“Better Fitted in Soil and Climate”: An Early Description of Wine-Making in Los Angeles, “New York Tribune,” 29 December 1857

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Here we are with two straight posts dealing with the wine industry in greater Los Angeles, but tonight we go back four decades earlier than last night’s entry and take a look at a very early published account of local viniculture and wine-making through an article in the New York Tribune from 29 December 1857. This was during the time that John Rowland and William Workman were active in raising wine grapes at Rancho La Puente and, in Rowland’s case, in a vineyard in Los Angeles, though neither appears to have done much manufacturing to date. It is worth pointing out that the pair were distillers of “Taos Lightning,” a potent whisky when living in New Mexico prior to coming to California.

As observed in the opening sections of the piece, the Franciscan missionaries who came to Alta California from northern México in the last three decades of the 18th century were responsible for introducing grape culture at the various missions established throughout the remote department of New Spain (México) as the Spanish empire was on its last legs. The practice continued in the small number of ranches and the few towns and presidios, as well, though the raising of the fruit and production of wine and brandy was mainly for local consumption with a small amount of outside trade during the Mexican era after the revolution against Spain ended in 1820.

While trade increased nominally in the resulting quarter-century, there was a marked change after the American seizure of California, the onset of the Gold Rush, improvements in sea-bound transportation and growth in the industry. As the article pointed out, viniculture was “one of the most important sources of private wealth of the State.” It went on to talk about the initial use of what has been called the “Mission grape” and which is of the species of vitis vinifera brought from Spain to the New World by Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries between 1520 and 1540. Known by many other monikers, such as Moscatel negro, uva negra vino and viña negra—all referring to the dark color of the fruit, it remained the main grape in California for roughly a century until about 1870. Nearly fifteen years ago, DNA testing revealed that the Mission grape is identical to the Listá Prieto, formerly from Spain and now only found in the Canary Islands.

WW grape ad Southern_Californian_Thu__Sep_7__1854_
Southern Californian, 7 September 1854.

The article noted that “the grape begins to ripen about the middle of the year” and was harvested from that time onward. With “no frost and little rain” in the southern of the state, there was little “to interfere with the harvest.” It was added that ripeness was determined when the interior of the fruit was dark as the skin and it was picked easily in that state, usually in bunches pruned off with knives after 9 a.m. when any dew vanished. With the “Spanish Mode of Making Wine,” it was noted that a bag made of a tanned cow hide was stretched and fastened hair side down to four poles about thirty inches apart and allowed to sag at the center. It was added that “this bag is then filled with grapes; and Indian gets in, mashes them with his feet by tramping about; the juice dumped out, poured into a barrel, left a few years to ferment, and the wine is ready to use.”

Modern mechanical methods of mashing were employed by the late Fifties. though it was noted that, even when pressed by human feet, it was important to leave out inferior or rotten fruit but also to allow for the preservation of unbroken seeds so that the bitter tannins contained within them would not adversely affect the taste. More information about pressing was also provided in the piece.

In discussing “Different Species of Wine,” the article noted that “when the berries [grapes] are picked early the red wine is like claret, but has more body; if the grapes are left upon the stem until they are nearly dry, the give less juice; but the wine has a much stronger body, and rivals Port in strength.” The making of Angelica involved “mixing one gallon of grape brandy with three of grape-juice, fresh from the press, and adding some sugar.” The partners John Frohling and Charles Kohler, however, boiled the fresh juice and reduced the quantity by up to 25% and then racking off the mixture until it turned clear, but “neither kind of Angelica ferments.

NY Tribune 1857 wine 4

With respect to sparkling wine, the article talked about the “Sainsevain Brothers, proprietors of the large vineyard of Alisal [just east of the Plaza and today’s Union Station not far from the river], at Los Angeles, [who] have commenced the manufacture of Sparking Californian Wine, which it is hoped will equal champagne in its taste and liveliness.” It was added that Pedro (Pierre) Sainsevain, who came to Los Angeles from France in 1839 to join his uncle Jean-Louis Vignes and then welcomed his brother and partner Jean-Louis in 1855, “made a tour last year through the wine districts of France, on purpose to study the business, and he brought with him an experienced and skillful wine-maker from the champagne districts.”

