“Almost as Good as Stumbling Over Lumps of Gold”: Arpad Haraszthy’s “Wine-Making in California” in The Overland Monthly, December 1871, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among the many artifacts from the Homestead’s collection used in yesterday’s presentation on regional wine history at the Ovitt Family Community Library in Ontario were two identically titled articles, “Wine-Making in California,” one of which appeared in the popular national journal, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine from June 1864, and another in multiple parts beginning with the December 1871 edition of The Overland Monthly, an important early California publication, as well as the fifth part of a series on “Wine Making” from the October 1863 edition of the California Wine, Wool and Stock Journal.

It turns out that all of these essays, which did not name the author, were written by Arpad Haraszthy (1840-1900), son of Agoston Haraszthy (1812-1869) and Eleonora Dedinszky (1816-1868), who migrated from Hungary to Wisconsin in the early 1840s with their six children, of which Arpad was the third (the fourth child, Ida, later married Henry Hancock, a Los Angeles attorney and surveyor who has been previously featured here, and their son was G. Allan Hancock, notable for his oil, real estate and other endeavors in the Angel City.)

The October 1863 issue of The Wine, Wool and Stock Journal contains the fifth part of Arpad Haraszthy’s “Wine Making” essay. The Homestead collection has four other issues with more from the series.

The Haraszthy family migrated to California in 1849, though not because of the Gold Rush then underway, and came by the southern route, settling in San Diego at the close of that year. Agoston quickly became a fixture there, including establishing a business partnership with the prominent Californio Juan Bandini (whose daughter, Arcadia, became a prominent figure in Los Angeles including through her marriage to American merchant Abel Stearns and her large fortune which she managed individually and with second husband, Robert S. Baker, a founder of Santa Monica).

Agoston also owned a stable and stagecoach service, ran a butcher shop, looked to develop land in San Diego, was the city marshal and county sheriff, and served in the nascent state assembly. He also planted fruit orchards and a vineyard, but, while in the legislature, began investing in land in northern California, starting in San Francisco, where he tried viticulture and was also the assayer in the new federal mint opened in the city because of the enormous riches of the Gold Rush.

The June 1864 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine has an article called “Wine-Making in California” by Haraszthy, though he is not cited as the author, with the piece focusing on the technical aspects of manufacture at his father’s Buena Vista Winery (which is still in operation), of which he was cellar master, though he left at the end of the year.

In 1856, he acquired a vineyard at Sonoma and renamed it Buena Vista—this remains in operation and is the second oldest operating winery in California. Quickly, Haraszthy became a prominent figure in viticulture in the Golden State, including travel to Europe in 1861 to research the industry (a book on this journey was published by the Harper Brothers), but his record was mixed as he certainly brought important ideas to and recognition for the state, but also got into financial trouble. In 1868, he left for Nicaragua where he acquired a sugar plantation and planned to make and sell rum, but his wife and a daughter died of yellow fever and Agoston vanished, it being presumed he fell into a river and drowned.

Arpad, at age 11, joined his mother and some siblings on a trip from California to New York City, where he went to school while the others settled nearby in New Jersey. After completing his studies, he journeyed back to the Golden State and reunited with his father as the transfer was being made from San Francisco to Sonoma. He then went to Paris in 1857 to study engineering, following this by intensive study in how to manufacture champagne. Four years later, his parents and sister Ida arrived for the trip mentioned above. In fall 1862, Arpad returned to America and became the master of the Buena Vista cellars for his father, though he left after just two years, during which time his Harper’s article, which focused heavily on the technical side of wine-making because of his work, was published. In 1863, he and a brother, Attila, married daughters of Sonoma mainstay, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, one of the most prominent of all Californios during the period.

Over the course of about thirty-five years, Arpad was prominent in the wine industry in California with partners and through his own firm and, in 1871, when his Overland Monthly article was published, he was in San Francisco working in conjunction with Isidor Landsberger. Also first president of the state’s viticultural commission, when it was formed in 1880, Arpad was also the founding treasurer of the Bohemian Club, a well-known institution in San Francisco to this day. After trying his hand in the Alaskan gold rush as the 19th century came to a close, Arpad returned to San Francisco in bad health and died at age 60 in November 1900.

