If you live in San Francisco and want to show off your knowledge of California wine to a few friends from out of town, you might take them to a wine-savvy restaurant like Boulevard, a block or so from the Ferry Building and San Francisco Bay. Scanning the multi-page wine list, you’d say something knowing about how hot Kongsgaard is right now, but you’d pass on the $165 bottle of its 2013 Chardonnay and order a $94 bottle of Far Niente—same varietal, same year—instead. Perusing the reds, you’d remark that the $650 price tag for a bottle of 2010 Sine Qua Non Stockholm Syndrome Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County is actually quite reasonable, but that the 2010 Qupé Syrah from the nearby Edna Valley is also nice and, at $105, a bargain by comparison.
“The main tactic of the newly formed C.W.A. was to wait everyone out.”
These recommendations would be sure to impress. But what if one of your old chums, rising to the challenge of your enological expertise, suddenly turns and asks if you know that the city of Richmond across the bay—home to a noxious Chevron oil refinery and is considered one of the 10 most dangerous cities with populations under 200,000—was once California’s undisputed wine capital?
You’d blink, and accuse your pal of pulling your leg, until he starts telling you the story of the rise and fall of the California Wine Association, which, in 1907, built a 47-acre compound there, evocatively named Winehaven.
The location was not a whim: In 1906, 10-million gallons of C.W.A. wine had been spilled in the San Francisco earthquake and boiled in the fires that followed. By the time your friend has finished explaining that as many as 12-million gallons of wine and brandy a year were once produced at Winehaven, you’d realize that while you may be able to order a decent bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant, you don’t know beans about California’s wine history, especially before Prohibition.
Few people do. In fact, if those who shop at BevMo for bargain bottles think about California’s wine history at all, their timeline usually begins in 1976 at the so-called Judgment of Paris, in which a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, both from the Napa Valley, stunned the international wine world by beating some of France’s most esteemed Bordeaux and Burgundies in a blind tasting.
To be sure, one would not directly credit the C.W.A. for the Judgment of Paris, but this watershed moment in California wine history didn’t come out of nowhere. Or at least that was my reaction after reading a terrific new book called Tangled Vines by Frances Dinkelspiel. Even though the main thread of Dinkelspiel’s narrative concerns the events leading up to an arson-caused warehouse fire in 2005, which destroyed 4.5 million bottles of wine worth at least a quarter-billion dollars, the story of the C.W.A.—at one point, it controlled a staggering 84 percent of California’s wine business—figures prominently. What else might Dinkelspiel know about the C.W.A. that didn’t make it into her book? My interest piqued, I decided to call her and find out.
“In the 1890s, the California wine industry was a mess,” Dinkelspiel told me when we spoke a few days later over the phone. The economic panic of 1893, she explained, had created a glut of grapes, severely depressing the price of fruit and wine alike. “The timing was right for someone to get in there and dominate the market in order to stabilize it,” she says.
Founded in San Francisco in 1894, the C.W.A. was comprised of a number of highly influential “someones,” including the biggest and most successful wine merchants in the city, who had their hands in everything from the ownership of vineyards across the state to wineries and distributorships. By joining together to form the C.W.A., they were effectively colluding—in broad daylight—to create a wine cartel, despite the fact that the Sherman Antitrust Act had just passed in 1890. That’s how bad things were for California grape growers and wine merchants in 1894; the prospect of an antitrust lawsuit brought by the federal government was preferable to the status quo.
The main tactic of the newly formed C.W.A. was simple—wait everyone out. As the biggest buyer of California grapes and biggest seller of finished product, the C.W.A. could force growers to accept the prices it was willing to pay, lest they get nothing before their fruit rotted. Similarly, if wine sellers in the Chicago, New Orleans, and New York didn’t want to pay the prices the monopoly was demanding for its barrels and bottles of wine, the association could simply hold onto its inventory until the recalcitrant wine merchants had run out of theirs.
Not surprisingly, such strong-arming did not sit well with growers, winemakers, and distributors not aligned with the C.W.A., which is why, by 1897, an all-out economic wine war was raging between the association and an upstart rival, the California Wine-Makers Corporation.
