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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Continuing with our examination of the first part of the article “Wine-Making in California” from the December 1871 issue of The Overland Monthly, a San Francisco publication that was, among other contents, well-known for its featuring of such writers and poets as Joaquin Miller, Ina Coolbrith and Bret Harte, the latter serving as first editor of the magazine when it debuted in 1868, it is to be reminded that there was no byline.

The author, however, was Arpad Haraszthy (1840-1900), whose father Agoston was a prominent figure in the development of the Golden State’s wine industry until just before his death in 1869, while Arpad continued his work in viticulture and the manufacture of wine until he died at the end of the century. He also contributed a number of writings about the industry, as noted in the first part of this post, including this essay, which provided some interesting commentary about its early history.

Los Angeles Star, 7 February 1855.

After intense lobbying by Californios, hungrily eyeing vast lands controlled by the 21 missions, amid ever-present changes in the government of México, where the power of the Roman Catholic Church was challenged by many, the decision was made to secularize the missions. This basically meant that they were closed with the churches at each reclassified as parish churches, while the lands, including many existing ranchos used by the priests for pasturing stock and growing grain, were subjected to grants to citizens. Just one example of this was Rancho La Puente, which, despite vigorous protests by the priests at Mission San Gabriel, was granted to John Rowland in 1842 and reissued to him and William Workman three years later.

The missions also had varying numbers of grapevines on vineyards that Haraszthy stated were as large as 30 acres, while he painted a picture of a veritable pastoral paradise, no doubt informed heavily by his prominent father-in-law, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, managed by the missionaries, though, typically, almost nothing was said about the native people, the so-called “neophytes,” and their treatment within the mission system. Taking up the tale at this crucial point in Mexican California history, we note that the writer lamented that “when the Americans came into possession of the territory,” which was through an invasion and seizure of the department of Alta California, “they found most of the missions in ruins, their orchards and vineyards neglected, while the old Indian cultivators were scattered far and wide.”

Not all, however, was lost in this dissipated Arcadia, as Haraszthy continued,

Yet, to some far-seeing minds, the too evident past thrift, and even present vigor, of the neglected stumps [of vines], foreshadowed what might be done in the future, with proper care and training. Some few of these people, not diverted by the gold-fever, settled upon or near these missions, and redeemed, replanted, and extended the cultivation of the vine in a small way.

What the writer did not note, though, was that there were those raising grapes and making wine outside the missions before the American seizure of California. Locally, this occurred in the pueblo of Los Angeles along the banks of the river of the same name, so that the López and Rubio families cultivated the grape on the east side at Paredon Blanco, while others worked the west side, including Jean-Louis Vignes (whose surname was perfect for his vocation) and his nephews Jean-Louis and Pedro Sainsevain. In some outlying areas, as well, there were early efforts, such as at Rancho Cucamonga, where its grantee, Tiburcio Tapia, planted grapes upon receiving the grant to the former San Gabriel ranch in 1839.

At La Puente, Rowland and Workman utilized the year-round flow of San José Creek to plant their vines soon after they settled there in 1842. In this and other cases locally, it has been assumed that cuttings from the vines at the missions were taken to establish their vineyards. As Haraszthy observed in his discussion of mission-era viticulture and wine manufacturing, the methods and techniques were crude, the equipment extremely limited and the resulting product was of such low quality that wine and brandy (aguardiente) had to be consumed within a year or so of manufacture.

In fact, this problem continued well into the American period and he observed that

Owing . . . to the lack of facilities in transportation, the vineyards remained very limited in extent, and their products were mostly used at table, or were worked up into a harsh brandy, poor in quality, which was generally disposed of to the Indians. Only enough wine was made to supply the local demand, and that was easily done, for it did not require a great quantity.

A dearth of capital among a sparse population in an isolated region, something akin to being “the Siberia of México,” was also significant. As to the rough aguardiente brandy, Haraszthy noted that it was “disposed of” to the indigenous people, but did not, as was his briefest of observations about their being the labor force for vineyards, mention how destructive this was, as so many natives became addicted to alcohol that it was a major element, along with disease and violence, of the staggering decline in their population and the unraveling of their society.

With respect to this region being the center of the nascent wine industry, the author indicated that “in the years 1852 and 1853, grapes were selling in and around Los Angeles, on the vines, from two to six cents per pound.” While they would fetch from a half-dollar to a dollar in the San Francisco market, he continued, “there had been no one with sufficient time to supply the demand.” Again, though, there was more to the story. Namely, the economy of the region was almost entirely based on cattle—first with the hide-and-tallow trade of the Mexican period and then the beef trade of the Gold Rush era—and agriculture, broadly speaking, was very limited. This would remain the case until the decline of the rush and the dual devastation of flood and drought all but wiped out the cattle industry and agriculture, including viticulture, surged to prominence.

