Working the Land: “California Wine-Making” in a Harper’s Weekly Supplement, 9 March 1889

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Having been a distiller of the famed Taos Lightning whiskey while living in New Mexico, William Workman readily turned into a viniculturist soon after settling on the Rancho La Puente in the early 1842.  The earliest documentation found so far of his grape growing activities is from the 1850 federal census, conducted early the following year, and which showed that he had a modest amount of wine and brandy on hand.  Given that it takes at least five years for vines to mature, we can infer that he planted his vineyard at least by the mid-1840s, though it seems likely he did so soon after establishing himself on the ranch.  His long-time friend, business partner, and La Puente grantee John Rowland also had extensive vineyards on his portion of the rancho.

It also is probable that these vines were cuttings from those raised at Mission San Gabriel, where California’s viniculture industry began after the Franciscan missionaries brought vines from Mexico in the late 18th century.  There were soon vineyards planted along the Los Angeles River by residents of the pueblo and, by the late Mexican era, some of these individuals included French emigres like Jean-Louis Vignes (who came to the pueblo in 1831) and his nephew Pierre Sainsevain (who came seven years later, followed in 1855 by his brother Jean-Louis.)


Later, there were Germans like Charles Kohler and John Frohling and the colony of viniculturists at Anaheim, established in 1857, as well as Italians, who congregated in the Plaza area, specifically on what was long called Wine Street and later renamed Olvera Street.  In the San Gabriel Valley, the area around the old mission was prominent grape-growing and wine-making territory, including enterprises conducted by Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to the area with Rowland and Workman, and Leonard J. Rose.

While greater Los Angeles was where California’s vinicultural industry began and while it remained dominant into the early American era in terms of the number of vines and gallons of wine and brandy manufactured, it was not long before it was eclipsed by the Napa and Sonoma areas of Northern California.  These areas proved to be far superior to Southern California for the production of truly fine wines, given the better soil and far more amenable climatic conditions.

So, when the prominent Harper’s Weekly ran an article in its 9 March 1889 supplement on “California Wine-Making,” the focus on production in the Golden State was decidedly in the north. There is, however, some notable mention of greater Los Angeles, specifically the San Gabriel Valley, which remained largely rural as the vineyards of the pueblo were largely gone due to development, especially in the recently concluded “Boom of the Eighties.”


The piece, by Edwards Roberts, who contributed several articles from the late 1870s to the end of the 1880s, provides much detail on the growing of grapes, production processes, and other elements of the industry, as well as some statistics on a recent vintage, and accounts of prominent growers and manufacturers.

He began by noting the deleterious effects of a small exhibit, mounted by an unnamed restaurateur, at the centennial exhibition at Philadelphia thirteen years earlier.  Stating the wine shown had too much sediment and a earthen taste, Roberts indicated that the negative reaction “did much to damage the reputation of California wines in the East” and that “it took nearly ten years to remove the bad impression created by that villainous travesty.”

It is true that local winemakers who tried to introduce their product in Eastern markets, including Wilson, Rose and Mathew Keller, another prominent viniculturist recently profiled in this blog.  Some of these difficulties including the expense of shipping product across the country; damage done to the barrels and its contents; the national depression of 1873, which caused malaise for several years; and representatives in cities with large markets.  Keller established a headquarters in Philadelphia during the centennial year and moved to New York later to try and open the market, but returned by the end of the decade frustrated by his lack of success and died in 1881 at age 60.


Roberts observed that part of the problem with wine-making in greater Los Angeles was that “in fully three-quarters of the vineyards was the old Mission grape . . . [which was] without the delicacy of flavor requisite for wine.”  Recently, the grape was being used largely for brandy.

Yet, in the preceding six years, the acreage devoted to vineyards had quadrupled, with most of that taking place in the north, not just in Sonoma and Napa counties, but also in Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara.  It was stated that there were 5,000 vineyard owners and up to 40,000 workers employed in the industry.  Notably, white laborers made from $25 to $30 a month with board and lodging, while “Chinamen are paid $1 per day and board themselves.”

Roberts reported that, in 1860, some 60,000 acres in the state were devoted to the vine, but this was at about 160,000 in 1887.  In 1876, production stood at 3,750,000 gallons but rose to 16,000,000 by 1886, though there was a drop of 4 million the following year.  Expectations were high for 1890, though, with production anticipated to be between 25 and 30 million gallons.


It was expected that, in a decade, wine-making would explode into the preeminent agricultural industry in the state.  Roberts had a striking expression about California with respect to wine-making and agriculture generally, because of its diversity of soil and climate: “it is our Italy, our France, our Spain and Germany in one.”

He also provided tables showing the exports of nearly 2 million gallons of wine from San Francisco in 1887 and which showed that over half went to New York, with small percentages going to Hawaii (71,000 gallons), Central America (31,000), Mexico (30,000), Japan (28,000), Panama (26,000), and Tahiti (24,000).  Less was sent to Europe than Japan at that time.


Roberts toured California in summer 1888 and had little to say about efforts to raise grapes and make wine in San Diego and surrounding areas, where “no wine of any consequence is made.”  He then headed north and had this to say when he came to our region:

Late in August, when the highways were white with the dust of a California summer, we entered the San Gabriel Valley, lying to the east of Los Angeles.  The valley has had its vineyards ever since the time of the padres, and is one of the oldest cultivated sections of the State. . . it is early afternoon, and the sunlight so fills the valley that the roads are dazzling white, and the shadows of trees as black as night.  But on the balcony, shaded by the pepper-trees, the air is deliciously cool, and a faint fresh breeze sighs through the branches overhead.  We are in Italy once more, or so it seems. In the country below us are the tall poplars, leafy sentinels in the landscape, its orange and lemon groves, vineyards, and vine-clad cottages.

