by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the quarter-century since William Workman and his wife Nicolasa Urioste settled on the Rancho La Puente, the transformation of their ranch and the region around it was palpable and demonstrable, including with respect to agriculture and, specifically, viticulture or grape raising. They came to the eastern San Gabriel Valley in the early 1840s at the end of the Mexican era and engaged in cattle ranching, for the raw products of the animals’ hides and tallow for rendering into leather goods, soap and candles, as their primary economic activity, while also developing limited agricultural resources.
One of these was cultivating wine grapes, which they appear to have done almost immediately, given that the agricultural schedule of the 1850 federal census, taken locally early the following year, showed that there was a modest amount, some 750 gallons of wine on hand at their ranch. Given that it takes several years for vines to mature and produce grapes that are suitable for manufacturing wine, it seems clear they planted at least a small vineyard by the mid-Forties.
Thanks to the tremendous boon of the Gold Rush, the Workmans realized significant profits in the sale of their cattle for fresh beef to the hordes working the gold fields of the southern mines of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Tuolumne County, a six-week cattle drive from Los Angeles County. Grape cultivation continued and an 1854 advertisement taken out by William Workman advertised the sale of the fruit at three cents per pound “delivered at the heap in his vineyard, in the Rancho of the Puente,” while the fruit could be hauled “on reasonable terms in the Monte.” Workman had his long-time friend David W. Alexander as his Los Angeles agent and it would appear that he had to have expanded his vineyards as he engaged in this commercial enterprise.
The Gold Rush, however, receded by mid-decade, though cattle continued to be the central component of the family’s endeavors into the 1860s. The earliest record of statistics with the Workman vineyard at La Puente was through the diary of artist Henry Miller, who designed St. Nicholas’ Chapel in the family cemetery, during his visit in October 1856. Miller wrote of “a fine and large vineyard and orchard in which grow 12,000 grape vines and an abundance of fruit of all kind . . .”
The agricultural schedule in the 1860 census showed that there were 6,000 gallons of wine at the Workman Homestead, a dramatic increase during the preceding decade and that year he was also recorded as a manufacturer in league, though not on scale, with such prominent viniculturists as Benjamin D. Wilson, Mathew Keller and the partners Kohler and Frohling, along with the cadre of German-American winemakers in the newly established settlement (1857) of Anaheim.
Also in 1860, John Quincy Adams Warren, touring the state to investigate California’s agricultural industry, recorded that the Workman vineyard and orchards comprised ten acres and that, with the former, it included “about 10,000 vines, which have the past season produced an extra crop.” Yet, Adams also noted that “there are some 50,000 new vines set out and doing well,” which indicated another 50 acres devoted to the grape, another example of significant expansion.
In its edition of 12 February 1862, the Los Angeles Semi-Weekly Southern News reported that Workman made 6,000 gallons of wine the most recent season. When that article was published, the region and state had just gone through a staggering 40-day period (hence the term “Noah’s Flood) of heavy rains that caused an unprecedented amount of flooding, with some estimates of 50 inches that season. What then followed, however, was the El Niño weather system following the wet La Niña (of course, these were not so known at the time) and a devastating drought ensued that featured two straight years of an estimated 4 inches of precipitation each.
The effect was the collapse of the greater Los Angeles cattle economy, though those ranchers, like Workman, who practiced agriculture in concert, if not on the same scale, as animal husbandry, were more likely to emerge from the calamitous period (which also featured plagues of locusts and smallpox) and survive.
In 1865, the first year after the drought, the California Agricultural Society, which had visited seven years prior, noted that “at Mr. Workman’s . . . we found a very thrifty vineyard o about 10,000 vine from which we obtained some remarkably fine bunches of the sweetest grapes we have anywhere tested in this, or indeed any other country.” Among the high praise, though, was a mild scolding: “these vines, however, were not so well pruned, nor so free from weeds as they should be.”
By this time, moreover, Workman took the major step of building three substantial brick winery buildings, which stood until the early 1970s, and it was obviously his intention to turn his attention increasingly away from cattle ranching, though he retained large herds into the Seventies, to agriculture, including thousands of acres of wheat in addition to the growing vineyard which had some 100,000 vines on about 100 acres at its peak.
Given some 25 years of the significant expansion of viniculture by the Workmans, the highlighted artifact from this post provides some interesting context. The 27 June 1866 edition of the New York Weekly Tribune contains a lengthy feature under its “Domestic Correspondence” section on news from California and, in particular, on the Golden State’s burgeoning wine-growing industry. There is no byline for the writer, it stated that the piece was from “Our Special Correspondent,” and the article was written in San Francisco and dated 27 May. The content included references to the vineyards of such places as Sonoma which were quickly becoming dominant in California’s viniculture industry, but there is notable general content and brief mentions of this area.
