Working the Land: The Workman Vineyards and Wine-Making, 1840s through 1870s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With the demonstration vineyard that my colleague Robert Barron developed with assistance from Square Root, the landscaping firm contracted by the City of Industry to take care of the museum’s landscape, there is the annual harvesting of the grapes on the thirty-odd vines in the area adjacent to the Workman House.

The grapes aren’t quite at the point of being good enough for pressing and fermenting, though we’re only a year or two away from having decent quality grapes, bearing in mind other factors (pest infestation, wind damage, extremes in temperature and humidity and others).

Grape growing and wine making appear historically on the site to go back to the earliest years of the Workman family’s occupancy of the Homestead.  Information is very sparse, but the 1850 agricultural schedules for the federal census, taken in early 1851, recorded that Workman did have 150 or 750 (depending on how the handwriting is deciphered) gallons of wine on hand.

Workman grapes ad 1854
From the Southern Californian, a Los Angeles newspaper, 31 August 1854.

Clearly, he couldn’t have had wine without at least several years growing time for his vineyards–this could mean he was growing grapes in the late Mexican era, prior to the American conquest in 1847.  It should be noted that, as early as the mid-to-late 1820s, Workman, with his friend John Rowland, distilled a liquor called “Taos lightning” back in New Mexico, so there was some prior experience at least with distilling!

Another early form of documentation came at the end of August 1854, when Workman, having gone through the harvest, took out an advertisement in the Southern Californian newspaper in which the ranchero “offers his crop of Grapes at three cents per lb. delivered  at the heap in his vineyard at the Rancho of the Puente.”  For a reasonable charge, Workman offered to deliver fruit from “the Monte” or El Monte.  He even had his close friend, David W. Alexander act as his agent in Los Angeles.

Still, he expanded his vineyard over subsequent years and it has been stated that Charles Kohler and John Frohling, Germans who were wine makers in Los Angeles from 1854 and then on a massive scale in San Francisco (Frohling died in 1862, but Kohler kept his name with his expanding business) went out to ranchos like La Puente to press grapes.

Henry Miller Workman vineyard 1856
The published account of artist Henry Miller’s visit with the Workmans in October 1856.

The earliest detailed description of the Workman vineyard came with the visit in October 1856 of artist Henry Miller, who wrote “there is a fine and large vineyard and orchard in which grow 12,000 grape vines (about 1,000 vines per acre generally–meaning there were about twelve acres devoted to the vineyard) and an abundance of fruit of all kind.”

Four years later, John Quincy Adams Warren, on a tour of ranches and farms in California, spent some time at the Homestead and noted that there were ten acres of vineyards and orchards, upon which were “about 10,000 vines, which have the past season produced an extra crop.”  However, Warren also wrote that “there are some 50,000 new vines set out [on 50 acres] and doing well.”

The same year, in the agricultural schedules for the 1860 federal census, it was reported that Workman had fifty acres of improved vineyards and that he had 5,000 gallons of wine on-hand.

JQA Warren Workman vineyard 1860
The published account of the 1860 visit of J.Q.A. Warren.

In February 1862, the Semi-Weekly Southern News, a Los Angeles paper, published a table of major wine makers, listing gallons produced the prior year.  Kohler and Frohling topped the list at 50,000 gallons along with the collective German grape growers at the recently established town of Anaheim, and another major vineyardist, Mathew Keller, was second at 35,000 gallons.  Workman was thirteenth on the list at 6,000 gallons, a huge growth in a decade from that agricultural schedule of the 1850 census.

With such expansion, it was soon high time for Workman to take the next step and build his own winery.  Amazingly, he did this during a time of drought, which ravaged the region from 1862 to 1864 (this following flooding in the winter of 1861-62–the classic El Niño and La Niña weather patterns).

Wine producers 1862
A list of major Los Angeles County wine producers from the Semi-Weekly Southern News, 12 February 1862.

When the California State Agricultural Society stopped at the Homestead in 1865, the committee wrote,

At Mr. Workman’s . . . we found a very thrifty vineyard of about 10,000 vines, from which we obtained some remarkably fine bunches of the sweetest grapes we have anywhere tasted in this, or indeed, in any other country.

Still, the visitors did also observe that “these vines, however, were not so well pruned, nor so free from weeds as they should be.”  In any case, maybe the 50,000 new vines Warren saw in 1860 fell victim to the plague of flood and drought of succeeding years, but Workman was ready to go ahead and build his winery.

According to his grandson, John H. Temple (1856-1926), who owned the Homestead from 1888-1899, the three structures comprising the winery were built in 1865.  Tax assessments from the period corroborate this in terms of the materials he was using, including an 1867 recording of six fermenting tubs, forty-five wine pipes (barrels), a still, and the on-hand inventory of 1,755 gallons of wine and 694 gallons of brandy.

Wine producers 1868
From the Los Angeles Star, 14 November 1868.

In 1868, the Los Angeles Star reported that Workman produced 11,000 gallons the prior year, though he was dwarfed by Kohler and Frohling, Keller, Benjamin D. Wilson, Leonard J. Rose (for whom Rosemead is named) and others, whose production ran from 100,000 to 250,000 gallons.

John Temple also wrote that his grandfather

built three large wine cellars, one used for a crushing and fermenting cellar, the other for white wine, and the third for red wine.  These wines were sold all through the state, but the principal market was Boston, Massachusetts.

The reason for the latter statement was that Temple’s father, F.P.F., who married Workman’s daughter in 1845, was from the Boston area and undoubtedly used connections he had there to ship some of his father-in-law’s wine and brandy to the East Coast.

By the early 1870s, Workman had another grandson, Francis W. Temple, who, having studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, returned home to become superintendent of the vineyard.

Homestead Auditorium And Dining Hall
A 1920s snapshot from the Homestead’s collection of two of the three winery buildings constructed by William Workman about 1865 and remodeled extensively by his grandson, Walter P. Temple about 1920.  The site of the large building at the right is about where the Homestead Museum Gallery is now.

In early 1875, the Los Angeles Herald listed the wine-making enterprise of Workman as one of thirty in Los Angeles County.  When an inventory was conducted a year later of the Workman estate in the aftermath of the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, it was reported that there were 14 wine vats, 102 empty barrels, and 6,700 gallons of white wine on-hand.  Several months later, in May 1876, a devastated Workman committed suicide, but the vineyard went on to have a vital role in the Homestead’s future–a story we’ll pick up in the next installment of “Working the Land.”

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