It was reported that the Sainsevains had 50,000 bottles of the sparkling wine on hand and expected to have another 80,000 for the 1857 vintage, “but none of their Sparkling Californian Wine is yet ready for ma[r]ket.” The process, it was noted, involved the “use [of] white wine, and [they] mix with it about a fourth of old white wine of previous years.” Moreover, it was stated that “no foreign substance is mixed with the grape juice to make it lively” so that “all the gases in it are produced from its own substance.” Beyond that, however, “the method of making champagne is held as a secret, and we shall not attempt to describe it fully.” What was reported was that the wine was bottled about a half year after the grapes were pressed and then rebottled after another eight months with the bottles laid on their sides on racks leading to the fact that “a large percentage of them are broken by the activity of the fermentation.” It was stated that about 20% of the bottles burst and this was held to be “proof that the wine will be as vigorous as the best of France.”

The section on “California Grape Brandy” noted that “the refuse of the press and all the sediment of the new wine may be used in making brandy, which is obtained by distillation, in the same manner as whisky is distilled from maize or potatoes.” It was added that for each hundred gallons of wine produced, about a quarter of that amount of brandy was made. The article went on that “a great many, however, of those who make wine about Los Angeles throw away all the refuse and sediment of their presses and wine casks, thus wasting a large amount of valuable matter.” Yet, those who chose not to make brandy from these leavings could make vinegar, which commanded about twenty-five cents to a dollar per gallon at wholesale prices with more demand than could be supplied.

NY Tribune 1857 wine 2

Moving on to “Statistics of Native California Wine,” it was stated that “nearly all the wine and brandy made in California comes from Los Angeles County, which is, no doubt, better fitted in soil and climate for the culture of the wine than any other part of the State.” This, of course, was manifestly not the case and it would soon become evident that the Napa and Sonoma regions north of San Francisco were far superior and production in those locales grew tremendously in succeeding years.

Production in the state for 1856 was reported to be about 150,000 gallons, but estimates for the current year were about 350,000. A table of major winemakers included the Sainsevains at nearly 75,000 and Kohler and Frohling (who later moved to San Francisco and became immensely successful) at 60,000. Far behind were Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to Los Angeles with Rowland and Workman in 1841, at 20,000 gallons, followed by William Wolfskill at 12,000, Mathew Keller at 10,000 and a couple of others at half or less than that. The total of all other manufacturers was tabbed at 146,000 gallons. Brandy production was pegged at some 50,000 gallons priced at about $2 per gallon, while wine was half of that. This was followed by tables of the wine, brandy, whisky, gin and rum imported to San Francisco the prior year with an aggregate value of nearly $3.2 million. That was expected to climb another million dollars for the current year.

As noted above, it is not believed that William Workman did much manufacturing of wine on his own, if at all, and there is a source that suggests that, in 1856, Kohler and Frohling came out to the Homestead to do the pressing of his grapes, which, two years prior, Workman advertised the sale of once they were harvested. Within several years, however, conditions changed dramatically. For one thing, the decline of cattle, through a lack of demand when the Gold Rush faded and the importation of longhorns followed by the devasation of floods and drought in the first half of the Sixties, led Workman to scale back cattle ranching and move aggressively to adding to his agricultural production, including many more grapevines. Secondly, he decided, by the middle of that decade, to build three large brick winery buildings directly south of his home and production expanded mightily.

NY Tribune 1857 wine 1

In the following decade, with his grandson, Francis W. Temple, at the helm, Workman moved into the upper echelon of local winemakers, even as the center of state production shifted to the north. After the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876 and Workman’s subsequent tragic suicide, Temple stayed on and continued to manage the vineyard and wine-making operations, earning enough from production to buy the Workman House, outbuildings like the winery structures, El Campo Santo Cemetery and 75 acres from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who, in 1879, foreclosed on a loan made to the bank prior to its collapse. Temple continued to make wine and, evidently, do well with it until his death in 1888, but, by then, as explained in yesterday’s post, the bacterium that caused Pierce’s disease wreaked utter havoc on the region’s vineyards, presumably including that at the Homestead.

Still, for at least forty years, the Homestead had active grape growing and wine making and this article came out about a decade or more into that period, so it is an interesting and informative early source for what was happening in context while Workman was gradually expanding his operations.

Leave a Reply