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6 Wild Stories About California Wine Pioneers

Firestone Vineyards - California Wines

Every winemaker has a story. But few can match the tall tales of California wine pioneers. These early pioneers endured fighting in the War of 1812, were eaten by alligators, wiped out by phylloxera … they are an amazing crew.

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General Mariano Vallejo (1807-1890)

Here was a man who was trapped by the riptides of history. He was part of an upper-class California Mexican family, growing up in Mexican-controlled California. Vallejo admired the principles of democracy, however, and supported his brother’s later rebellion against Mexican rule. Groomed for leadership by the Mexican governor, by age 21, he had both put down an Indian rebellion at the San Jose mission and been excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his refusal to turn over books prohibited by the Church.

His love affair with vineyards began when oversaw the Sonoma mission as part of his role as head of military operations along Mexico’s northern border. The mission had a vineyard and by 1837, Vallejo, who had received various land grants, owned hundreds of acres of vines (as well as other agricultural lands). He was the first to grow grapes commercially in California.

However, with Mexico’s withdrawal from California in 1848, the political tide shifted. Vallejo was imprisoned. His properties were looted and he would never regain the wealth he had amassed. (This was typical treatment at the time of the Californios.) Despite his rough handling, in 1852 Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo served in the very first session of the California State Senate. He focused on adding acreage to his Vallejo Estate near Sonoma Square, where his plans for significant wine production were destroyed by the phylloxera scourge of the 1870s.

George C. Yount (1794-1865)

By the time he planted Napa Valley’s first vines in the 1830s, George C. Yount had lived life to its fullest. He had fought in the War of 1812, when the British succeeded in burning Washington D.C. In California, mimicking Russian immigrants, Yount trapped sea otters in Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands. He moved northward to Sonoma and worked as a carpenter for General Mariano Vallejo. The two became friends and Vallejo gave him the Rancho Caymus land grant, making Yount the valley’s first permanent resident. He planted the valley’s first grapes in 1839. Napa Valley’s Yountville is named after him.

Agoston Haraszthy (1812-1869)

Often called “the father of California viticulture,” Agoston Haraszthy emigrated from Hungary to Wisconsin in 1840, making his way to San Diego and in 1846, to Sonoma. By then, he had already served as body guard to Marie Antoinettes’ nephew, worked in the wine trade in Europe, and become a legal magistrate. In Wisconsin, he’d built mills and a steamship company, among other businesses, and had apparently killed a wolf with his bare hands. In San Diego he quickly became the first sheriff and built the first jail while tending his own vineyards. He left under a cloud after a brief stint at the new U.S. Mint in San Francisco, where he was accused (but later cleared) of embezzlement.

In 1855, Haraszthy purchased the vineyard owned by Salvador, brother of General Vallejo and began Buena Vista Winery. It was California’s first stone winery, replete with underground tunnels and hillside vineyards. In 1858, he wrote “Report on Grapes and Wine of California,” still available today. As president of the California State Agricultural Society, he was assigned to bring back vine stock from Europe; he shipped in 10,000 cuttings of more than 350 grape varieties. Meanwhile, phylloxera was weakening his 500 acres of vineyard as well as other vineyards, and he was blamed for not discovering a solution. At that point, no one knew that phylloxera was the culprit and that European vines, not American vines, were susceptible.

Haraszthy went bankrupt and moved to Nicaragua where he began a sugar plantation. He is said to have died in an altercation with an alligator.

Charles Krug (1825-1892)

A teacher and revolutionary in his native Prussia, he was forced into political exile. He established Charles Krug Winery in 1861 near St. Helena, Napa Valley’s first winery. Krug had a knack for promotion and was called by many “the father of Napa Valley wine.” Sadly, Krug went bankrupt during the depression of 1873.

Lily Langtry (1853-1929)

Lily (Lillie) Langtry was an English actress and consort to British royalty, who became a U.S. citizen in 1897. In 1888, she purchased 4,200 acres in Lake County’s Guenoc Valley north of Napa Valley. Her goal was to make “the greatest claret in the country.” She imported a winemaker from Bordeaux and in 1891, reported selling “50 tons of Burgundy” from her 20 acres of vines. She sold the property in 1906.

Josephine Tychson (1855-1939)

When her husband committed suicide, Josephine Tychson, then 31 and the mother of two young children, did an extraordinary job of completing the couple’s plans for Tychson Winery at their 147 Napa Valley acres. Consulting with her foreman, she supervised completion of the cellar (it held 20,000 gallons, quite a bit for those days) and new vineyard plantings. She worked tirelessly for eight years only to lose the vineyard to investors with the arrival of phylloxera. Her historic home can be found beneath the Freemark Abbey gift shop.

Every bottle has a story. We invite you to discover more of the world of wine with us. Give wine club membership a try, and you’ll enjoy delicious deliveries to your door.  Plus, we include Uncorked, our beautiful guide to the winery. Uncorked includes details and tasting notes on the wines, wine tips and insight to California’s wine scene.

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4 Responses

  1. Robert Gartner says:

    One of the first “old world” solo wine makers was a French chemist whose name I cannot recall. He came to the Napa valley by way of Mexico and made a great Grignolino wine in his garage located along the highway in or near St. Helena. Heitz Cellers, I think, is now on that property. In the mid-1950’s I stopped there about every 2 weeks on the way to a research assignment for UC at Hoberg;s resort. Took a gallon jug which was filled for a couple of $$.

    • Karen D says:

      Wow, thank you for sharing this, Robert! What a fun memory! I know Pedroncelli Family Winery in Dry Creek Valley also used to offer wine by the gallon–I think for 45 cents/gallon in 1934. If you remember the name of the chemist, let us know. Cheers to you!

  2. Teddy Yeary says:

    What a great article. Please keep the stories coming. Thank you.

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