. Over the years Haraszthy has become a legend, even earning the nickname “Father of California Viticulture.”

If Haraszthy had a 21st century equal it might be Jean Charles Boisset, a flamboyant Frenchman who is married to Gina Gallo and is partial to Tom Ford suits and Louboutin shoes. Boisset is part of a large wine-making family and its Boisset Family Estates bought Buena Vista Winery in 2011. Boisset not only loves fashion and fun, but history. He completely refurbished Buena Vista’s 1864 stone cellar to make it earthquake safe. An actor impersonating Haraszthy now walks the grounds, giving tours and recounting his colorful personal history.

Boisset converted the winery’s top floor into a museum with 30,000 18th and 19th century farm implements from France. But Boisset has pumped up both the museum and tasting area to Disneyland-like levels. Flashing red, green, and blue lights illuminate the antique plow blades, bill hooks, wine pullers, pomace cutters and harvest baskets, while a 17-minute video on the history of wine in California jumps from wall to wall.

For those who want to sample the wares, Boisset has converted one area of the winery into an all-white “Bubble Room,” that showcases his JCB Champagne. Those looking for a more sedate tasting can wander into another part of the winery where large casks sit on the floor and historic portraits line the walls.

Remembering the Contribution of Chinese Laborers – 1870s

Workers from China started arriving in San Francisco around the time of the Gold Rush, but it wasn’t until 1852 that they came by the thousands. Most hurried to the gold mines or found jobs in San Francisco’s numerous cigar and shoe factories, but a small number were employed by northern California’s wineries. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, more Chinese laborers moved into the grape fields.

One of the best places to see physical evidence of the contribution of Chinese workers to the wine business is at Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, at the northern end of the Napa Valley. Jacob Schram, a German immigrant, bought 200 acres on Mt. Diamond in 1862 and planted 30,000 vines. His winery gained fame after the author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about it in his 1883 book, The Silverado Squatters. In 1870, Schram hired about ten Chinese men to excavate a wine cave that extended about a quarter-mile into the tufa rock. The workers bunked in a wooden cabin that still sits on the property.

Schram died in 1905 and the property languished until Jack and Jamie Davies purchased it in 1965. They decided to focus on making sparkling wine in the Champagne style, to great success. Every President since Richard Nixon has featured the company’s sparkling wine at the White House or some official celebration and photos of those events decorate the visitor’s center. The best way to see reminders of the Chinese workers is by taking one of Schramsberg’s daily one-and-a-half hour tours through the caves. The $70 fee includes tastings of its bubbly. One illuminated part of the cave still shows the pick and shovel marks made by the Chinese workers about 147 years ago. Visitors can also stroll up the road past Schram’s home, and see the small cabin that quartered the laborers.

A Volcanic-Stone Monument – 1888-1919

The imposing Greystone Winery building right on Highway 29, two miles north of St. Helena, is one of Napa County’s most distinctive landmarks. The three-story building constructed from locally quarried grey volcanic stone was built in 1888 and currently houses the Culinary Institute of America. Its dozens of students can be seen hurrying though the building dressed in starched white coats and toques. There have been multiple owners of the landmark structure, including William Bourne II, whose family became extremely wealthy through their ownership of the Empire Mine and Christian Brothers.

The structure also reflects the turbulent history of the wine industry in the 1890s, at a time when a glut of grapes depressed prices and competing San Francisco wine houses undercut one another to grab market share. The industry only stabilized after 1894, when seven wine houses merged their assets to create the California Wine Association (CWA). One of those firms belonged to Charles Carpy, who owned Greystone. The CWA was a ruthless organization that launched a wine war against grape growers and mercilessly squashed small operators who did not want to join their operation. The CWA grew rapidly and gobbled up wineries and vineyards around the state and eventually controlled 80-percent of the production and sale of wine in California.

This was an era when wine from around northern California was shipped to wine houses and blended in huge casks. The wine, usually unaged, was then shipped in barrels and only bottled by retailers and restaurants. Traces of this period can be seen in Greystone’s Barrel Room on the second floor.

Large barrels that once held thousands of gallons of wine line the walls. They are decorated with brass plaques honoring those inducted into the “Vintners Hall of Fame,” including 19th century winemakers such as Haraszathy, the Beringer Brothers and Charles Krug. There is also the David and Judy Breitstein collection of historic bottles featuring bottles of California wine that date back to 1875. (Note: The Vintners Hall of Fame is slated to move to CIA’s Napa campus in late 2017.)

The CIA, in collaboration with Markham Vineyards, also makes its own wine under the Greystone Cellars name. Visitors can enjoy a meal cooked by the school’s students at the onsite restaurant, The Gatehouse.

Uncovering a Lost Wine City – 1906-1919

San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire decimated most of the brick wine warehouses that had served as the hub of the California wine industry. After the devastation, which destroyed ten million gallons of wine, the California Wine Association (CWA), headed by Percy Morgan, moved its facilities across San Francisco Bay to Point Molate, a promontory near the city of Richmond. The CWA constructed Winehaven, the world’s largest winery. Around 37 buildings, including one that resembled a medieval castle with crenellated parapet and corner turrets, were spread out on 47 acres that had a commanding view of the bay.

Winehaven was so large it was often referred to as a city-state and it immediately became a tourist attraction for visiting dignitaries. At its peak, around 400 workers lived on the grounds in small bungalows or at the Winehaven Hotel. There was a crushing facility that could handle 25,000 tons of grapes, a cellar that could hold ten million gallons, a cooperage and a bottling shop.

Rail lines came in from Napa, Sonoma and San Joaquin counties and a pier allowed huge ships from around the world to pull up and load barrels. The CWA shipped 500,000 gallons of wine a month, with 40 ships departing to New York alone. The entire facility was shuttered by the time Prohibition went into full effect, but the CWA was left holding millions of gallons of wine it could not sell. The collapse of what was once the world’s largest wine company contributed to Percy Morgan’s suicide on April 19, 1920.

The U.S. Navy used Winehaven as a fuel depot during and after World War II, but it has been mostly vacant for decades. Amazingly, Winehaven is almost intact, although its buildings are in disrepair. Visitors can take the Pt. Molate exit off of Interstate 580 west, right before the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and drive a rutted road that goes through the complex. The buildings are behind a chain link fence but are visible from the road and from the beach below. The complex can also be seen by car when heading east on the bridge and are well the trip.