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