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The Bordeaux That Nearly Was

Mar 18, 2013
A2 15 1 Hastings ranch1 630x492 The Bordeaux That Nearly Was winemaking Shorb San Gabriel Wine Company san gabriel valley Pasadena wine Pasadena history Benjamin Wilson  photo

Vineyards in Hastings Ranch in the late 19th century. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (A2-15-1)

When we think of California wine today, we think of Napa, Sonoma and the Santa Ynez Valley, but from the 1850s until the 1880s, the San Gabriel Valley was by far the largest wine-producing region in the state.

Rows of grapes once stretched for thousands of acres in what is now Pasadena, South Pasadena, San Marino, San Gabriel and Arcadia, and beneath the streets and retail shops of Alhambra lies buried the foundation of what was once considered by many to be the largest winery in the world.

Viticulture in California began in the late 1760s with the arrival of the Spanish, who brought a variety of the common black grape that had originally been introduced to the Americas by Hernán Cortés in the 1500s. As they established the California mission system, they planted vineyards at each settlement from San Diego to Sonoma and began producing wine for Catholic Masses, as well as for daily life.

In 1771 Junipero Serra founded the San Gabriel Mission, in present-day San Gabriel, and its vineyards proved to be some of the most fruitful. Porous alluvial soil combined with a Mediterranean climate and an abundant (at the time) water supply to make an exceptional region for the “Mission Grape,” as it came to be known. By the early 1800s, the San Gabriel Mission was producing 50,000 gallons of wine a year.

For the Spanish, viticulture was intimately linked to their way of life. For early American settlers who migrated to Alta California in the 1840s, however, winemaking began to look like a profitable business venture.

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Benjamin Wilson in 1850.

One such settler was a Tennessee native named Benjamin D. Wilson (aka Don Benito Wilson), who arrived in California in 1841 at the age of 29. Originally seeking passage to China, Wilson instead settled in Southern California, began purchasing land, became a naturalized Mexican citizen and served as Los Angeles’s second mayor.

Seeing the potential of winemaking, Wilson purchased a substantial part of Rancho San Pasqual in 1854. Comprising much of present-day Pasadena, South Pasadena, San Marino and Alhambra, the land had water resources that would prove invaluable for agriculture. Many of the vineyards from the San Gabriel Mission still existed, and with these, he began to cultivate grapes, planting other varieties, such as Zinfandel, Grenache and Carignane.

Wilson’s business grew steadily, allowing him to develop Lake Vineyard into an elegant estate and to acquire more land in the early 1860s. Hiring skilled vintners to assist him, Wilson experimented with different wines and signed a contract with a San Francisco agent to distribute them to the rest of the country.

In 1867, Wilson’s daughter, Sue, married an enterprising young man from Baltimore named James de Barth Shorb. An adept businessman, Shorb saw great possibility in turning his father-in-law’s winemaking business into industry on a large scale.

Wilson took an immediate liking to the entrepreneurial Shorb, and the two soon became business partners under the name “B.D. Wilson & Co.” The partnership proved lucrative. By 1873, they had more than 230,000 grapevines and hundreds of orange, lime, lemon, olive and walnut trees.

Shorb was a master at corralling the region’s water resources. Using 300,000 feet of iron pipe — a novel idea at the time — and old tiles left over from Spanish dwellings, Shorb installed an elaborate irrigation system, complete with hydrants that could regulate the flow of water to crops. Selling these irrigation systems to neighboring farmers became a source of profit in itself.

One such neighbor was Leonard J. Rose, a German immigrant, who in 1879 built the Sunny Slope Winery in Lamanda Park, with 1,000 acres of grapes and a winery with a capacity of 500,000 gallons. Rose planted more than 35 varieties of grape, and his brandy quickly became a household name. Another was Los Angeles mayor Prudent Beaudry, who owned substantial land near the Arroyo Seco, which he used to open the San Rafael Winery around 1875.

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Prudent Beaudry’s San Rafael Winery in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (S2-5R).

Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who had made his fortune in the Gold Rush and owned 63,000 acres, followed suit, planting a 1,200-acre vineyard and building a successful winery in what is now Arcadia.

Gradually, Shorb assumed his father-in-law’s responsibilities, and after Wilson’s death in 1878, Shorb inherited the company. He wanted to expand further, so in 1882, he decided to build a new, larger winery. Backed by English investors, and utilizing inexpensive Chinese laborers (whom Shorb considered “smarter” than Mexicans or Native Americans), Shorb dynamited a hillside on his property and constructed the San Gabriel Wine Company. It cost $500,000 to build — more than $11 million in today’s dollars.