The Harper’s and Wine, Wool and Stock Journal (the Museum collection has four issues of the latter, so all but one of the parts of Arpad’s essay are there) are more technical and will likely be shared in future posts on this blog, but the first part of the Overland Monthly piece, featured here, has more history in it, so we’ll focus on it for this post. It begins by observing that

Almost every wine-growing country in the Old World [Europe] owes its first plantation of vines to the monks; and such was their knowledge of soil and locality, that the result of their labors has gained a reputation that has outlived them [by] hundreds of years . . . And what the monks did for the Old World, that did the [Franciscan missionary] Fathers for California. They planted the first vine, and they made our first wine.

Moreover, Haraszthy continued, “about the year 1771, the vine was first known to be planted in our State, and the Mission San Gabriel claims the honor of possessing the first vineyard.” The so-called “Queen of the Missions” was the fourth of the 21 in the chain established in what became known as the department of Alta California and the author noted that “the early history of this vineyard, as well as the origin of its vines, is lost in the past.”

He went on that there were some who thought the first cuttings were brought straight from Spain while another view maintained they were from Spanish vines planted in México, or New Spain. Haraszthy added that “others hold that these vines were taken from some one of the many wild varieties that are scattered over the whole State.” Then, there was the writer’s father-in-law, Vallejo, of whom “there is no better authority on he subject in the State.”

Vallejo held that the missionaries sought to develop the native grapes for wine-making, but, this effort failing, “planted the seeds from raisins that came from Spain” so that “the result of these experiments gave them several varieties, among which are our present blue Mission [grape] and a white grape of a musky flavor.” Others were not further developed. Haraszthy noted that, because modern transportation was problematic for the survival of roots and cuttings, the idea that early grapes were brought from Spain and México was faulty, while he noted that the grapes that were established “do not bear the faintest resemblance, either in fruit, leaf, or wood, to any wild variety.” He pointed to the large size of the fruit, the type of leaves and the strength of branches to buttress his view.

A late 1870s stereoscopic photograph by Alexander C. Varela of the Mission San Gabriel stone church.

What the writer claimed was that it was more likely that “the seeds were purposely sent out from Spain, through Government authority” as the case with other fruit, including citrus, olives, figs and others. To Haraszthy, “this is the only rational matter of explaining the presence of he same two varieties—blue and white so-called Mission grape—in New Mexico, where they are universally cultivated.” It seemed clear to him that “the missions in both provinces [California and New Mexico] . . . would naturally receive the same selections of seeds.” One wonders if John Rowland and William Workman, who long resided in Taos, New Mexico, where they distilled the well-known “Taos Lightning” whiskey, were familiar with viticulture, whether they practiced it or not, and then took it up once, or soon after, they settled on the Rancho La Puente in 1842.

The author averred that the question of origins of these first grapevines in California was not much important and simply noted that “they were known to grow at the Mission San Gabriel, and from there the planting of the blue Mission was extended from mission to mission, until not a single one was without it.” This was, he added, what the missionaries preferred “because its wine resembled the red wines of Old Castile” in Spain. Haraszthy observed that it seemed likely that “while the vineyards were small, their products were used at table,” not just for sacramental purposes, “and not much wine made from them, but this limitation could not have lasted for a longer period than the conclusive proof of the prolific qualities of the vine.” He referred to accounts handed down that “those missions, having a greater number of vines, made very considerable quantities of wine” and that “there were few, if any missions that, at the time of the arrival of the Americans, did not have at least five acres,” with some up to thirty, under cultivation.

Moreover, the writer commented that “the greatest care and attention was bestowed upon these vines—as labor was no object,” and this was an oblique reference to the indigenous people of California being used (forced, that is) as so-called “neophytes” to tend to the vineyards and the production of wine. Later in his essay, Haraszthy wrote that “gathering in the milder disposed Indians of the neighborhood,” a most benign expression for what happened with the native population in the Mission system, the priests “taught them the tillage of the soil, and made artisans of them.” Other than these brief statements, nothing at all was said in the article about who toiled in California’s vineyards during the century until its publication.

