“The Highest Grades of Wines”: A Letter from the Sunset Wine Company, Los Angeles, 17 December 1894.

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While Los Angeles County was the early primary winemaking region of California, with William Workman and John Rowland being among the largest producers with their substantial vineyards on Rancho La Puente, the Napa and Sonoma areas took precedence during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Particularly devastating to the local growing of grapes was the outbreak of Pierce’s disease, which was first recorded in the early 1880s near Anaheim, founded a quarter century before by Germans looking for prime vineyard land near the Santa Ana River. Plant pathologist Newton B. Pierce was sent by the federal Department of Agriculture and, though, the disease was named for him, he was unable to determine the cause—it was thought later that the culprit was a virus, but, in the 1970s, it was identified that a bacterium which traveled from vine to vine aboard insects caused the disease.

While many tens of thousands of acres of vines were wiped out in the disaster, almost certainly including the vineyard at the Workman Homestead, which had been productively managed by Francis W. Temple at the time Pierce’s disease burst forth, one of the areas that escaped the pestilence was Rancho Cucamonga in what we now know as the Inland Empire. The ranch, planted to vines in the Mexican era, came into the possession in the early 1870s of Isaias W. Hellman, the brilliant Jewish merchant and banker, who was once a partner of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple with the Los Angeles bank of Hellman, Temple and Company until, early in 1871, it was dissolved by mutual consent.

Los Angeles Herald, 20 July 1890.

Hellman then joined forces with John G. Downey to create Farmers and Merchants Bank, which became a dominant financial institution in the region for decades. Downey, born in Ireland in 1827, migrated to America as a young man during the horrific famine on the Emerald Isle, learned the pharmacy trade in Washington, D.C. and practiced it in Cincinnati. As with so many, he was lured west by the famed Gold Rush, but very quickly headed south to Los Angeles, where, in 1850, he became, with a partner, James McFarland, the first druggist in the small town. Over time, he and McFarland became shrewd real estate investors, with one of the biggest acquisitions being land on Rancho Santa Gertrudes obtained through foreclosure (its owner, Lemuel, or Samuel, Carpenter committed suicide as the high-interest loan he took out from Downey and McFarland resulted in his ruin). On that property, Downey later founded his namesake town.

A powerful member of the local Democratic Party, which maintained an iron grip on local politics, especially among the “Chivalry” which supported Southern states over the slavery question, Downey, who served on the Los Angeles Common (City) Council and state Assembly, rose to be elected California’s lieutenant governor. When the newly elected governor, Milton Latham, accepted an appointment as a United States Senator shortly after inauguration and resigned in January 1860, Downey, just 33 years old, ascended to the state’s highest office. His veto of a bill that would have granted a monopoly to a companies controlling the San Francisco waterfront made him popular among many. With the onset of the Civil War when tensions ran high even as the fighting was across the country, Downey pledged his support of the Union, but split in the Democratic Party left him out in the cold when he sought the nomination for governor for the 1861 election.

Herald, 5 January 1893.

Downey returned to Los Angeles after his term expired early in 1862 and he shunned politics and turned his focus to real estate and business. He was also one of the primary founders, in 1880, of the University of Southern California, a Methodist-affiliated institution even though Downey was a Roman Catholic. After his wife, María Jesús Guirado, died in a horrific train crash at Tehachapi Pass in 1883, from which Downey emerged with minor physical injuries but serious mental and emotional damage, he became embroiled in a public controversy involving the vivacious, highly intelligent, beautiful, but eccentric writer Yda Addis. She claimed Downey proposed marriage, but he insisted otherwise and the scandal aroused a great deal of media attention, even as it is unclear what the nature of their relationship was. A series of posts on this blog details much of the Downey-Addis imbroglio.

Downey, who married a young woman in his employ in 1888 and who died five years later, declined dramatically in his later years (it was said he never recovered from his first wife’s tragic death) and he died from complications of a stroke in March 1894 at age 66. One of Downey’s many investments was the formation of a partnership with Hellman at Cucamonga and, after nearly a quarter century, his stake in a large inventory there was up for sale. As reported in the Los Angeles Times of 9 December 1894, “there is a great stir at present in the wine trade” and referencing the “Wine Trust” in San Francisco, in which a consortium of companies consolidated into the California Wine Association and a “Sweet Wine Trust” in southern California, the article continued that “prices are advancing from day to day and buyers are everywhere in the market.”