The writer began by observing that “when the adventurers into the gold-fields of California first set greedy eyes upon them, they saw nothing but sterility and desolation from the ocean to the mountains, and they very naturally concluded that a soil which, in the Winter season, was soaked with incessant rains, and, in Summer, was parched with heat from June to November, was totally unfit for all agricultural purposes.” This was probably a calculated hyperbole, as it was then stated some some tried raising vegetables, such as pumpkins and potatoes, and we know some wheat farming was being conducted in the north, as well.
What was certainly true was that California’s agricultural potential was almost completely unrealized and it was noted that the state “possessed the vital elements that give growth and expansion to the vegetable kingdom, in a measure never witnessed on any other part of the globe.” From “vegetables in large quantities,” early farmers passed on to cereal crops and then fruit and it was realized that “with only about half the labor required in other countries, double the crops could be raised.”
This bounty meant that “California became, in a few years, a producer far in advance of her powers of consumption” and
her granaries overflowed, her orchards were loaded with fruit that could find no market, in her gardens were to be seen, nearly the year round, the esculents of almost every clime, and her lap was literally filled with such a superabundance of agricultural products of every kind, that she was in danger of being stifled with the burden.
So, given this rather breathless, and somewhat amplified, discussion, it was averred that “as with other kinds of culture, so, under some modifications, with that of the vine.” Moreover, “this, it was believed, at an early day, could be carried on to advantage in the Southern part of the State, on account of the mild climate, provided the effects of the heat and the dry weather could be overcome.”
Given this, it was “the [Roman Catholic] Missionaries, who were the first to introduce the vine into this country, from Old Spain, making use of various experiments and expedients to raise it.” The main issue was in finding adequate locations as “these had to be in places sheltered from the heat, where the streams from the hillsides could be diverted on the young vines to prevent them from perishing.” In this regard, the importance of San José Creek, along which the Workman vineyards were planted for ease of irrigation, cannot be overstated.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, then, “such choice localities were few in number” and “the growth of the vineyards was necessarily confined within narrow limits,” such as along the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers and their larger tributaries, including at Mission San Gabriel. Still, “such as it was, we are indebted,” continued the author, “to these ‘early fathers’ for its origin; and the kind of grape that is now so extensively used throughout the State in the manufacture of wine, derives its name of the ‘Mission grape’ from them.” Yet, this vitis vinifera was not a grape that produced high-quality wine, though it was hardy and a good producer and imported varieties, especially in the north, quickly eclipsed it.
The article went on to note that
For a long time, the system of artificial irrigation thus introduced was thought indispensable everywhere, as it still is in and about Los Angeles and the lower part of the State generally; and it was not until after the conquest of the country by the Americans [in the late 1840s] that the experiment was tried of raising grapes without it. This was successfully done in all the northerly portions of the State, and particularly about Sonora, where owing to certain adaptations of soil and climate, great attention has been paid to grape-culture, and it has reached a perfection almost unprecedented.
Additionally, it was stated that “in the beginning, it [viniculture] was confined to such varieties as were suited for the table, and wine was not thought of, except in such limited quantities as sufficed for home consumption. The idea of making it on a large scale, for foreign [really, elsewhere in the United States and in other countries] markets, was reserved for a later period” when Sonoma and then Napa valleys were found to be locales for superior wine-making, initially with the Mission grape still dominant, but with new varieties introduced, as well.
Noting that it was a minimum of about five years for a good-bearing vineyard to develop and ten years for “the best article of wine,” it was reported that “only quite lately, within the last two or three years, that Sonoma has been able to turn out anything that fully meets the public wants—a rich, generous, and highly flavored wine fully up to the standard of the best European brands.” Such simply could never be said for the product of greater Los Angeles.
The author expressed frustration, though, that this new emergence of the northern California vineyards was not “a source of national pride and gratitude,” but, instead, was subject to injudicious taxation (in our area, an 1869 organization, including La Puente co-owner John Rowland, who had a substantial vineyard, was formed to lobby Sacramento against high taxes of wine and brandy manufacturing.)
For example, a footnote recorded that the Internal Revenue Act of April 1864, levied a tax of five cents per gallon of wine, with an amendment of March 1865 adding another penny—it should be noted the Civil War taxation included an first-ever income tax, though that was rescinded and another not brought back until 1913, when the realization that federal prohibition of nearly all alcoholic beverage manufacture, sale and consumption would severely reduce federal revenue because of the loss of excise tax collection.
Further discussion in the article concerned the value of wine production in European countries, the importance of the beverage as a necessity and the author noted that there was likely an area of potential viniculture in California “at least equal to the territory now covered by vineyards in France” or some 5 million acres.” It was also asserted that “the average yield of the vineyards of California is twice as great as in Italy, where they yield the best of any country in Europe, and more than three times as great as in France.”
Not only this, but “no failure of the grape crop has ever been known” in the Golden State and “there has been a steady increases, every year, in the same vineyards” while, when it came to vermin, “California is singularly exempt from all such pests” and “in no other part of the world is the vine so healthy.” This bit of hyperbole proved to be disproven locally when Pierce’s disease destroyed nearly all of our region’s vineyards later in the century.