By any standards, the winery was massive. It had a capacity of 1,500,000 gallons, was capable of crushing nearly 250 tons of grapes a day, and had a telephone and its own one-and-a-half mile extension of the Southern Pacific Railroad leading to the winery’s warehouse. To save time and labor, the winery was built on a slope, so grapes harvested on the vineyards uphill could simply be dumped into slides, which carried them straight to the crushing facilities. Many visiting journalists (and Shorb himself) proudly proclaimed it the largest winery in the world.

sgabriel winery 300x186 The Bordeaux That Nearly Was winemaking Shorb San Gabriel Wine Company san gabriel valley Pasadena wine Pasadena history Benjamin Wilson  photo

A composite photo of the San Gabriel Wine Company in the 1880s. Image courtesy of City of Alhambra.

By the mid-1880s, there were hundreds of winemaking businesses in the San Gabriel Valley and other parts of Los Angeles County. Wine production in the region peaked somewhere between 1870 and 1885, and for a few halcyon years, it seemed that California’s wines might begin to rival Europe’s.

In the late 1880s, however, the local industry began to fall victim to “Anaheim disease” (later called “Pierce’s Disease” or Xylella fastidiosa), an insect-transmitted bacteria, which affected grape vines and other plants. At the same time, vintners began to grow wine in Northern California, using more modern methods and employing European immigrants, who were more familiar with viticulture than the Chinese and Mexican laborers of the San Gabriel Valley.

While the blight was not catastrophic, the panic it created led many investors to think grape-growing too risky an endeavor, and soon other crops, such as oranges and walnuts, had supplanted grapes.

Leonard Rose, perhaps foreseeing tough times ahead, got out of the business early, selling Sunny Slope to a British firm in 1887. Around the same time, Prudent Beaudry sold San Rafael Winery and the adjacent land to the Campbell-Johnston family of Pasadena.

Shorb struggled to keep the San Gabriel Wine Company afloat. He had made steady profits from 1882 to 1888, but the blight destroyed many of his vineyards, and in 1892, he was forced to close after just ten years in operation. Shorb died four years later, and the buildings were sold and converted into a felt factory in 1903. The last of the original buildings was demolished in 1987.

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The Sierra Madre Vintage company in 1920. They were one of the few wineries able to survive Prohibition. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (A2-15-3).

Of the wineries that survived the blight, many took a second hit with the passage of Prohibition in 1919. Showing its commitment to the new amendment, Los Angeles County enacted a law banning vineyards in all but industrial areas.

Strangely, one winery was able to survive and even thrive during the period. The Sierra Madre Vintage Company of Lamanda Park, incorporated in 1885, lasted well into the 1920s, through a loophole allowing wine production for religious sacraments, and by switching to production of table grapes and non-alcoholic grape juice. By the 1930s, however, nearly every major winery in the San Gabriel Valley had ceased operations.

Today, almost no trace remains of Pasadena’s viticultural heritage. Nevertheless, if you drive through the Lamanda Park neighborhood of Pasadena, you will find clues buried in the street names — Del Vina Street, Vine Aly, Vinedo Avenue, Vineyard Street.

A story, perhaps apocryphal, goes that a bottle of 1891 Cabernet from Shorb’s winery survived until 1955, when a lucky connoisseur came across it, and upon tasting it, declared it “a wine to be savored with pleasure and respect.” Sadly, the vineyards that produced it have been all but forgotten.




10 Responses for “The Bordeaux That Nearly Was”

  1. I don’t know how I missed this, but great history here. Thanks a brunch!!

  2. van Rooinek says:

    With all due respect, the So-Cal wine blight is misidentified in this article. Although the vine root louse (phylloxera) did indeed devastate the vineyards of Napa, Sonoma, and most of Europe, it was not a problem down here in So-Cal. The wine industry in San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys was wiped out by an entirely different pest, an insect-transmitted bacterial disorder that was then called ” the Anaheim disease of the grapevine”, today known as “Pierce’s disease” after the scientist who studied it.

    Indeed, the probable reason why we DON’T have phylloxera around here (yet), is because the vines were mostly wiped out by Pierce’s disease before phylloxera had a chance to spread this far south. To this day the phylloxera hasn’t spread further south than Santa Barbara. Although with the increase of new wine plantings lately, that is likely to change eventually — if a new Pierce’s disease epidemic doesn’t strike them down first. (Vignerons in Temecula, which is blessed with a soil type unsuitable for phylloxera, still must struggle with Pierce’s disease constantly.)