Because of its size and deep pockets, the C.W.A. had the upper hand on the economic battlefield. Under the leadership of president Percy Morgan, the association abandoned its 1893 tactics, which were designed to stabilize the wine market by holding the line on prices. Instead, it slashed the cost of its wine, undercutting Wine-Makers Corporation wineries. By 1900, that corporation’s three most important members, including the Italian-Swiss Colony winery of Sonoma County, had raised the white flag and joined the C.W.A. At the turn of the 20th century, membership in the C.W.A. was apparently the only way for a big California winery to survive.
The resolution of this battle between the dueling cartels paved the way for an unprecedented $1 million investment in the C.W.A. in 1901. The equivalent of around $28 million today, the funding infusion was led by an investment banker and Southern California vineyard owner named Isaias Hellman, who just so happens to be Dinkelspiel’s great-great-grandfather.
Even without the family connection, the C.W.A. would have found its way into Tangled Vines. But Dinkelspiel’s page-turner had only whetted my appetite for details about the monopoly and the circumstances that led to its creation, so I called up wine writer and publisher Gail Unzelman, whose The California Wine Association and Its Member Wineries, 1894-1920, co-authored with the late wine historian Ernest Peninou, is considered the definitive work on the subject.
As a publisher of books via Nomis Press and a respected wine quarterly called “Wayward Tendrils,” Unzelman has provided a platform for such esteemed wine writers and historians as Peninou, Thomas Pinney, and Charles Sullivan. As a collector for more than 40 years, she’s filled binder upon binder with wine ephemera such as labels and wine-related postcards, as well as a wine library that now boasts some 4,000 titles, most of them focused on California’s viticultural history.
“I think it’s about 3,917,” Unzelman corrects me when we speak. “I’m a very organized person, and I can still get through my house,” she adds. “It’s not like there’s stuff in the hallway—yet.”
One of the cornerstones of Unzelman’s book collection is a one-of-a-kind, handmade volume, which came to her almost by accident. “I was at an antiques show in Sacramento,” Unzelman recalls. “I asked a dealer there if she had anything on wine. She said, ‘No, not really, but I’ve got this old scrapbook here that’s got wine clippings in it.’ It was a nice scrapbook, leather-bound and very thick. It happened to be C.W.A. president Percy Morgan’s scrapbook.” The scrapbook sat in Unzelman’s closet with all her other binders and historical goodies for years, until Peninou came along with his draft of what became The California Wine Association and Its Member Wineries. “That Morgan scrapbook gave us a lot of information that wasn’t known at the time,” Unzelman says.
Unlike the board members of the C.W.A., who represented the crème de la crème of the California wine industry, Morgan was a money guy, which is to say he was an accountant, although his business card also bore a second, fancier title, “Financial Agent.” During the late 1880s, Morgan helped manage the financial affairs of such forgotten San Francisco firms as Nevada Gypsum & Fertilizer Co. and Pacific Auxiliary Fire Alarm Co., but in 1892, he gained a toehold in the world of wine by being named a director of the Samuel Lachman Estate Co., which managed the various holdings of the late Mr. Lachman, including his wine-merchant firm, S. Lachman Company. After their father’s passing, Samuel’s two sons aligned themselves with the C.W.A., turning over their two-million-gallon-capacity warehouse on Brannan Street in San Francisco to the association so it could store its wine there.
Other than the Morgan scrapbook, it’s a safe bet that a good portion of Unzelman’s source materials overlapped with those Dinkelspiel studied at the Bancroft Library on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. There, she learned about her family’s wine lineage, beginning with her great-great-grandfather’s winery in what was once a dusty speck of a town east of Los Angeles called Rancho Cucamonga. Southern California is where the state’s wine industry began, despite a plaque at the Buena Vista Winery in the Northern California county of Sonoma, which identifies the 1857 site as State of California Landmark number 392 and the “birthplace of California wine.”