It appears as if Roberts was staying at Sierra Madre Villa, which sat just below the towering San Gabriels, given his talk of “the country below us.”  Roberts, as so many visitors did, wrote in romantic tones about San Gabriel, noting that he ate at a hotel, with a courtyard bounded by high walls and there “rich with flowers and sweet with their perfume, where the only sound was the cooing of doves or the sleepy drone of the honey-bee,” a “señora” sat and talked of the “great changes in the valley in her day.”  Specifically, she allegedly told Roberts, “few of her people were still there, and the old days of idleness were gone.”  It was such, he averred she said to him that:

San Gabriel itself was not so changed, but all around it the Americans had settled, and bought land, built railroads, and divided up the country so that she herself was not sure how to go from place to place.  There was a tinge of melancholy in the señora’s voice, and her eyes constantly wandered about the garden as thought she feared that it, too, would change.

Roberts recorded that the soil in the San Gabriel Valley was of a rich alluvial type “and in places there is black mud known as adobe.”  The diversity of soil provided for “astonishingly varied” agricultural products and the valley was “a natural garden.”  Briefly mentioned was that the ranch of L.J. Rose, who got into deep financial trouble and committed suicide, a little over ten years after the appearance of the article, on 17 May 1899, 23 years to the day after William Workman took his life after the Temple and Workman bank failure.  Also briefly mentioned was the Santa Anita ranch of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin which was “famous for its size and productiveness.”


The one winery visited by Roberts was that of the San Gabriel Wine Company, which was created by James deBarth Shorb after his father-in-law, Benjamin D. Wilson died in 1878 and left Shorb his Lake Vineyard estate in the San Marino area.  Roberts reported that the company had 500 acres of bearing vines and another 1,000 being readied for more.  The firm produced up to 400,000 gallons of five different types of wine, including Claret, Sherry, Angelica, Brandy and Hock.


The writer noted that he was too early to see the presses working because picking of the grapes was to begin the week following his tour, but casks were filled with the previous year’s vintage, which Roberts sampled.  He described the two-story brick cellar sited in the center of the vineyard and noted that it was over 260 feet by 120 feet in size.  The steam-powered crushers could work with 200 tons of grapes per day and there was storage capacity for well over 1.2 million gallons.  Casks were in long rows and were all of seasoned oak.  Roberts concluded by observing that:

The cellar itself is a most refreshing place after the glare of sunlight outside, and so, seating ourselves, we listed while the claims of southern California are advanced.  Through the open doorway the vines stretch far away, like a great green sea, and beyond them loom the mountains.

From there, Roberts continued his jaunt in the northern part of the state, writing generally of the work done, including by “Chinamen” who did most of the picking, though some of the “Spanish” women and children “or white men sometimes” did this laborious work.  He wrote of the weighing, conveying of the boxes into the cellar and its hopper, after which the grapes were stripped of their stems which were then crushed.  The pulp and juice were conducted by pipes into vats for fermentation before being transferred to others for more of the process.


Roberts wrote of the challenges in getting good vintages because of so many factors, including uneven ripening of grapes; sun scalding of the fruit; dry leaves and mildew adversely affecting the flavor; and the art of how long to leave the skins with the red wine during fermentation, among others.  Although the state created a Bureau of Viticulture, the author determined that “wine-making in California is still in its experimental stage.”  Roberts wrote of the desire of viniculturists to improve the quality of their product, but also warned of ongoing concerns.

One was phylloxera, “the insect pest which the California vineyardists most abhor.”  Described as a “vine louse” which penetrated both the root and leaves of the vines, the pest was first found at the beginning of the decade “and since then has done much injury” particularly in Sonoma.


When California vines were taken to France and planted in the 1860s, the louse traveled with them and devastated the French vineyards and wine industry.  It then spread throughout the world and wreaked havoc, including in California, sparing only a few places, including Argentina and Chile, parts of Australia and Portugal and a few others.  The industry was saved by careful grafting of European and California stock in both places.

Meanwhile, a bacterial infection of grapevines in Anaheim was discovered in the early Eighties and was known as Anaheim and then Pierce’s disease (the latter being the surname of a federal plant pathologist who studies and reported on the condition).  The disease wiped out virtually all vineyards in greater Los Angeles, excepting those in the Rancho Cucamonga area.


Francis W. Temple, who was wine-maker for his grandfather Workman and who continued raising grapes and making wine until his death in August 1888, may have grappled with this problem and it is not known if any attempts to continue with viniculture continued with his brother, John, who owned the Homestead from 1888 to 1899.  Perhaps Pierce’s disease did its dirty work during John’s tenure on the ranch.

Roberts’ article is a fascinating look at the California wine industry at a critical time.  While expectations were high for continued growth, the threat of phylloxera and Pierce’s disease were serious ones.  Over time, so too was the rising temperance movement that led ultimately to Prohibition.  Given that the raising of grapes and manufacture of wine at the Homestead lasted from at least the mid-1840s until about the time this article appeared, it is an artifact from the Homestead’s collection that bears upon a notable time in the property’s multi-varied history.


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