Herald, 16 December 1894.

This led to the statement that “one of the largest sales in sweet wines on record, was consummated a few days ago” as “the entire vintages of the estate of the late ex-Gov. John G. Downey was sold to Goldschmidt Brothers of the Sunset Wine Company of this city, amounting to nearly 75,000 gallons of the celebrated Cucamonga port and sherries.” The company also recorded some smaller sales, as well.

A week later, on the 16th, the Los Angeles Herald reported further on the two trusts, noting that “on account of the prevailing low prices in wines” companies were in the red and “after many fruitless [!] attempts” these organizations were assembled to better control pricing on some 12 million gallons, or about two-thirds of the wine produced in California. Once formed, the two trusts promptly raised prices “and announced still further advances in [for?] the near future” and this led dealers “to look forward to brighter times” and these “started in buying left and right.” The paper was informed that all of the wineries in San Bernardino were selling product to northern dealers, while “about 30 carloads of old ports, sherries, etc.” were sold to Sunset. The article concluded with the statement that “smaller wineries are holding on to their wines, expecting bigger advances in the near future” and observed that the increase in prices was needed “otherwise vines would have been pulled out and cereals grown in their stead.”

GoldschmidtBros directory 1894
The listing of the Goldschmidt Brothers, Marcus (Max) and Herrmann, and their Sunset Wine Company on the left page in the 1894 Los Angeles City Directory. At the bottom of the right is the listing for Miss Laura Gonzales [Gonzalez], music teacher at Boyle Heights, who later became the wife of Walter P. Temple.

Tonight’s featured artifact is a letter from Sunset Wine Company to David Bateman and Jacob Switzer, who were wholesale liquor and cigar dealers in Great Falls, Montana. Dated 17 December 1894, the missive stated “to our already large and selected stock of Sweet and Dry wines, of our own growth, we have just added by purchase, the entire holdings of the Estate of the late ex-Gov. John G. Downey, consisting of almost a hundred thousand gallons of Port, Sherry, Angelica, Tokay, Madeira, and Malaga (Vintages ’89 to ’94.)” It was added that “these wines are known to the trade throughout the United States for the superior quality, and were formerly sold for very high prices.” Moreover, Downey “spared no expense in producing the highest grades of Wines” with these being more for the connoisseur rather than “for the general market.”

The letter implored Bateman and Switzer to order for immediate delivery or for transmittal in the spring saying that they could be sold for lower prices “than the ordinary vintages.” It went on to observe that, “since the formation of the ‘Wine Trust,’ prices have gone up fifteen per cent or more, and are still advancing.” Quotes or samples were available on request and any wine ordered would be shipped direct from Cucamonga. A postscript added that “our wines are guaranteed to be the Pure Juice of the Grapes.” As to the reference of wines “of our own growth,” the letterhead, which mentions that the firm were “Growers and Shippers of Highest Grades of California Wines &Brandies” with a specialty of “fine old Ports and Sherries,” stated that Sunset had its winery and distilleries in the San Gabriel Valley, though where was not stated.

Herald, 17 November 1895.

The firm was owned by the brothers Marcus (Max) and Herrman Goldschmidt, Jews who hailed from Furfeld in the Rhineland region west of that famous watercourse southwest of Frankfurt in western Germany, which was unified when they were boys. Max (1863-1932) was the first to migrate to America, coming over in 1882 and settling immediately in Los Angeles, where he became a merchant at San Pedro and 8th streets. Six years later, he was joined by Herrmann (1864-1952) and the two launched Sunset Wine shortly afterward with the first location. Their brother Hugo (1870-1918), who came to the city in 1892, was an employee and worked in sales until he went out on his own.

An early mention of Sunset came in an article in the Herald from July 1890, which stated that just a year before the firm was in modest quarters across from the Plaza and adjacent to the Plaza Church, but “by dint of carefully attending to the wants of its customers” in offering the best selection, its business boomed, even as the general and famous Boom of the Eighties had gone bust. The Goldschmidt brothers kept up with demand by buying vintages held in reserve by producers as well as finding larger quarters earlier that month just up the street where a Plaza parking lot is at the corner of Main and César Chávez Avenue. The basement was filled with an inventory of dry wine, the first floor with sweet wine, brandy and Kentucky whiskies, including choice bourbon, and the second and third stories comprised the department where bottling and casing were handled. The brothers were described as “well and favorably known.”