In fact, Southern California’s place on the wine-history continuum begins in 1769, when the recently sainted Franciscan Father Junipero Serra founded the first of 21 California missions, including the one at San Juan Capistrano in 1776, where grape cuttings from Spain were planted. A few years later, at Mission San Gabriel Archangel near present-day Los Angeles, the fruit was found to thrive.
As Dinkelspiel describes it in Tangled Vines, the local Native Americans whose souls were supposedly being saved at Mission San Gabriel “were treated like slaves” by Father Jose Maria de Zalvidea, who directed them to clear 170 acres of chaparral-covered earth for row upon row of grape vines. “It was known as La Vina Madre, or the mother vineyard,” Dinkelspiel writes. “By 1829, the mission may have been producing from 400 to 600 barrels of wine a year.”
A decade later, in 1839, a former Mexican soldier named Tiburcio Tapia planted even more Mission grapes at the Cucamonga Rancho, about 30 miles due east of Mission San Gabriel. Back then California was still a part of Mexico, so Tapia got his 13,000 acres directly from the Mexican government. Before long, the Cucamonga Vineyard, as it came to be called, covered more than 600 acres of the Rancho, making it a more accurate birthplace of the California wine industry. Sorry, Sonoma.
By 1848, California was a territory of the United States—statehood followed in 1850. After numerous changes in ownership, which Dinkelspiel covers in often bloody detail in Tangled Vines, in 1870, Isaias Hellman purchased the Cucamonga Rancho and Vineyard in a sheriff’s sale to settle various claims against the Rancho and satisfy its debts. It’s not known for sure if any of the grapes still growing at the Cucamonga Vineyard in 1870 had been taken directly from cuttings at La Vina Madre, but the character of the wine produced there was probably not markedly different from the sweet, sacramental stuff made for Serra and de Zalvidea.
This raises an interesting question: What did 19th-century California wine taste like, anyway? “It’s so undocumented,” Unzelman says. “I had a conversation recently with someone who was looking for tasting notes from that period, but they didn’t describe wine like we do today. They would analyze a wine and say it had good acid, that it was bold, that it was red. Sometimes they might say a wine was ‘velveteen,’ but they wouldn’t have said it had raspberry, blackberry, or cherry ‘notes.’ They didn’t talk about wine that way.”
“A sweet aphrodisiacal scent filled the air. The aroma, cooped up inside a bottle for ninety-three years, rushed out.”
Even so, we do have a few clues. To begin, we know that a sizable percentage of the wine produced in Southern California was fortified with brandy to lengthen its shelf life and increase its alcohol content. One type of fortified wine produced at the Cucamonga Vineyard before and during Hellman’s 40-year ownership of the property was port. Another was Angelica, which was actually an unfermented, fortified, grape-juice-based beverage rather than a wine per se—in wine circles, a blend of this type is called a mistelle.
If you could time-travel a bottle of Angelica from the Southern California of that era to a restaurant like Boulevard today, it would not make the wine list. This is not a guess. In the middle of the 19th century, the state’s wine was routinely sneered at by wine aficionados and, more importantly, wine merchants in New York, who also purchased wine from local sources in the eastern United States, as well as from European wineries. Before the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, California wine had to be shipped in “pipes” (large barrels holding about 125 gallons each) around South America’s Cape Horn.
Was it worth the effort? In 1862, a professional wine taster in New York dismissed what was considered one of the best Los Angeles-area Angelicas, made by Sainsevain Brothers, as follows: “A bottle full of it contains I don’t know how many headaches.”
With praise like that, it makes you wonder why Hellman was so keen to get his hands on the Cucamonga Vineyard in 1870. Dinkelspiel thinks she knows the reason. “I cannot speak to how much he loved wine,” she says of her great-great-grandfather’s motivations, “but he was very intrigued by the future of wine and agriculture. He was trying to make it a viable business.”
In 1901, therefore, the C.W.A. represented a new investment opportunity for Hellman in a familiar agricultural sector. Hellman may have had holdings and roots—literally—in Rancho Cucamonga, but he could plainly see that the industry was moving north. Sure, the Mission grapes that produced sweet, fortified wines like port did well in the south, but the climate was poorly suited to varietals that would produce the dry table wines that were becoming increasingly popular for daily drinking. Growers quickly discovered that counties like Sonoma and Napa were better for that. Sorry, SoCal.
