“The Glory of the California Soil and Climate Is Concentrated in the Grape”: The San Gabriel Wine Company Winery in “Harper’s Weekly,” 4 November 1899

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in several previous posts on this blog, the Workman and Temple families were diligent grape growers and wine-makers for close to a half-century from the 1840s through the 1880s, including at the Homestead, though that enterprise was ended, likely from the bacterial infection called Pierce’s disease. While most of the region’s vineyards were affected, some were not, most notably in the Ontario/Rancho Cucamonga area and one of the major local wineries that continued to operate until just after the turn of the 20th century was the San Gabriel Wine Company.

The business was formed in early 1882 by James DeBarth Shorb (1842-1896), a native of Maryland whose family plantation was called “San Marino.” After completing college and studying law, Shorb came to California to run an oil company that did not succeed and he later worked with the Temescal tin mines near modern Corona. While there, in 1867, he married María de Jesús Wilson, daughter of Benjamin D. Wilson and his first wife, María de Jesús Yorba of the prominent family in what is now Orange County.

Los Angeles Herald, 2 February 1882.

Wilson migrated to this area in late 1841 with the Rowland and Workman Expedition and later acquired what he called Lake Vineyard, an estate in the western San Gabriel Valley where he was a success at raising grapes and making wine. Shorb became a partner until Wilson’s death in 1878 and, four years later, launched his company with Evan Coleman of San Francisco, attorney (and later judge) Albert M. Stephens and the prominent banker Isaias W. Hellman (former partner of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, the guiding hand of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank of Los Angeles and long the proprietor of the vineyards at Rancho Cucamonga), and Edward L. Watkins on San Gabriel. There were four additional shareholder, but the majority of stocks were held by Shorb.

While he sought to aggressively advance his business, Shorb was not as financially savvy and mindful as he should have been and got into some serious economic difficulties, especially as the great Boom of the 1880s went bust and the situation worsened into the next decade, which featured several local drought years and the national depression of 1893. Contracting large debts, including to Hellman’s bank, Shorb was unable to extricate himself from the dire predicament, but died in April 1896 of heart failure.

Los Angeles Express, 17 April 1896.

Led by Hellman, who assumed the presidency, the San Gabriel Wine Company pressed on (!), at its substantial winery in what is now west Alhambra. Not long after Shorb’s death, the New Year’s Day 1897 edition of the Los Angeles Times reported in detail on the firm, observing that:

The buildings and plant constitute one of the most complete and extensive wine establishments in the world. It is one of the show places for the winter tourists, who are always welcome and shown over the great storage cellars by polite officers of the company . . . The San Gabriel Wine Company has a wide reputation for its product, and especially in port, sherry, angelica and brandy is second to none in the United States.

It should be noted that the tourism aspect was important as the arrival of a direct transcontinental railroad route that ushered in the Eighties boom brought hordes of visitors, including winter travelers but also visitors during other seasons, to the region. Also important in that quote is that the products for which the company was best known were actually fortified wines, with spirits added to make the four types listed. The much superior quality of pure wines made from grapes grown in the Napa and Sonoma valleys of northern California led winemakers in our region to turn to these products to try and stay competitive.

Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1897.

The Times added that the company’s landholdings were some 1,400 acres “on a commanding slope overlooking the famous San Gabriel Valley” and added that the Sierra Madre (San Gabriel) Mountains with its snow-covered peaks loomed over “the enchanted landscape.” Of that property, about 400 acres were “in vines, oranges and other fruits” and it is significant that the article continued that the growth of Los Angeles forced the firm to change its plans “to put the whole tract in vines.” Instead, the company looked to develop about 800 acres into “villa tracts of from one to ten acres” and streets were laid out and trees planted for shade .

The piece noted that “the stock of the company is held by wealthy and progressive citizens who will offer liberal terms to purchasers, lo[o]king to the future for their returns in enhancement of adjoining values.” Hellman was cited as president, though he was then better known as the head of San Francisco’s Nevada Bank, while the vice-president was John C. Kirkpatrick, an agent of the large estate of William Sharon, which owned substantial stock in the wine firm, and who ran the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Herald, 4 April 1897.

Finally, it was stated that “the local officers of the company are at the winery buildings” at what was then called the community of Shorb “and the property is under the immediate management of George S. Patton, one of the directors and its general manager.” Patton, who was the son of a Confederal colonel who died during the Civil War and whose mother was the sister of Andrew Glassell, a prominent Los Angeles area attorney and a founder of the town of Orange, came to Los Angeles with his mother and three siblings just after the war to join Glassell.

Susan Glassell Patton soon married one of her brother’s law partners and a first cousin of her late husband, George H. Smith (the third member was Alfred B. Chapman, also a founder of Orange and whose ranch became the Chapman Woods area of East Pasadena). After George completed his studies at the Virginia Military Institute in 1877 followed by a year teaching there, he returned to Los Angeles to study law with his father-in-law and uncle (Chapman having departed the firm) and then became a partner in 1880.

Los Angeles Record, 22 December 1897.

He served on the city’s school board, was a major in the local brigade of the California National Guard and briefly served as Los Angeles County District Attorney. In 1884, he married Ruth, the daughter of Benjamin D. Wilson and his second wife Margaret Hereford, which made him Shorb’s brother-in-law. The couple had a daughter, Anne, and a son George, Jr., who became the vaunted World War II general.