Los Angeles Express, 23 January 1896.

The Goldschmitts made frequent trips to Europe as well as elsewhere in the United States, such as Kentucky for those whiskies, and within California to improve their stock. In one instance, in 1892, Herrmann returned home to Germany where he married Emma Neumann, while Max found his bride at home, marrying Emma Newmark, who was from a very prominent Los Angeles family including her father Joseph and her uncle Harris, a merchant who purchased the Temple Block when the Temple and Workman bank collapsed and whose Sixty Years in Southern California is a well-known memoir of local history. One trip in 1902 found Max being away for up to a year, as judged from his passport application. After Herrman’s trip, the Herald wrote approvingly of his purchases of French clarets and cognacs and opined that, if other local firms were as enterprising, “the prestige of the old houses of the north would not last” and Los Angeles companies “would almost take the trade away from the north.”

The brothers also fought aggressively against city licensing ordinances and fee increases and worked hard to protect, with others in their industry, their business as agitation built to limit and, then, prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. As for that “sweet wine trust,” the Herald reported in detail in November 1895 about an association of nearly thirty firms, including Sunset, that organized to control the output of sweet wine themselves. A board of trustees would oversee the operation of the institution including sales, with a wine examiner hired to inspect product made to standards established by the association, and which was to have a price set at twenty-five cents per gallon. Revenues were to be distributed pro rata and certificates issued stating the amount of wine generated by a member, as well as for wine produced and forward to the trustees for the handling of sales.

Los Angeles Record, 4 April 1901.

In early 1896, Eugene Germain, a well-known Jewish fruit and wine dealer, sold his interests in the latter to Sunset and his son Edward continued to work with the Goldschmidts. Sunset was also known for its participation through elaborate displays at expositions, including one in Guatemala and another in Omaha, Nebraska during the later years of the 19th century. By 1901, a new “trust” was in force and the Times reported that “Southern California wines and brandies are practically under the grip of three Los Angeles firms” with a consequent increase in prices of between 30 and 50% and Hugo Goldschmidt, who left his brothers to form the Southern California Wine Company was quoted as the source for this.

His company, that of his brothers and Secondo Guasti’s large concern at Cucamonga and Ontario, were the trio of firms involved, but Hugo informed the paper that there was no formal organization or agreement, but they simply decided they would keep prices uniform for mutual benefit. As for that price increase, it was noted that it was not exorbitant because there was overproduction of wine “and as a result prices have been ruinous.” On the other hand, the Los Angeles Record reported that wine dealers were contemptuous of the claim in the Times that there was any such “trust” and that “dealers laugh at the idea that these three concerns could control the many wineries in Southern California.”

Max G. passport 1902
Max Goldschmidt’s passport application, which included the statement that he was naturalized in 1887, to travel to Europe for up to a year, probably for business and pleasure, 29 March 1902.

Sunset Wine Company continued to operate until the Prohibition years, when the banning of almost all commercial production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages was banned. Though the business closed, an interesting side story came about because of the acquisition by Max and Herrmann of 12,000 acres south of San Juan Capistrano, at the southern end of Orange County, in connection with the descendants of John Forster, a British-born contemporary of William Workman, with plans to plant extensive vineyards there. Though this acquisition was made in 1906, nothing was done before Prohibition went into effect, but, as coastal land was becoming more valuable, the Goldschmidts sold 2,000 acres to an oilman and, shortly afterward, in 1925, developer Ole Hanson created the town of San Clemente.

Herrmann’s son Adlai had a large hillside lot overlooking areas where he ran cattle on a lease arrangement and, in 1928, he built a substantial Spanish Colonial Revival home (a year after La Casa Nueva was finished at the Homestead—the two have similar appearances in many ways with wrought-iron and wood balconies, double French doors and other details.) The architect, who also designed homes for Adlai, his father and his uncle Max in the exclusive Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles, was Paul R. Williams, a pioneering black architect who designed many homes for celebrities and the well-to-do in the region. The Goldschmidt House is the only property in San Clemente that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


This Sunset Wine Company letter is an interesting representative artifact for regional wine history, as well as for Jewish business figures and its connection to Downey, and it also reflects many significant changes in the way that manufacturers and dealers in wine dealt with market conditions, price controls and other elements.

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