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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we conclude this post on an important early California wine-making article by Arpad Haraszthy and appearing in the notable Golden State journal, The Overland Monthly, we pick up the story in the early 1860s when the author’s father, Agoston, proprietor of the Buena Vista Winery (which still is in business today) where Arpad was cellar master until 1864, was appointed by Governor John G. Downey, a Los Angeles resident, to a state commission tasked with making recommendations for the betterment of California viticulture.

The other members of the commission were Abraham Schell of Knight’s Ferry (named for one of the members of the Rowland and Workman expedition of 1841) in Stanislaus County, who went to South America to look into viticulture there and Jonathan Trumbull (Juan José) Warner, a key figure in greater Los Angeles and southern California, who was specifically asked to report on the situation in the state, while Agoston Haraszthy traveled to Europe to gather information about best practices in the Old World.

Arpad reported that “Colonel Warner made a very able report upon the grape interest, as he then found it, with many valuable suggestions,” while Schell’s work was deemed “interesting.” As for the writer’s father, it was observed that grapevines imported to California “were too costly, inadequate, and often unreliable, so Agoston went overseas to “make personal selections . . . of all the different varieties of grape-vines that he could collect,” resulting in some 200,000 vines and cuttings from 300 varieties and cataloged under nearly 500 names.

Arpad added that these were distributed throughout the state and, while results varied where they were planted, it was asserted that “not a single variety in this vast collection has not done well” and each “raised and matured its fruit to perfection.” Moreover, he continued that “there are very considerable quantities of wine made from such fine varieties of the grape” including Riesling, Pinot Noir (spelled “Pineau” in the piece), Burgundy, Zinfandel and others. All of these imports “have not only been found to produce a finer wine than the Mission grape,” but to be more productive “when properly trained and pruned,” while they were also bearing the fruit with “a much great uniformity” than the traditional California grape raised under primitive conditions of technique.

Haraszthy also chastised “those who are ever prone to prophesy evil” and who questioned the importation by his father of the many grape types, claiming they would die or change in their composition or be a poor imitation of their European progenitors. To this last point, it was observed that it was to be expected that a Riesling, for example, “may not resemble in every minute particular a wine” grown in Germany, where that variety was highly successful,” but he did assert that “the type of the two wines will be identical.” Moreover, a German winemaker would readily recognize the California cousin “all other things being equal and it was added,

The climate and soil certainly have a marked influence upon the immediate quality of the grape, but not on its type, which would take ages to change.

Clearly, the soil and weather in northern California was superior to that of the south, but Haraszthy’s example was that a Pinot from the Golden State would be heavier, with more body and sweetness than that from France. He continued that “no one conversant with these matters will pronounce our wine from that grape other than a full-fledged Burgundy wine: the bouquet is there, and the whole type is there.”

The importation of so many varieties, he went on, “has almost resulted in a disadvantage for the vintner” because the wine from each was distinctive in character and taste and of such quality that selecting one over the other was a challenge for “they all grow and seem to make good wines.” He did suggest that viticulturists consider to which part of the Old World their land corresponded in terms of soil quality, as well as weather and then plant the appropriate variety of grape. Providing the production was of the same general standard as that in practice in Europe, then, “a wine will be made resembling in type and all its general characteristics” of those overseas. Such “is the only rational mode of proceeding, and the surest road to a quick result.”

Haraszthy was sure to add that it wasn’t just a matter of lacking the choice of an abundant range of varieties, but that it was

mostly to ignorance, which, in its self-confidence, overstepped the line of possibility, and counted too much upon art, [that] most of our wine-makers were led into the delusive idea that skill in the mode of manufacture gave the wine its peculiar type, and they, until within the past few years, continued to attempt to manufacture all the types known by simply changing the details of manufacture.

In the effort to duplicate various types of wine found elsewhere only through the Mission grape, a major mistake was made, while another was that winemakers believed “all the qualities came from the soil alone, and the Mission grape was planted in an endless variety of soil.” Even when the quality was better in some locales, “the bouquet was not there, nor did the wine resemble any of those finer and numerous varieties of favorite European wines.” The grape’s characteristics were basically ignored, so vintners “were lead [sic] into the erroneous belief that any grape, on a certain soil, would produce a superior wine” and “they did not consider the result of planting an inferior species of grape in the soil that produced the fine wine.”

The writer commented that while any variety “does acquire some degree of quality from the soil,” none would be as good as a better type on that same land or even approaching a superior variety on poorer soil. Fortunately, Haraszthy observed, the attitudes of old among California’s winemakers “are fast losing ground” and recent experience and experimentation showed “that there is an unfailing adaptability of certain varieties of vines to certain soils” and when the combination was right, “the highest possible excellence is attained by that particular variety of grape.” Indeed, he averred that “the best result [was] . . . to make from a single vineyard, and one species of grape, all the known kinds of wine.”

What followed, therefore, was that “each district is gradually confining itself to its own proper character of wine” and, in a short time, these would each be clearly known “for producing a certain class of wine, and that class will be the only one produced there.” In this, he claimed, “are our vintners, step by step, emerging from the chaos of inexperience” from an era in which

most of the early vintners, having commenced without adequate means, and counting too certainly upon unreasonable and quick profits, became almost hopelessly discouraged by the long time that elapsed before their vineyards bore, then by the seemingly low prices their grapes realized, and, last, but not least, by the great outlay attendant upon wine-making. Their troubles had only commenced when their vineyards began to give fruit.

Those who grew table grapes found markets saturated with fruit and with commissions to wholesalers and high transportation costs involved, “they were not left a fair profit” and they turned to wine. Here, however, were large overhead costs for cellars, presses, casks, presuming that material and labor was readily available for these, while much of this was inordinately expensive. Winemakers met to address the problem and one solution was “to make vats of large size from redwood staves,” which proved fortuitous and “which saved many gallons of wine to the vintner.”

There was some change to the challenges of finding coopers to make barrels from local wood, while “the persistent efforts of these pioneer vintners” also led to the fact that “the wine began slowly to find sale, though the quantity was sold in small lots, and at very low prices.” Even still, it was consolatory that some sales were taking place and, beyond that, “whole crops found sale at fixed rates,” with this standardization meaning that producers could expect a reasonable profit margin. In fact, Haraszthy concluded, “the increase in production has become so rapid” in recent years “that it is at this moment almost impossible to find any quantity of one-year-old wine in the hands of the producers, unless they make a point of keeping it for aging.”

At the end of 1871, William Workman was about seven or so years in to a dramatic expansion of his viticulture endeavors, having increased his number of grapevines to about 100,000 on some 100 acres and erected three brick winery buildings—all of this south of his house and near San José Creek, from which an irrigation ditch brought water to the vineyard. His grandson, Francis W. Temple very soon became his cellar master and, after the terrible tragedy of the failure of the Temple and Workman Bank five years later, continued on to make wine, brandy and other products, enabling him to buy the 75-acre Workman (La Puente) Homestead from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who took possession of most of the Workman half of Rancho La Puente by foreclosure on a loan to the bank.

Francis did well with his winemaking operation, but died young of tuberculosis in 1888, the bacterial infection known as “Pierce’s Disease” emanated from Anaheim’s vineyards and quickly ravaged the region, including the vines at the Homestead. Still, for over four decades, viticulture was practiced by the Workman and Temple family and became for about half that time a significant part of the agricultural operations.

We’ll continue to share more from the Museum’s collection relating to regional wine history, so be sure to keep an eye out for future posts on that subject here.

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