What followed was a lengthy discussion of the wonders of Sonoma, including its climate, soil and other qualities that made it a prime grape-growing and wine-making region. It is worth highlighting that the writer noted that “the labor of the very largest vineyard in Sonoma is carried on entirely by Chinese” who were, of course, cheaper than American workers, while “one of the best [vineyards] in Sonoma County, [was] where the proprietor employs nothing [note it is not stated “nobody”] but Indians, though it was claimed they were treated well so the owner “has so far weaned them from their savage state” and the indigenous laborers worked “with as much alacrity and serviceableness as ordinary white laborers.”
After reiterating that it took some patience while the vines matured five or six years, the writer talked about the setting out of grape cuttings in the winter, with parallel rows and eight feet separation noted. Pruning was not complicated “and when this is done any one who wants to set out a new vineyard can obtain all the ‘cuttings’ of the ‘Mission grape’ he wishes for the asking.” Vines were trained on 4-5 foot stakes and it was not uncommon to leave those indefinitely, although it was advised to remove them once the vines were in bearing condition “and let the grapes hang as near the ground as possible” as “they ripen better in this condition, and are said to produce the best wine.”
Come October, “it is truly a season of heartfelt joy and festivity” as harvesting was done at a time when “the weather is always delightful, [and] old and young of both sexes flock together, to join in the gathering.” It was claimed that “nimble fingers are seen everywhere clipping the ripe bunches, and throwing them into clustering heaps” while “the ring of merry laughter is heard over all parts of the vineyard”—presumably this included the Chinese and native workers?
Next came the discussion of mashing the grapes by hand, not the feet as in Europe, with a long-handled tool called a stamper or, more likely a pair of parallel rollers, these better at not crushing the seeds. In other cases, grapes were stripped from the stems in such a way that “the tannin extracted from the stems imparts a harsh taste to the wine” while other manufacturers preferred to crush the fruit on the stems with the idea the tannin “acts as a preservative of the wine, and rather improves than injures its flavor.”
Pressing immediately followed mashing because “nothing injures the juice so much as exposure to the atmosphere.” An ancient Roman-style box “in which the grapes are pressed by means of a long arm or level, with stones or other weights fastened to the handle” was mentioned, while the must, or juice, was collected in vats within a full day for the fermentation process. For the visitor to watch as “the agitated and steaming mass whirling around with much violence” was reminiscent, it was stated, of the witches at their caldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, though one had to carefully steer clear of the effluence of carbonic acid, with the fermentation tubs covered and by having the gas drawn into water through pipes or tubes. Again, exposure to the air was to be avoided at all costs.
With the wine placed in pipes “which are kept full and tightly bunged” or sealed to keep air out, with some keeping the product this way until a Spring fermentation, while others “draw if off once or twice before this period.” Either way, winegrowers had to be in the habit of keeping “the most scrupulous neatness in the preparation of the cellars and of every vessel into which the wine enters” to avoid the possibility of contamination. There was also discussion of the supposed synchronicity between the Spring fermentation and the budding of new fruit, though this may strike the modern reader as a bit too metaphysical.
With further discussion of Sonoma-area vineyards, including that of the prominent Californio, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, and the repeated statement of the infancy of the maturity of that district, it was claimed that “the vine in California may reach the extreme longevity” as in parts of the Old World. The writer concluded by saying that “such are a few of the facts that pertain to the growth and culture of the vine in California” and that anyone interested in the industry should be encouraging of the Golden State’s viniculturists. It was added that:
The fact that right here, in our midst, a new kind of industry is springing up, and gradually and almost imperceptibly overshadowing every other around it—an industry that opens up fresh and immense avenues of wealth . . .—such a fact as this is well calculated to challenge our admiration, and to invest the pursuit in question with an interest and magnitude second to none in the land.
Rising in enthusiasm to the finish, the author gushed that “in almost every nook and corner of California . . . the vine may be made to cover with its luxuriance every speck of desolate and barren surface.” Moreover, “it needs no prophet’s vision, therefore, to seeing a few years vineyards so extensively scattered over the State that people will speak as familiarly of the ‘vine-clad hills’ of California as they now speak of the vine-clad hills of France or Italy.”
It was even suggested that the wine industry could be more profitable than any other agricultural endeavor and “fully indemnify California if her mines were entirely swept out of existence,” while it was claimed that mining was no comparison to what the viniculture industry could one day be because the latter would “be a perpetual and inexhaustible source of profit.” Moreover, wine-making was adjudged “a safe and stable employment, bringing to those engaged in it sure and regular returns every year” and was healthier and more morally beneficent.
Mining camps were “nurseries of vice and dissipation” but not so the vineyard (though, of course, the tavern and saloon were nurseries like the camps!) After more of this revelry of the vineyard and the denigration of the mine, the writer grandiosely concluded by observing, “the pursuit of the vine-dresser, like those of agriculture generally, contributes its proper propertion [sic] to the common stock of those commodities, that go to make up the wealth and to satisfy the wans of every people.” In other words, wine-making was destined to be an essential California industry.