  3. Matt Hormann says:

    @ van Rooinek: Thank you for your careful cross-checking. I welcome all such comments on these pages.

    Most of the primary sources I consulted made little or no distinction between “Anaheim disease” and phylloxera, and some actually identified the blight specifically as phylloxera. I did a little more reading, however, and you appear to be right–”Pierce’s disease,” not phylloxera was the blight that affected Southern California’s crops. The confusion would make sense because both are insect-related diseases, and without expertise, it might be hard to differentiate between them. Writers at the time often simply identified Pierce’s disease as “a blight.”

    In any case, I have corrected the article accordingly, and appreciate your expertise on this subject. Take care, and thank you so much for reading my blog!

  4. [...] 1924 Beaudry’s San Rafael ranch sold the little mountain to William C Carr. His home still remains on the hill. The neighborhood [...]

  5. Diana B says:

    I wonder if you know where I might find a map outlining the boundaries of the Sierra Madre Vintage Company (or even if you just know the boundaries roughly by current-day streets)? I’m writing some short articles about historic sites along the route of the 2012 Pasadena Marathon for Pasadena Heritage and if the vineyard encompassed any of the route, it would make an interesting article, I think, since most people have no idea there were vineyards in the area. Thanks!

  6. I Live at 284 north vinedo and We belive that this is the last House on the vineyard that still stands . It is recorded to have been built in 1890 and The building to the south of us were thought to be the Main building of the Lamanda Park Vintage Company next to the Ranchero restaurant.

    I am interested in the history of lamanda Park and the train station that was there you can see it in the movie It’s A wonder full life with Jimmy Stewart.

    Does anyone know or have pictures of this part of town ??

  7. Suzanne Szalay says:

    Side story:
    My great grandparents (in their mid-20s) and a party of 30 people from Iowa ( including a Mrs. L. M. Baldwin) traveled to Pasadena in September 1887 in a special tourist sleeper (everyone brought there own bedding and curtains for privacy as well as provisions). In a book my great grandfather, Frank T. Clampitt, wrote about his life, he makes brief reference to this winery. Quoting from his book — “We reached Pasadena on a sunny afternoon and were taken to the Mulford place on North Raymond Avenue…the streets and shrubs were dust laden; there were few green lawns; the residences seemed largely of a cheap and temporary character. Altogether, it required a considerable effort of the imagination to find the place, as we first saw it, more attractive than any other new frontier town. That evening Ed (Jessup) called with horse and buggy and asked me to go with him to the Sierra Madre Villa where he had business with a certain Mr. Peavy, English manager of the Sunny Slope Ranch and Winery….The setting of the Sierra Madre Hotel and my visit next day to the English company’s establishment and vineyards south of Lamanda Park gave some insight into what could be done in that region — with money and water.” My great grandfather soon began working with Baldwin and Jessup, Real Estate and Surveying, doing surveying, and subdividing small tracts into “town lots”. He states that one of his jobs included staking out “one original ‘town site’ of some three hundred lots south of the Sunny Slope Ranch to be called ‘South San Gabriel.’ A part of this tract was an old orange orchard, but orchards and vineyards were just then giving way by wholesale to the town lot boomers. I think later this tract went back into acreage.”

  8. Kat Ward says:

    Thank you, Suzanne for sharing your family’s experiences. Sharing personal stories makes to our local history more accessible and increases our ability to relate, let alone that it makes a great story!

  9. JODY LORIN says:

    to david chandler
    i was born may 14 1935 in pasadena. i was raised and lived at 2740 e nina st, and still refer to this area as lamanda park. raised by my great grand parents, and uncles at that address until the 1950′s. my great uncle owned the grocery store called lmanda market on ea. colorado. i am writing because of the film you mentioned, made at the lamanda park train station.north san gabriel blvd use to dead end at walnut st.o that is where the statiion was located. i had beautiful pictures of it all lost in a flood sadly, and yes i watched the movie being made, along with my friends who’s uncle clyde use to be the trainmaster at the very station. i thought i was the only person left that knew that. it was a wonderful time of life for me…jody

  10. Matthew Reiser says:

    Photo appears to have been taken near the corner of present-day Alegria and Rexford, judging from sight lines of topography.

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