Working the Land: Wine Grape Types Discussed in “The California Horticulturist and Floral Magazine,” May 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As a couple of previous posts in the “Working the Land” series on this blog have noted, The California Horticulturist and Floral Magazine, of which the Museum’s collection has some fifty issues dating from 1871 to 1880, was published by San Francisco nursery owner Frederick A. Miller, who was also secretary of the Bay District Horticultural Society, which oversaw the issuance of the journal.

Given its place of publication, it is hardly surprising that the lion’s share of the content in the magazine was focused on the northern portion of the Golden State, but there is still often much of general statewide interest in these issues, with tonight’s featured number, the May 1872 edition, having especially noteworthy material on viticulture, or the raising of the grape, which was very much a crucial component of California’s agricultural economy.

At Rancho La Puente, its aging owners, John Rowland, who was about 80 years of old, and William Workman, who was in his early Seventies, were long-time cultivators of the wine grape and, long before their arrival in Mexican California in the early 1840s, distilled the “Taos Lightning” whisky in New Mexico. It seems likely, though there is no documentation to that effect, that the two men obtained their grapes from cuttings obtained from the Mission San Gabriel.

We know that Workman was raising the crop not long after his arrival, as the agricultural portion of the 1850 federal census, which was enumerated early the following year because California was admitted to the Union in September, showed that he some 750 gallons of wine on hand at La Puente and he could not have produced any of use unless his vineyard had been established for at least several years.

Whether he was already producing wine for commercial purposes at that early date is not known, but an 1855 ad in the Southern Californian newspaper offered grapes to buyers and, of course, he would not be selling the fruit if it was not of at least some quality. By 1860, he was manufacturing wine in the thousands of gallons each year and, after the dual devastation of deluge and drought, in which floods in 1861-1862 were followed by extremely low rainfall the next two years and which decimated his cattle herds (and those of all others engaged in what had been the backbone of the regional economy), he expanded his agricultural endeavors.

A core component was viticulture and, at one point, it was recorded that he had some 100,000 vines in a vineyard of some 100 acres, with this adjacent to San José Creek for irrigation purposes. Moreover, about 1865, he invested heavily in the building of three large brick winery buildings, which stood for over a century, and which, naturally, gave him the ability to manufacture wine on a larger scale than before.

Again, we lack documentation, but it has been stated that he sold his wine commercially, almost certainly through such agents as Charles Kohler and John Frohling, who once operated in Los Angeles and then moved north, while some sources suggest Workman’s product was available in Boston, perhaps through connections of his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, a native of nearby Reading. This operation was not on the scale of such local producers at the Sainsevaine Brothers, Mathew Keller, Benjamin D. Wilson, the Germans at Anaheim and others, but it was perhaps “middle tier.”

In the first half of the 1870s, during which time greater Los Angeles was undergoing its first significant and sustained period of growth, which started in the late Sixties, Workman’s grandson, Francis W. Temple, studied agriculture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while his younger brothers William and John were at Harvard Law School and the Reading High School and then the Bryant and Stratton Commercial School, respectively.

Francis returned to California and then assumed the role of winemaker for his grandfather and continued this avocation through his own ownership of a greatly reduced 75-acre homestead which he acquired in the aftermath of the 1876 failure of the bank owned by his father and grandfather. Until his death in 1888, Francis seems to have successfully operated the vineyard and winery, though not long afterward, the onset of what has been called the Anaheim (Pierce’s) disease would have ravaged the Homestead’s vineyard along with virtually all others in the region.

Returning to The California Horticulturist and Floral Magazine, the May 1872 issue included the continuation of a series of articles by the John A. Lockwood for the California Vine Growers and Wine and Brandy Manufacturers’ Association (it would be great to know if Workman was a member) under the heading of “Choice of Vines for Wine Making.”