Indeed, in 1870, the same year Hellman bought the Cucamonga Vineyard and its hundreds of acres of Mission grapevines at a sheriff’s sale, more visionary agricultural entrepreneurs were already planting neat rows of Zinfandel grapes in Sonoma. There, and on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains in Napa, the seeds of the modern age of California winemaking were being sown, which perhaps accounts for the confusion of California’s official historians.
The data tell the tale of this migration north. In 1858, more than 46 percent of all the grapes grown and harvested in California came from the Los Angeles Viticultural District, home to the Cucamonga Vineyard. That year, Napa and Sonoma combined accounted for less than 10 percent’s of the state’s total production. A decade later, though, the two northern California counties were on par with Los Angeles, and by 1890, Napa and Sonoma could claim more than 50 percent of the state’s total acreage in wine grapes, compared to less than 10 percent for L.A. Meanwhile, sweet-wine production was moving to the San Joaquin Valley. In short, Southern California no longer represented the future of California winemaking, and Hellman knew it.
As a businessman, you’d think Hellman might have balked at the idea of investing in an obvious monopoly, but according to Thomas Pinney in The Makers of American Wine, the C.W.A. “escaped attention from the Department of Justice,” because antitrust laws at the time applied only to staple commodities, which the C.W.A. successfully argued wine was not. Similarly, the independent wine firms that became a part of the C.W.A. remained independent in their management after being subsumed into the C.W.A., presenting a veneer of competition between allegedly autonomous members, even though no such competition existed in practice.
But the most important salve against antitrust action, Pinney writes, was the policy of keeping retail wine prices reasonable—if there was no price-gouging, regulators were encouraged to reason, how bad could this so-called monopoly really be? In fact, low prices were fine if you were a consumer, but, as Pinney writes, it “was of no apparent concern” to regulators that “in order to maintain modest prices, it might be necessary to gouge the grape grower and the winemaker.” In fact, that gouging was exactly what precipitated the formation of the California Wine-Makers Corporation and triggered the wine wars of the 1890s.
Stabilizing prices turned out to be the simplest part of the C.W.A.’s job. Trickier was controlling its wines’ reputation, which, at the turn of the 20th century, largely meant changing the way wine was bought and sold. To this end, the C.W.A. encouraged the practice of only shipping wine bottled and labeled in California to cities in the Midwest and on the eastern seaboard, since shipping wine in bulk clearly invited fraud.
Here’s how it worked: Throughout the late 1800s, wine was routinely sold in large barrels known as pipes. Upon receipt of a pipe of perfectly good California wine, local wine merchants would often blend the liquid to suit their tastes. More notoriously, a pipe of eastern rotgut that a merchant may have been forced to acquire in a bulk purchase might be blended with a pipe of much better California wine before being bottled and sold with the local merchant’s “California-grown” label on it. Naturally, if a consumer bought a bottle of alleged California wine that left a bad taste in their mouth, they’d think twice before buying another, weakening overall demand.
The C.W.A. was just beginning to make headway on this ambitious goal of shipping only bottled wine when the San Francisco earthquake struck on April 18, 1906. Since its founding in 1894, San Francisco had been C.W.A.’s main base of business operations, the place where deals were struck and millions of gallons of wine was warehoused in sites across the city. After the ground stopped shaking, this geographic diversification looked like it had been a good idea since most of the C.W.A.’s structures survived. But then came the fires, which consumed most of the C.W.A.’s warehouses. According to Charles Sullivan in the April 2006 edition of Unzelman’s “Wayward Tendrils,” “Of the twenty-eight commercial wine establishments in the city, twenty-five were destroyed.”
The most famous C.W.A. survivor was the Italian-Swiss Colony cellar at Battery and Greenwich Streets near the San Francisco waterfront. It still stands there today, thanks to the Colony’s founder, Andrea Sbarboro, who directed employees to flood the warehouse’s roof with water pumped from a spring on the property. “We fought unceasingly for three days and three nights,” Sbarboro would later write of the battle to keep the fires raging around him from reaching the Italian-Swiss Colony building. Two million gallons of C.W.A. wine were saved.
