The story of the Southern California grape–in a glass, that is!

I haven’t yet closed the door on my interest in the families closely associated with the founding of Los Angeles.

In March I will be part of a docent-led tour of a new exhibit at the Huntington Library highlighting the Wilson, Shorb and Patton families from 1854 to 1904. That era is precisely where I’m most interested, so won’t I have fun!

And as much as I enjoy talking about this interest…

Entrance to Grapevine Park

I’m aware that much of what most directly intrigues me probably doesn’t translate too well without the benefit of knowing certain landmarks combined with the familiarity of place names.

But I’m hoping that following the trail of the California grape may be interesting to you.

Viticulture is booming business!

The California wine industry contributes $61.5 billion in state economic impact and $121.8 billion nationally. If you don’t enjoy a glass of wine, you might at least be impressed with those numbers.

So how did the vineyards get their start?

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It all began when Father Junipero Serra brought vines from Mexico to Mission San Diego. As the padres traveled north they established a winery, the largest in the entire system, at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel.

Grapes from the Old Mother grapevine, planted 1861
Grapes from the Old Mother grapevine, planted 1861

Even after the mission era came to a close in 1833 the San Gabriel Valley continued to boast first-rate vineyards and winemaking.

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And then the story jumps forward a couple of decades and we’re back once again on the trail of General George S. Patton’s family.

James DeBarth Shorb, a shrewd and capable businessman,  partnered with his father-in-law, Benjamin Davis Wilson. You may remember that Wilson was the General’s illustrious grandfather. At one time Shorb and Davis owned approximately 1800 acres of land with over 230,000 grapevines in addition to acres of citrus, olive and walnut trees.

The Old Mother Grapevine, root, 1861
The Old Mother Grapevine root, 1861

Following Wilson’s death, Shorb expanded the original “B.D. Wilson & Co.” to include a new and larger winery, The San Gabriel Wine Company.  The business was  capable of crushing 250 tons of grapes a day, and with the capacity of 1,500,000 gallons of wine the company owned a one-and-a-half mile stretch of Southern Pacific Railway for shipping purposes.

The company called itself the largest winery in the world.

In the mid-19th century there were hundreds of wineries in the region and for a time, Southern California wine production was thought to rival European enterprises.

But then along came a little insect!

An insect-transmitted bacteria caused a blight that created enough havoc to scare investors and before long orange and walnut production took the place of grapes.

Following the blight, Short struggled along until 1892, then closed the San Gabriel Wine Company shortly before he died.

The Sierra Madre Vintage Company in Lamanda Park, a town later annexed to Pasadena, was one of the few wineries to survive throughout the Prohibition Era, hiding behind loopholes allowing wine for religious sacraments.

But by the 1930s, winemaking in the San Gabriel Valley was over!

Fortunately for the state of California, the mission Padres had taken grapes to Northern California and those vines didn’t seem to have the same infestation problem.

Today, of course, Central Coast and Northern California wines are among the world’s best.  But did you know that Southern California also has a significant wine presence?

San Diego County, with its many grape-growing microclimates, provides the perfect conditions for growing unique varietals across the region. There are 50 wineries across the county with additional vineyard development always underway.

Father Junipero Serra, statute in front of San Gabriel Mission
Father Junipero Serra, statue in front of San Gabriel Mission

It seems to me this is a fitting conclusion for my story of the Southern California grape.

I started by telling you that Father Junipero Serra brought the first grapes to the region by way of Mexico, establishing a modest wine production at Mission San Diego. That was 1769.

And today,  wine production in San Diego County is robust and award winning.

I’m always satisfied when a story can be brought full circle!

wine, citrus and water–still following the trail of General Patton’s Southern California family

When I first opened the series of General Patton-related posts I didn’t foresee my interest broadening so extensively to include his family. Simple reason–I had NO idea his family was so instrumental in the development of early Southern California. They are among the most illustrious and fascinating of true California pioneers.

I suspect I’ll be reading about Patton’s grandfather, Benjamin Davis Wilson, well into the future. He was a successful entrepreneur with political and business interests connecting to many areas of local history.

The history in this valley is too rich and varied to cover in detail, but I’m finding a few areas particularly interesting and perhaps more adaptable to re-telling.

Mid-19th century California was all about the land.

Wilson’s first wife, Ramona Yorba, was the daughter of  very wealthy Don Bernardo Yorba. The marriage opened opportunity to great land wealth, and now allied with an important Southern California family, Wilson,  known as Don Benito, became a Californio–a group of Mexicans and Anglos who thought of themselves first as Californians and less as either Mexicans or Americans.

They settled on large land holdings in what is now the San Gabriel Valley.

I’ve previously mentioned a local naturally occurring body of water that once provided sustenance for the Gabrieleno-Tongva people and later the Spanish missionaries associated with the San Gabriel Mission.

The lower end of the lake was dammed to power a saw mill, wool works and tanner that pumped through a grist mill constructed in 1816.

B.D. Wilson purchased a large part of Rancho San Pasqual in 1854, including the lake, which he named after himself (Wilson Lake) using the water to irrigate his vineyards.

Wilson’s wife, Ramona, died in 1849 and he later married the widow, Margaret Hereford, building a lavish home surrounded by citrus trees and vineyards. It was at this home, Lake Vineyard, that six years following his death, Wilson’s younger daughter, Ruth, brought her new husband, George Smith Patton II. In 1885, his son and namesake was born.