In his opening remarks, Lockwood observed that “we know that the Muscat of Alexandria and Flame Tokay are conspicuous in the category of grapes notable for splendid appearance and safe carriage, that the Muscat is in prominent place for raising-making, and with the White Malaga extensive used for the raisin of commerce.” He added that the Muscat, Tokay, Chassela and Hamburg, along with other table grape varieties were “now in successful culture among us” and “leave nothing to be desired in this department of vine culture.”

When it came to wine grapes, though, there were bigger challenges, as Lockwood stated, “in choosing vines . . . regard should be had to their adaptability to soil and climate, as well as to the description of wine which it is intended to produce.” It was one thing with Europe and its long history of viticultural practice, but in the Golden State “we cannot profit by lessons of long experience.” In the former, it was a matter of whether quality was more profitable than quantity, but, in California, “we cannot afford to sacrifice quantity to quality.”

Lockwood questioned if there were locales here like in the Rhine or in Burgundy “were 200 gallons of a choice wine brings more money than 1,000 gallons of a wine in less repute.” So, the matter came down to the question of how “to ascertain what varieties of grape will yield the largest amount of wine having berries which contain in suitable proportions the elements best adapted to the manufacture of fine wines.” His argument was that this was a critical matter “because of the rule that quality and quantity rarely go together” and high price justifies low yields, but “everywhere else quantity must have the preference.”

The writer continued that “in this early stage of California vine culture, we do not require an extensive list of varieties” and noted that “our long, dry summers give a uniformity to our climate unknown in Europe.” He added “there is, probably, less difference in the quality of such soil as should properly be selected for vineyards or its adaptation for grape growing” due to the volcanic content having “the element of true nutrition [which] are more constantly present.”

Lockwood noted that ‘in France, 1,200 or more varieties of vines are cultivated” and went on to observe that “it is not probably that we shall ever find a grape to unite with productiveness all the requisites of a desirable wine grape, if we aim to manufacture a wine above the ordinary kind.” Stating that “we require varieties to mix with each other,” he gave the example of nearly ubiquitous, at least in greater Los Angeles, example of the fact that “the wine of our Mission [grape] is improved by mixing with almost any variety having less sugar and more tartaric acid.”

He continued that “nor are our best varieties so perfect that they may not be made better by commingling the must with the must of other varieties, having constituent qualities adapted to such a union” as “the quality of the wine is not only improved, but the success of the manufacture is rendered more secure.” It was more than the question of must, or the pressed juice with the skins, seeds and stems of the grapes still included, “as when sugar, tannin, acid or water may be in too large or too small proportions, and it is particularly demanded to impart flavor when required.”

Lockwood then went into some rather technical detail about European grape growing regions and adaptability of varieties in our state, but, in his discussion about types, he focused on those “entitled to our confidence and [best] adapted to circumstances now existing in California.” He began with that first one:

The Mission, of California, claims the first notice as he earliest known and most widely cultivated. Many still think it the most profitable grape. This opinion is less common every year, and will probably soon case to be entertained at all.

This was quite true and he continued that “it is claimed for the Mission that it is of hardy growth, exempt from disease and accidents; that it makes a good, sound, well-keeping wine, and in consequence of its large supply of sugar yield abundantly of spirit,” as in the widespread manufacturing and consumption of aguardiente, or brandy, from it.

The author noted “this may all be true, and yet there are other varieties possessing all these qualities, and with the exception of its spirit capacity, possess them in a more eminent degree,” Moreover, Lockwood pointed out that “it will scarcely be denied that it has some positive objections” not the least of which was the proportion of sugar to tartaric acid that conspired to make Mission grape wine not “an entirely acceptable wine” as “the absence of an agreeable flavor is conspicuous.” Moreover, he went on, “its red wine is not in popular favor, nor does it dry white wine ever allow an excellence to exalt our State in product to a level of France or Germany.