Another two million were salvaged from the C.W.A.’s main headquarters, at Third and Bryant Streets, but not before “the wooden tanks and casks came apart in the fire storm,” as Sullivan describes it. The spilled wine might have washed into the streets as it had at other warehouses, but a “plugged sewer line” and the building’s solid concrete walls and floor kept the sloshing wine within the structure. Suddenly, the building itself had become a wine cellar, which enabled the C.W.A. to pump the precious liquid through fire hoses to a small fleet of barges, which were towed to Stockton in the San Joaquin Valley, where the wine was distilled into brandy.
“Of the twenty-eight commercial wine establishments in the city, twenty-five were destroyed.”
That was an acceptable solution to a difficult circumstance, since the distillation process neutralized the contaminants in the spilled C.W.A. wine, but the marketing plan for 35,000 bottles of wine that had not been destroyed at Third and Bryant was a good deal sketchier. “These bottles were supposedly cased with a special label as a souvenir of the disaster,” writes a skeptical Sullivan in “Wayward Tendrils,” and the wine was advertised as having been “mellowed and ripened and aged by the heat,” a specious claim at best. “Of course this is a very expensive way to produce fine wines,” read another C.W.A. announcement, “and the Association will certainly not endeavor to repeat their success.”
In fact, Sullivan suggests these 35,000 bottles might never have existed at all, except perhaps in the overheated imagination of a public-relations flack. “I have never seen any such label,” Sullivan writes. “Neither have I read anything about their later release or heard a word from anyone who has ever seen one.”
Dean Walters hasn’t seen one, either, which is saying a lot since he was long the leading dealer of California wine ephemera. Today, Walters runs the Early California Wine Trade Museum and is working to create a museum to house his and a few others’ sizable collections. “We hope to find space in an existing institution to exhibit our materials in a gallery setting and safely archive our materials,” Walters says. “The intent is to have changing displays focusing on wineries, districts, or special subjects.”
One subject might well be Winehaven, which Percy Morgan set out to build almost immediately after the fires caused by the earthquake had died down—the association would battle its insurance companies, who refused to pay legitimate fire-insurance claims, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally ruled in its favor in 1910. Strategically located at Point Molate in Richmond, Winehaven allowed Morgan to consolidate the C.W.A.’s activities in one place, which he believed would be economically more efficient than having lots of warehouses spread all over San Francisco.
It was. The east side of San Francisco Bay, which lacked bridges at the time, was also closer to transcontinental railroad lines than San Francisco, while its rail-equipped deep-water dock anticipated the shipping lane that would open through the Panama Canal in 1914. In addition, the pier made it easy to offload grapes grown in Napa and Sonoma counties, which could be sent down the Napa and Petaluma Rivers and across the bay to Winehaven for the fall crush. Some 25,000 tons of grapes were crushed at Winehaven in 1907, and in 1908, workers handled 45,000 tons of fruit, producing more than 675,000 gallons of wine that year.
Beyond its winemaking, bottling, and storage capabilities, Winehaven offered C.W.A. members cooperage services to help replace the thousands of tanks, barrels, and casks that had been destroyed in the 1906 fires. The oak for such containers had come from Arkansas and Tennessee, but after the 1906 earthquake, suppliers in those states jacked up prices by 40 percent. Coopers at Winehaven, therefore, turned to good old California redwood, which meant wine-storage containers of all sizes could be built for less than half the cost of oak ones.
Architecturally, the crown jewel of Winehaven was Building One, which was clad in brick and featured “crenelated parapets and turrets on the corners,” to quote Sullivan. Like the C.W.A.’s headquarters at Third and Bryant Streets in San Francisco, Building One’s floors and ceiling were made of poured concrete, further reinforced by an inner skeleton of thick steel posts and beams. This construction method proved quite durable, surviving several decades of hard use by the Navy, which converted Point Molate into a fuel depot during World War II, as well as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which flattened a freeway and ruptured a section of the bridge between Oakland and San Francisco.