The lovely Lake Vineyard once stood on the grounds of the current San Marino’s Lacy Park, where a beautiful War Memorial honoring San Marino servicemen and women who have lost their lives in combat is placed at the entrance. And there is one other famous honoree, General George Patton Jr., who as a youth, played on the very same grounds.

In learning more about this California pioneer family I’ve stumbled upon several new and fascinating stories. My father recalls when land near his grandmother’s home in nearby Sierra Madre was prime vineyard land.  Although I had some knowledge of grapes and winemaking at the San Gabriel Mission, I have only through studying the Wilson-Patton family begun to understand how closely linked this region is to winemaking in early  Southern California.

I have another story to tell that should please history buffs, wine enthusiasts and those who enjoy a good green thumb story!

I only learned yesterday about the San Gabriel Wine Company of the mid-1800’s. Here’s the deal! Once again I have to sort the usual land boundary confusion. There’s the San Gabriel Mission winery–in San Gabriel, and then the San Gabriel Wine Company appears to have been in the neighboring city of Alhambra. I wonder if I can find an old map!

I’ll leave you with a few photos today, but come back soon with a bit of winemaking history. I have a little reading to do.

Following the circuitous trail of the illustrious Patton’s

It’s been more of a challenge to tell the local story of General George S. Patton than I had previously thought. I think it would be easier if I had one of those enormous war room strategy maps to plot out the Patton family history. Sometimes I have trouble keeping all the characters straight. It doesn’t help that some of the history books hold contradictory information.

I started my original questioning with a trip to the San Gabriel Cemetery. 

I’m not intending to add much color to the General’s illustrious life, at least in terms of his military career. A general call “Old Blood and Guts”–a nickname he hated but his men loved, is a biographer’s dream. There is much written. Known for his explosive temper and shall-we-say colorful language, he was a leader for which myths and truth have mingled and persisted despite his death 67 years ago.

But there was a reason I decided to finally read a personal history of the Patton family. General Patton and his wife are buried in Luxembourg, but his grandparents, parents, sister and a few other family members I haven’t yet researched are buried half a mile from my home. When growing up I had always heard that Patton was born in neighboring Alhambra. In recent years, the city of San Marino has claimed him as their native son.

I assumed a kernel of truth was contained in each story.

Let’s start with the name.

The first George Smith Patton, the General’s grandfather, was a colonel in the Confederate States Army, killed at the Battle of Opequon. His son, born George William Patton, changed his name to George Smith Patton in honor of his father. Though given the name Junior, General George S. Patton was actually the third George Smith Patton.

But to get down to where was Patton born? My research says San Gabriel can claim him! Sort of…

Some of the records indicate he was born in “San Gabriel Township.” That term caught my interest. I’ve never heard that before.

Patton’s maternal grandparents were Benjamin Davis Wilson and his second wife Margaret Hereford. The Wilson name is very well-known in Southern California.

Benjamin Davis Wilson was a California statesman and politician. In 1851, Wilson was the second elected mayor of Los Angeles after California was made a state. Wilson’s name cropped up when I was studying early Los Angeles and the Water Wars, but I hadn’t yet made the connection to Patton.

There are many stories which describe Wilson as another very colorful and adventure-seeking man. He was also known for his kind treatment of the Spanish Native Americans. Don Benito, as he was called, became the first non-Hispanic owner of what was then Rancho San Pascual, which includes today’s towns of Pasadena, Altadena, South Pasadena, Alhambra, San Marino, and San Gabriel.

You’ll have to take it from me that this was a very large Rancho.

I mentioned the Wilson name has a strong recognition factor. Yes, indeed! Mount Wilson, a notable peak in the San Gabriel Mountains is where the majority of television and radio transmission towers for the greater Los Angeles area stands as a monument to the man who took the first white man’s expedition to the peak hoping to harvest timber for making wine vats. The wood was of inferior quality for that purpose, but the Wilson Trail remains one of the most popular hikes to the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains.

I wonder how many Southern Californian’s know that Mount Wilson was named after General George Patton’s grandfather?

I couldn’t help but notice a clear view of Mount Wilson taken from the foot of the Wilson/Patton burial plot.  The large marble obelisk measures almost 25 feet in height and is inscribed with the Wilson name. Looking north from that spot the television and radio transmission towers are easily visible.

Mt. Wilson

Wilson Obelisk

Wilson did live out his days in what is present-day San Gabriel and after that, understanding the property divisions gets complicated. I think it’s safe to say that each of the cities has a reasonable claim on some portion of the Patton family history.

Next to the cemetery, on what was once Wilson land, is one of the prettiest little churches in the area, the Episcopal Church of Our Savior. The General’s family were long time members and benefactors of the church, first built in 1867 with adobe and hand-made nails. It is told that Patton was baptized in this parish.

A beautiful bronze statue of General George S. Patton stands with his side arm in a dedicated space between the cemetery and the church.

But like I said, other cities claim him, too. So next post I’ll share another San Marino bronze and perhaps get a little deeper into the local history. There’s the arroyo which passes under the Rose Bowl and was once called Wilson’s Ditch, bringing water to the valley long before Mulholland and the infamous aqueduct, and I think I’ve figured out where the Patton family home was, right around the corner from the Huntington Library.

Wish me luck. You know I can get in trouble with my camera and private property.

Stay tuned…