With the mission vineyards “planted in rich soil and irrigated,” it seems likely that production was around 700 to 1,000 gallons per acre annually, even accounting for those grapes that were eaten. Haraszthy opined that “these wines . . . were all used in the neighborhood, a there were no facilities for export, there being neither bottles nor casks to put the wine in, nor any regular communication with other countries.” Spanish policy was to prohibit contact with the outside world, though this was occasionally honored in the breach and Alta California was substantially a subsistence society.

Given these isolated conditions, “the making of these wines was crude in the extreme” with fermentation done in basic cement cisterns and left in these “or drawn into sewed-up hides” or in large ollas (clay jars). They were kept in these storage vessels “without further care or attention, until consumed” and, it was noted, “they were not likely to attain any great age or good quality from such handling.” So, it was hardly surprising, continued the writer, that “neither did any of the missions achieve any reputation for the excellence of their wines,” though the production of the Mission Sonoma, established in 1823 as the last of the chain,” was considered better “owing more to the fine quality of the soil than to superior skill in handling.”

Haraszthy wrote that given the “want of care, knowledge, and the necessary appliances [equipment],” it was felt that all wine had to be drunk within a year of its being made. He also observed that

the old Californians of those days had a great partiality for sweet wines, and used every known means to prolong the excessive sweetness of their new wines; and to attain this end, they boiled the juice, and even added brandy to it. As one of the products of these efforts, we have the Angelica wine, whose mode of manufacture may not have originated in California, but certainly was universally adopted by the Spanish-American inhabitants, who are, to this day, very fond of this grape liqueur, for a wine it certainly can not correctly be called.

As for raisins, it was stated that these were developed at the missions for consumption because the missionaries were “possessing both the patience and the knowledge required to make them,” though, again, they were not doing the manual labor, this being relegated to the indigenous neophytes. Because of the grapes from which they were rendered, though, the size and flavor were lacking, “though [they were] quite good for cooking purposes” and sufficed for eating “where no others were to be found.”

Meanwhile, it was also observed that “a kind of brandy was also manufactured . . . which must have been as crude as their wine, and was mostly used to fortify it.” Haraszthy then commented on the general practice of agriculture and operation of the mission, asserting that “nature smiled upon their efforts” during a time of peace and prosperity.” He added that “their humble churches gradually grew into splendor” and substantial walls “protected their orchards and vineyards from profane trespassers” with granaries (one of these at La Puente was just north of the Homestead and adjacent to today’s Valley Boulevard and Union Pacific railroad track) full “and their wine-vaults overflowing.”

Rhapsodizing further, the author claimed

Nothing more was necessary to fill their cup of happiness, and it must have been a proud moment to them, indeed, as they sat quietly under the vine and fig-tree, and saw the all their years of toil had been crowned with success. And the sight of one of these missions, in the heights of its prosperity—with its broad acres of grain, filled with busy [native] toilers, its fine churches, the numerous towers and walls, the vineyards, the orange and olive-groves—must have been a pleasant one, indeed.

Alas, this Arcadia was temporally very limited and “this vision of peace and plenty was not destined to last long.” Harazthy asserted that “the outside world became suspicious and jealous of the influence and wealth of the Fathers” and pushed authorities in Mexico so that the result was “they had despoiled the missions of their lands and the fathers of the result of their labors.”

The “outside world” largely consisted of Californios, many of whom were soldiers recruited to Alta California with the promise of land after their term of service, but who found that the missions, which were supposed to exist for a short period of about a decade to complete their work of Christianizing and “civilizing” the native people, still possessed most of the desirable land in the settled portion of the department after more than six decades.

The secularization of the missions was more complicated and nuanced than how Haraszthy portrayed it and the influence of his father-in-law was likely behind much of his positive portrayal of the system and its operations. Tomorrow, we’ll return with part two of this post as the articles moves into the American period.

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