For Percy Morgan’s purposes, Winehaven was durable enough to help the C.W.A. solidify its hold on the California wine industry. By 1909, the Calwa Distributing Company was formed “to bring the consumer, in glass, the best wines of the California Wine Association,” as Peninou and Unzelman put it in their book. Calwa and Ca-dis-co became two of the C.W.A.’s biggest brands of “pure reliable wines,” as they were advertised.
Unfortunately, keeping the C.W.A. on its feet after the earthquake and during the construction of Winehaven had come at the price of Morgan’s health—by 1911, he would retire from the C.W.A. after 15 years at its helm, retreating to Europe for three years of “rest and recuperation” before returning home to serve on numerous boards (Stanford University among them) and build a three-story, half-timbered mansion south of San Francisco known as Morgan Manor.
Despite Morgan’s exit from the C.W.A., the second decade of the 20th century began well for the association. “When the 1910 European vintage was virtually wiped out by bad weather,” Peninou and Unzelman write, “the California wine industry correspondingly prospered.” That’s one reason why, by 1913, the association was investing in numerous improvements and expansions at Winehaven.
At the same time, though, the C.W.A.’s future was cloudy. The association’s aging leaders were literally dying off, the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 had slowed exports, and, most ominously of all, the growing Prohibition movement in the United States suggested that it was only a matter of time before the C.W.A.’s very livelihood—selling alcoholic beverages—would be illegal.
In fact, the association first acted on the threat of Prohibition in 1907, when it began producing grape juice in earnest. By the end of 1909, the C.W.A. was selling both still and sparkling non-alcoholic grape drinks—produced in red (Zinfandel) and white (Muscatel) at a facility in the San Joaquin Valley—under the Calwa brand. “Calwa Grape Juice Steadies the Nerves,” promised one advertisement. The slogan may well have been a subconscious attempt to steady the nerves of C.W.A. officials, too.
Other C.W.A. actions betrayed more overt alarm. As early as 1908, the C.W.A. had been slowing its purchases of grapes from its growers, lest its inventories grow too quickly, and in 1909, it published a 62-page booklet promoting the enlightened ideal of temperance versus outright Prohibition, quoting Thomas Jefferson and St. Paul to make its case. Congress didn’t help matters when, in 1915, it raised the tax on the brandy used to fortify port and other C.W.A. products from three to 55 cents per gallon. And then, in 1916, the C.W.A. found itself fighting a pair of pro-Prohibition amendments on the California ballot, reprinting and distributing hundreds of thousands of copies of a booklet titled “How Prohibition Would Affect California” to help sway public opinion.
In the end, California voters rejected both measures, but this victory at the ballot box would not derail the Prohibition movement. Since the C.W.A. could see that it would not be long before Prohibition would become the law of the land, it began to rid itself of the millions of gallons of wine it had in storage at Winehaven. But 1917 was a very bad year to be selling wine. By the end of the year, Congress had passed the 18th Amendment banning the “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” which was promptly sent to the states for ratification.
With the market for its goods soft at home, the C.W.A. looked internationally for buyers, but the war in Europe made exports to that region problematic, and even after war ended in November 1918, Europe was an economic shambles, making it a poor customer for California wine. One of the few bright spots in the C.W.A.’s efforts to liquidate its liquid assets came from former C.W.A. nemesis—and 1906 savior—Italian-Swiss Colony, which managed to sell 84,000 cases of its Golden State champagne into Asian markets for more than $1 million.
All this made Percy Morgan, the man who had done more than anyone to make the C.W.A. the force it had become, inconsolable. On the morning of April 16, 1920, just three months after the passage of the Volstead Act, which put regulatory teeth in the 18th Amendment, the C.W.A.’s former leader, still in his pajamas, walked into the library of Morgan Manor, raised a shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger.