In Haraszthy’s telling, it was his father who “was the first to turn his attention to this business on a large scale” and there is a great deal of truth to this, with Agoston, starting south of San Francisco but then turning to Sonoma where his brother-in-law Vallejo was the dominant resident, taking over what he rechristened the Buena Vista Winery, still operating today. Also cited as important figures in the emerging industry were Charles Kohler and John Frohling, who built a wine dealing house in San Francisco in 1855, with Kohler to operate that facility, while the latter “was to manufacture them [wine] in Los Angeles.” In fact, the partners went through the region crushing grapes for such customers as Rowland and Workman.

Yet, the author added that “neither of these gentlemen was experienced in the undertaking” so that “the wines they offered for sale were not clear, but rough, new, and crude” and, while offered with “guaranteed purity,” their sales were low. Over a short period, though, Kohler and Frohling improved their operation so that they were able to find success. There were, however, other viticulturists in greater Los Angeles who expanded their endeavors significantly during the early American period, including the Vignes, the Sainsevain brothers, Benjamin D. Wilson, Mathew Keller, Andrew Boyle (who acquired much of the Paredon Blanco vineyards in what later was renamed Boyle Heights by his son-in-law, William H. Workman, nephew of the La Puente vineyardist), Henry Dalton of Rancho Azusa and the German cultivators at Anaheim, established in 1857.

Beyond these German natives, Haraszthy noted, there were “a few masterly spirits” who aggressively advertised in newspapers about “the certainty of realizing large profits from the cultivation of the grape. He cited an example from the Alta California in San Francisco in which it was asserted that about 20,000 vines on 160 acres, planted, also, to almonds, would yield a net profit of $170,000 after a half-dozen years. While apparently no one followed the plan as laid out in this scheme, it was stated that this and other means of promoting viticulture led to the view that

After mature reflection, this was considered almost as good as stumbling over lumps of gold, and many people began to plant a few acres of vines—just a few acres, because, at such rates [of purported profit], a few acres would be enough. Many who planted certainly believed that all their grapes could be disposed of for table use; but, even should they be forced to make wine at $2 per gallon, a thousand gallons per acre would realize for them the profitable sum of $2,000 per acre—a very handsome income from so small an investment. There arose only one doubt in their minds—and that was, prices might all in consequence of overproduction; but this was set at rest by the fact, that, even at one-half the above price, it would pay well, and many people took the risk.

While he went on to observe that the methods of cultivation did not materially change, including the assumption that irrigation was always necessary (as it was at La Puente), his father’s work at Buena Vista showed that this was not the case, as 80,000 vines on 140 acres were raised without recourse to irrigation. Notably, Haraszthy added that “up to the year 1858, Los Angeles County possessed fully one-half of all the vines in the State, and, without a doubt, would have continued to hold that proportion, had those few acres of unirrigated vines failed.”

This assumes that no one else would ever have thought to experiment at Napa and Sonoma, where, after all, there were previous endeavors at the latter, but Haraszthy continued that his father’s faith was rewarded and the result was that the “wine was immediately pronounced as having a finer, freer taste, and richer flavor, than that made from irrigated vines.” Of course, there was also the matter of weather, soil, mineral content and other factors that marked what was denoted “a new era [that] began in the vine-culture of California,” as the northern vineyards far surpassed the quality of the ones in this area, though not relying solely on irrigation was important in the expansion of the industry throughout many areas of the state.

Then, there was the matter of varietals. Haraszthy commented that “a few enterprising persons” introduced varieties of grapes from elsewhere, including Europe and the federal patent office at Washington, D.C., but they were reserved strictly for table grape production. Still, they were successful enough so that it as clear that “they would thrive here, bear well, and produce a fruit in many respects superior, for table use, to the favorite blue Mission grape.” Given this, though there were not many in the Golden State who’d had experience as vintners in Europe and those that did “had their attention turned to other pursuits,” the author continued that “enough were found of partial European experience to testify that, in the Old World, more stress was laid upon the species of the grape, generally, than upon any other conditions.”

As to that so-called Mission grape, Haraszthy observed that

although a good common wine had been produced by the Mission grape—a wine that pleased those who had not acquired a taste for European wines—still, it found little or not favor among connoisseurs and habitual wine-drinkers, for they pronounced our wins either fiery and earthy, or sweet and insipid. Nor was their judgment far from the truth, those wines produced by irrigated vines being generally both fiery and earthy, while those made from non-irrigated vines were apt to be of too much body, and too sweet in taste, when made from the blue Mission grape. It was true, that the sweetness of the latter wines would disappear by age; but, nevertheless, they did not acquire, even by long keeping, that inviting bouquet, so apparent in most of the good class of European wines, and so invariably sought after by all lovers of wine.

Moreover, he went on, it was insisted that the fine bouquet that marked a premium wine “would never be acquired, in sufficient quantity, by a wine made from the Mission grape, be it planted in any soil, or whatever locality.” Consequently, the writer concluded that with the expansion of viticulture including experimentation with varieties and processes, it was obvious that “the species of the grape gives the quality to the wine, and the soil only modifies that quality.”

Los Angeles News, 12 February 1862.

We will return on Monday with the concluding third part of this post regarding this early and very interesting and informative article on California’s nascent wine industry, so be sure to check back in then.

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