Working the Land: Grape Harvesting, ca. 1887 and 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

I was talking today with the Homestead’s facilities coordinator (and part-time restaurant sommelier), Robert Barron, about the museum’s demonstration vineyard, which Robert organized and supervised when it was planted next to the Workman House two years ago.

He pointed out that it is about this time of year, historically, that viticulturists like William Workman would have grapes picked from the vineyard about this time of year–in October and November.  He also noted that this year has been earlier, however, with grape harvesting taking place in September, because hotter weather caused the fruit to ripen earlier.

We don’t have any photos (yet) of the vineyard here at the Homestead, which existed back into the 1840s, given that agricultural schedules from the federal census of 1850 (taken early in 1851 in the newly admitted state of California) showed viticulture was well established on William Workman’s share of Rancho La Puente.

In October 1856, when artist Henry Miller visited the Homestead, Workman had 12,000 vines.  The census four years later recorded 6,000 gallons of wine were produced and visitor J.Q.A. Warren, also in 1860, observed there were 10,000 vines, which produced an extra crop the past season, and that 50,000 more new vines had recently been planted.

By the mid-1860s, Workman constructed three substantial brick buildings immediately south of his home and adjacent to the vineyard for the making of wine.  According to his grandson, John H. Temple, the largest was for crushing and fermenting and the other two were dedicated specifically for red and white wine production.  In 1868, a newspaper report showed production at 11,000 gallons per year, almost double what it was at the beginning of the decade.

This Frank Schumacher stereoscopic photograph, from about 1887, and in the Homestead’ s collection, may show grape picking in a vineyard in the Anaheim area of what, within two years, became Orange County, but was still part of Los Angeles County.

Workman’s grandson Francis W. Temple took over the management of the vineyard and winemaking facilities sometime in the early 1870s and, after the financial disaster the beset the Workman and Temple families when their Los Angeles bank failed in 1876, Francis was able to retain the Workman Homestead as a 75-acre property because he worked the vineyard successfully and made enough money to buy the parcel from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin in 1880, after Baldwin foreclosed on the loan he made to the stricken bank five years prior.

Temple managed his vineyard for a dozen years, left some interesting notes on “How To Make Wine”, and left an estate valued at some $150,000 when he died from the results of chronic tuberculosis in 1888, just a few days shy of his 40th birthday.  A year later, the new Homestead owner and Temple’s brother, John, noted that the production of the winery had been about 10,000 gallons per year, but that the winery had the facilities to produce five to six times that amount (this is in addition to a still for making brandy that was part of the operations).  The vineyard at the end of the 1880s was about 25 acres in extent, suggesting there was room for 25,000 vines.

What happened to the vineyard then is uncertain.  It may be that John Temple, whose agricultural specialty had been walnuts based on what he raised on his 130-acre ranch in what is now South El Monte, was not as skilled with viticulture.  More ominously, though, was the rampant spread of Pierce’s disease, brought about from insect-introduced bacteria, that wiped out vineyard in greater Los Angeles during the late 1880s.  In any case, the vineyard ceased to exist by the end of the 19th century.

Regional viticulture was severely impacted by the epidemic and had been increasingly overshadowed by the better quality vineyards of, for example, Napa and Sonoma counties.  Still, it did survive in places like the Ontario/Rancho Cucamonga area, where viticulturists like Secondo Guasti flourished well into the 20th century.  This was true for some like Guasti even when Prohibition forced a dramatic change into sacramental wines, which were legal under that “great social experiment”, grape juice and other products.

However, the effects of the Great Depression and World War II, followed by massive postwar suburban expansion and the increasing shift of viticulture to the north, including the central coastal region, continued to mark a local decline in grape-growing and winemaking.  Today, there are very few producing vineyards and a few longstanding wineries, like San Antonio (which imports all of its grapes from its vineyard elsewhere in the state), are joined by a growing number of small “micro wineries.”  But, the long history of viticulture in greater Los Angeles is still of interest.

This Philip Brigandi stereoscopic photo, also from the museum collection and dating to the 1920s, shows laborers in the vineyard of Secondo Guasti’s Italian Vineyard Company in the Ontario area.  

That leads to the two photos highlighted here which show grape harvesting.  The first, by Frank Schumacher, is probably from 1886-1888, based on the address printed on the stereoscopic photograph’s mount.  To this observer, looking at the vast flat plain and the low hills in the distance, the area could well be Anaheim just as Pierce’s disease was poised to wreak destruction on the vineyards planted by German colonists in the late 1850s and afterward.

Then, there’s the circa 1920s view by Philip Brigandi (whose namesake descendant is one of Orange County’s foremost historians) depicts workers on the Guasti vineyard of Ontario.  Remnants of some of the structures associated with Guasti’s masive Italian Vineyard Company holdings are still situated just to the north of Ontario International Airport.

As for the Homestead’s “micro vineyard” of about three dozen vines, mature grapes capable of being pressed and fermented into wine are about two to three more years away.  This will, notably, be just in time for 2019, when the centennial of Prohibition will be commemorated at the Homestead and elsewhere.

So, stay tuned for more viticulture-related history here on the blog and in the museum’s programming in upcoming years.

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