Still, “those having vineyards largely planted in Mission grapes need have no regret on that account” because “it is an admirable adjunct to other grapes, to commingle their merits,” With its high sugar content, Lockwood declared that “we may get aroma from one and tartness from another to supply its deficiencies in these qualities.” Among these were the Black Malvoisie, or the “Pino,” but which is ancestrally the Cinsault, and which was mixed with the Zinfandel for such products as claret. Lockwood, however, suggested that a combination with the Mission for red wine led to something “decidedly improved.”

With respect to what he spelled as “Zinfandal,” Lockwood asserted that its “two prominent excellences of its wine are tartness and a peculiar and delightful flavor resembling the raspberry—a flavor which the palate persistently relishes.” Mixed with the Mission, there was an enhanced color and aroma, but, generally, the Zinfandel was “the one which we confidently hope to contend successfully for the place in public esteem now worthily occupied by the skilled vintages of France.” He asked, “what other grape have we uniting abundant product and abundant flavor?”

Being “in search of the quality of the product without regard to the cost of production,” Lockwood found that “prominent among these are the Rieslings” and, though California-made wine from this grape was “of less excellence than the famous Rhenish vintages,” he claimed that they “are, in some cases, of superior quality and of high promise.” Yet, he continued “the Riesling wine has not, so far, been sufficiently profitable and certain to have encouraged its rapid extension.” There was talk of better training of the vines, but with the problem of cost to invest more effort in the improved cultivation of it, and other grapes such as Burgundy, Champagne and the Gironde, “on the whole, the profitableness of cultivating the Riesling grape may, up to this time, be regarded as an open question.”

White wine grapes promoted by the writer included the Golden Chasselas, likely a Palomino type, the Berger (Burger), and the Feher Zagos, while the Muscatel (Moscato) was also noted. Lockwood advised that “to owners of Mission vineyards, in search of suitable varieties of grapes, to mix with them at the press; or their must in the cask, the Malvoisie, and Zinfandal for red wine, and Berger, and Muscat for white are deemed preferable.” If the choice was only for red wine, Zinfandel was decidedly better, provided the soil was iron rich.

As he wrapped up, Lockwood cautioned “it must be borne in mind that in the infancy of California viniculture, accuracy is unattainable on this subject.” Seeking among a huge number of varieties for the right vines was such that “the losses sustained by propagating useless vines, whose qualities remained to be tested, has been very great, and continues to be.” If, however, viniculturists focused on a fewer number of potential successful types, there was a better chance for substantial improvement.

To hedge his bets, though, the writer issued a caveat:

The views here presented are not set forth authoritatively as the expression of the widest experience and best judgment. It is not probable that they will meet with an approach to general concurrence, but if they accomplish nothing more than to invite inquiry and promote investigation, they will serve a good purpose. It does not challenge criticism, but invokes investigation.

This disclaimer aside, Lockwood’s piece, also published in the proceedings of the state legislature, is an interesting and informative essay at a crucial time, as northern vineyards, such as in Napa and Sonoma counties, were becoming dominant and Los Angeles County was diminishing in terms of grape growing and wine production.

William Workman was a fairly prolific producer in 1872, but only a few years away from a catastrophic financial failure that led to his vineyard being taken over by grandson Francis Temple. A little more than fifteen years after this article, moreover, Francis was dead from tuberculosis and, in short order, Pierce’s/Anaheim disease would wreak havoc in the region’s vineyards.

4 thoughts

  1. Excellent article, from an old home winemaker. Made a lot of zinfandel, however current favorite is syrah, central coast origin.

  2. Hi Robert, we’re glad you found the post and we were especially interested in the discussion of the Mission grape and suggestions for blending it with other varieties, including Zinfandel.

  3. I grew Burger grapes in Lodi for 16 years. A very heavy crop most years, up to 18 tons per acre. Viticulture runs in the family.

  4. Thanks, Mike! For anyone seeing this comment, Mike is the great-great-great grandson of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, so there are a few generations of Workman and Temple family viticulturists!

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