Meanwhile, the increasingly desperate C.W.A. was trying to relocate its grape-juice business from the San Joaquin Valley to Winehaven, but this costly effort failed to generate the revenues needed to keep the enterprise afloat. As for its wine inventory, it was slowly sold as the law permitted—some export licenses were granted after Prohibition, and some of the liquid in the barrels at Winehaven were sold as sacramental wine, bringing the story of California’s wine history full circle.
As it turns out, a small amount of the wine stored at Winehaven may have been owned by the heirs of Isaias Hellman, who passed away from natural causes about a week before Morgan’s violent end. According to Frances Dinkelspiel, there were two types of Hellman wine that may have been stored at Winehaven at the beginning of Prohibition, port and Angelica, both made from Mission grapes that had been planted as early as 1839 by Tiburcio Tapia. The Hellman wine was not that old—it was crushed in 1875—and it would not be bottled until 1921, when a Santa Rosa company, Grace Bros. Brewing, purchased the C.W.A. name and remaining wine inventory at Winehaven.
“Joseph Grace was a family friend,” Dinkelspiel says. “I don’t know this for a fact, but I speculate that he found these barrels and bottled them up for the family. During Prohibition, there were a lot of restrictions on wine, but you could make and own a certain amount of ‘home’ wine. Anyway, that’s what I think happened.”
Dinkelspiel estimates that probably no more than 600 bottles of her great-great-grandfather’s wine were filled in 1921, about half in port and half in Angelica. One of Dinkelspiel’s cousins ended up with less than a third of those bottles, 175 of which were stored in the wine warehouse that was torched by an arsonist in 2005—the primary subject of her book—obliterating her most tangible connection to her family’s wine legacy. For Dinkelspiel, the warehouse fire was not just a juicy story, it was personal.
After reading her book, gulping its chapters like so many glasses of Far Niente Chardonnay at Boulevard, I realized I needed to see Winehaven for myself. To that end, Dinkelspiel got me in touch with Bobby Winston, who owns a publication called “Bay Crossings.” In turn, Winston introduced me to Willie Agnew, who is the caretaker at Point Molate and the guy who actually showed us around, doing everything from leading us onto Building One’s sunny roof to unlocking the structure’s mysterious basement.
As I quickly learned, Winston is one of Winehaven’s biggest boosters. He believes the property, now designated as the Winehaven National Historic District, is a natural spot for thoughtful redevelopment, including a winery. After all, it’s got all that wine history going for it, plus unobstructed views across the bay to Mount Tamalpais in Marin, making it a natural future tourist destination. Having grown during its naval years, Winehaven now stands at 71 acres, which Winston believes make it big enough to support a variety of small businesses, whose rent checks would help pay for its upkeep, similar to the successful private-public partnership at the historic Presidio in San Francisco.
Today, Building One is still the most iconic structure at Point Molate. Walking the grounds, one can almost picture the site’s winemaking and naval history being told through interpretive displays and exhibits. Wandering inside the empty structure, one can equally imagine the rows of redwood casks, filled with millions of gallons of wine, that must have consumed this now-silent space. The bones of the building would probably support such tonnage still, but the unreinforced brick walls inside and out would be costly to bring up to code—the building’s signature brick turrets are currently held in place by wide rings of aluminum.
Making such band-aid reinforcements permanent, as well as figuring out which of the other remaining Winehaven structures are worth saving, would probably only be a small part of the cost of bringing new life to the historic site. Substantial infrastructure improvements would be required before the first glass of wine was poured in Winehaven’s first tasting room. According to a report prepared by Winston for Richmond’s mayor, Tom Butt, Point Molate lacks electrical power, which is why this section of bayfront is still dark at night—if you ever find yourself driving east across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge after sundown, look to your left, and you’ll see what I mean.
Plumbing is also a major problem. All of the water to the area flows through a single 12-inch pipe, and there is no collection system to send sewage in the opposite direction. Finally, there’s the road, which is just a single lane in each direction, with little room on either side for widening. And while there’s an exit off Interstate 580 to Point Molate if you are heading west, eastbound visitors must navigate a tangle of poorly marked boulevards, drives, and avenues. All of which explains why Winston, despite his enthusiasm and affection for Winehaven, believes the process of figuring out what to do with the site is probably decades away.