In the 4 April 1897 edition of the Los Angeles Herald in an article on “Native Wines,” it was pointed out that “among the largest producers [is] the San Gabriel Wine Company, whose immense plant” was at Shorb and “a controlling interest in this is held by I.W. Hellman, who also owns a large interest in the next largest winery, the Cucamonga Vineyard Company.” The size of the San Gabriel concern was, as statedin the New Year’s 1898 issue of the Times, “reputed to be the largest winery in America, and probably the largest in many ways that can be found anywhere.”

A reference to visits to the San Gabriel Winery and other local sights by “wheelmen” or bicyclists, Times, 1 January 1898.

In September, at a viticulturists and winemakers meeting, Patton stated that he wanted to be able to select which grapes to purchase and from which vineyard, stating “it was not a business proposition” to buy any fruit “at random.” He added that the highest price he would pay was thirteen dollars per ton, musing that “the growers seem to want to take all the profits and leave the wine makers the risk.” This was, in fact, the minimum price established at the meeting.

Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is the 4 November 1899 issue of Harper’s Weekly, subtitled “A Journal of Civilization.” The prominent journal was launched in 1857 and was published until 1916 and its contents included a variety of subjects including politics, national and international affairs, fiction, and the arts and it was known for its cartoons. This edition’s cover cartoon by William A. Rogers lampooned the Democratic Party, but Rogers also provided a remarkable drawing and a short article titled “A California Vineyard.”

Times, 4 February 1900.

The piece began with the statement that:

The introduction of the visitor from the Eastern States into California is accomplished in such a way as to give him a most gorgeous impression of the productivenes of that beautiful country. For days he is carried through mountains and over plains as naked and verdureless as the surface of the moon, and from this he is suddenly transported into a region all roses and palms, orange groves and vineyards.

Rogers continued that such travelers were to be met with “the prodigal display that nature holds in store for him on the Pacific slope,” while California’s residents sought “to help nature along in making things pleasant for the stranger” through myriad examples of “exaggerated rose bushes, shrubs, and geranium trees [?].” Amid the horitcultural paradise, he added, “a visit to one of the famous vineyards is essential, for there the glory of the California soil and climate is concentrated in the grape and preserved in the raising and the wine.”

Times, 2 October 1903.

He briefly covered the vinicultural history of what he said was “the oldest of the important industries of California” because of the introduction of the grape by the missionaries, though he went on to state that “it was not until from about 1856 to 1860 that the cultivation of the vine became general.” This may have been true for northern California, but was certainly not the case in greater Los Angeles, even if markets were somewhat limited.

Rogers did note that the introduction of foreign varieties from such famous grape growing areas as France, Germany and Italy “made possible the enormous advance in the quantity and quality of the wine produced since that time,” and the emphasis on quality is key as the so-called “Mission grape” did not produce anywhere near the fine wine of other varieties, hence the emphasis on fortfied wine in this area in more recent years.

When he noted that manufacturing was being improved so “that there is every reason to believe that the wines of California will in time rank as high as [sic] if not higher than those of France and Italy,” this really applied to what was transpiring in such premium growing regions as the valleys in Napa and Sonoma. Still, he averred that “no handsomer sight can be imagined than one of the vineyards near San Gabriel.”

The example given was not named, but certainly looks to be the San Gabriel Wine Company, and Rogers wrote that it was “approached through an archway of the fragrant pepper-trees. Orange and lemon trees break up the long stretches of vine-covered fields, and the house is surrounded by palms and flowering shrubs.” It was the “wine-vault” or cellar, that was the focal point, especially because it was

where an old and wrinkled Chinaman has been in charge for years, and knows the contents and age of each great tun and vat, hogshead and cask, in the place. A huge cask that lies in the centre of the vault he taps significantly as he tells you it contains five thousand gallons of angelica. Other casks hold from one to three thousand gallons of various sweet white and red wines . . . At a rough calculation there were at least a half a million gallons of wine stored in this vault. A visitor to the vineyard would wound the pride of the old Chinaman in charge if he did not at least go though the motions of tasting his old angelica.

Rogers stated that it was tradition to provide guests in the sampling room or in the vault a glass of the oldest and finest wines available. He concluded that Californians were bigger wine drinkers than Easterners, but added “I do not remember to have seen a drunken man in the State during a month spent here.” Clearly, he did not move in certain circles and he even claimed “that hard drinking is not particularly prevalent in California.” As noted here in a recent post on local option voting to limit licenses for saloons, restaurants, hotels and wineries and in other posts, there was a concerted effort to move toward the total prohibition of alcohol manufacturing, distribution and sale.

The San Gabriel Wine Company was not around much longer to deal with the increasing pressure of the temperance movement. As noted above, development was increasing outward from Los Angeles’s historic core and immediately adjacent suburbs and the firm was readying for that by 1897. When Shorb’s widow faced foreclosure early in 1900 on a large indebtedness owed to Hellman, the result was financial failure for her, but a boon to Hellman and a partner who also became a boon companion of her brother-in-law Patton, who became manager of the Huntington Land and Improvement Company as well as a neighbor.

Henry E. Huntington, who came to Los Angeles about the turn of the 20th century, built an empire of streetcar systems and real estate holdings that led to an increase in his personal wealth from about $1 million in 1900 to some $55 million a decade later. Among the latter was the acquisition in 1903 of most of the Shorb holdings, including the family estate which then became what is now the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.

Once the winery was finally shuttered, Huntington engineered a deal, also in 1903, for the formery winery property with Alfred Dolge, whose Dolgeville project included a felt factory that was housed in the repurposed winery buildings as well as some other industrial concerns that moved or operned there. A Dolgeville Land Company subdivided residential lots around the felt factory. The Dolge-Huntington partnership eventually soured and the felt factory closed—today, a visitor to this western edge of Alhambra would have no visual clues as to the earlier history of that area.

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