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.
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.
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.
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.
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.