For her part, Dinkelspiel has Winehaven to thank for preserving those precious bottles of 19th-century Hellman wine, even if the bulk of her inheritance was torched by an arsonist in 2005. Fortunately, she kept a couple of bottles of Hellman in her home. By the end of Tangled Vines, curiosity about what’s in those bottles has gotten the best of her, so she determines to taste their contents with an expert whose palate is at least on par with that 1862 taster who had written off the best Angelica in Southern California as being little more than a bottle of headaches. In fact, Dinkelspiel found an individual whose palate is no doubt light-years more discerning, a master sommelier named Fred Dame.
As she tells it in her book, Dame is a tough sell at first, but eventually Dinkelspiel convinces him to let her bring her last bottle of her great-great-grandfather’s port to Dame’s home so they may taste it and let the chips fall where they may. In Tangled Vines, she describes the care Dame takes to break the wax seal from the top of the bottle, and the way he eases the corkscrew into the cork. It crumbles, but is still moist at the bottom, a good sign.
“Almost immediately,” Dinkelspiel writes, “a sweet aphrodisiacal scent filled the air. I was standing about four feet away from the bottle yet I could smell the Port’s fumes. The aroma, cooped up inside a bottle for ninety-three years, rushed out.”
The translucent liquid itself, she writes, is dark amber, “almost the color of the redwood it was once stored in.” And then Dame pours two glasses, and for the first time in her life, Dinkelspiel brings her great-great-grandfather’s wine to her lips. “I lifted my glass and let the Port swirl over my tongue,” she writes. “I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of flavor. Sweetness exploded over my taste buds, followed by a pleasant sharpness.”
“It has a wonderful old clay smell that I love,” she quotes Dame as saying. “It has almost a sour cherry quality to it, like cherries soaked in brandy,” Dame says, concluding with his much-anticipated verdict: “It’s phenomenal.”
Maybe that’s why Hellman invested in the Cucamonga Vineyard. And maybe, just maybe, that other Southern California Angelica, ripped to shreds by a grumpy New York taster in 1862, got a bad rap. “I’ve never tasted the Angelica,” Dinkelspiel says. “A family member who has tasted it said it’s very good. I do have one bottle of Angelica,” she adds. “I’m kind of tempted to open it one day, but I haven’t—yet.”
(Thanks to Frances Dinkelspiel, Dean Walters, Gail Unzelman, Bobby Winston, and Willie Agnew for their help with this story. To learn more about California’s wine history, pick up a copy of Tangled Vines, and be sure to visit Nomis Press and the Early California Wine Trade Museum. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)
Nice set up for the story. And it’s true, you could wow other San Franciscans with this story because many of them have only lived in the city briefly. But a story like this about wine in San Luis Obispo county told to people in SLO? No. No way.
What a wonderful article Ben!
This article mistakenly attributes the birthplace of California’s wine industry to the Cucamonga Vineyard. While it is the oldest California winery still in existence, it was NOT the first commercial vineyard.
California’s first commercial vineyard belonged to Jean Louis Vignes, who established his El Aliso vineyard on land he bought in 1831 (near the present-day site of Union Station). It was successful enough that by 1839 – the year the Cucamonga Vineyard was founded – Vignes’ nephews moved from France to Los Angeles to help him run the vineyard (which was the largest in the state by 1849) and other business interests. (I have two books backing me up on this: “The French in Southern California History and the Southland Today” and “A Companion to California Wine”, 1998 edition. And I don’t even drink!)
I am surprised this omission was made, since the author is aware of the Sainsevain brothers – who just so happened to be Jean Louis Vignes’ nephews!
I gained more knowledge about the wine industry. Thank you for the historical facts. Pleasure reading.
In 1982 as an amateur I processed grapes (Seval and Vidal) from DiGrazia Vineyard in Brookfield, CT and experienced a world unique from any other.
Actually, the San Gabriel Mission produced wine on an industrial scale well before Vignes.
My great grandparents and my grandparents lived and worked at Winehaven. It’s great to see this wonderful write up of California wine history. Some great photos, too. thank you.