EL ALISO / THE SAINSEVAIN WINERY, by Harris Newmark

“Jean Louis Vignes came to Los Angeles in 1829, and set out the Aliso Vineyard of one hundred and four acres which derived its name, as did the street, from a previous and incorrect application of the Castilian aliso, meaning alder, to the sycamore tree, a big specimen of which stood on the place. This tree, possibly a couple of hundred years old, long shaded Vignes’ wine-cellars, and was finally cut down a few years ago to make room for the Philadelphia Brew House. From a spot about fifty feet away from the Vignes adobe extended a grape arbor perhaps ten feet in width and fully a quarter of a mile long, thus reaching to the river; and this arbor was associated with many of the early celebrations in Los Angeles. The northern boundary of the property was Aliso Street; its western boundary was Alameda; and part of it was surrounded by a high adobe wall, inside of which, during the troubles of the Mexican War, Don Louis enjoyed a far safer seclusion than many others. On June 7th, 1851, Vignes advertised El Aliso for sale, but it was not subdivided until much later, when Eugene Meyer and his associates bought it for this purpose. Vignes Street recalls the veteran viticulturist.

While upon the subject of this substantial old pioneer family, I may give a rather interesting reminiscence as to the state of Aliso Street at this time. I have said that this street was the main road from Los Angeles to the San Bernardino country; and so it was. But in the fifties, Aliso Street stopped very abruptly at the Sainsevain Vineyard, where it narrowed down to one of the willow-bordered, picturesque little lanes so frequently found here, and paralleled the noted grape-arbor as far as the river-bank. At this point, Andrew Boyle and other residents of the Heights and beyond were wont to cross the stream on their way to and from town. The more important travel was by means of another lane known as the Aliso Road, turning at a corner occupied by the old Aliso Mill and winding along the Hoover Vineyard to the river. Along this route the San Bernardino stage rolled noisily, traversing in summer or during a poor season what was an almost dry wash, but encountering in wet winter raging torrents so impassable that all intercourse with the settlements to the east was disturbed. For a whole week, on several occasions, the San Bernardino stage was tied up, and once at least Andrew Boyle, before he had become conversant with the vagaries of the Los Angeles River, found it impossible for the better part of a fortnight to come to town for the replenishment of a badly-depleted larder. Lovers’ Lane, willowed and deep with dust, was a narrow road now variously located in the minds of pioneers; my impression being that it followed the line of the present Date Street, although some insist that it was Macy.

Pierre Sainsevain, a nephew of Vignes, came in 1839 and for a while worked for his uncle. Jean Louis Sainsevain, another nephew, arrived in Los Angeles in 1849 or soon after, and on April 14th, 1855, purchased for forty-two thousand dollars the vineyard, cellars and other property of his uncle. This was the same year in which he returned to France for his son Michel and remarried, leaving another son, Paul, in school there. Pierre joined his brother; and in 1857 Sainsevain Brothers made the first California champagne, first shipping their wine to San Francisco. Paul, now a resident of San Diego, came to Los Angeles in 1861. The name endures in Sainsevain Street.

The activity of these Frenchmen reminds me that much usually characteristic of country life was present in what was called the city of Los Angeles, when I first saw it, as may be gathered from the fact that, in 1853, there were a hundred or more vineyards hereabouts, seventy-five or eighty of which were within the city precincts. These did not include the once famous ‘mother vineyard’ of San Gabriel Mission, which the padres used to claim had about fifty thousand vines, but which had fallen into somewhat picturesque decay. Near San Gabriel, however, in 1855, William M. Stockton had a large vineyard nursery. William Wolfskill was one of the leading vineyardists, having set out his first vine, so it was said, in 1838, when he affirmed his belief that the plant, if well cared for, would flourish a hundred years!

With the decline in the fresh fruit trade, however, the making and exportation of wine increased, and several who had not ventured into vineyarding before, now did so, acquiring their own land or an interest in the establishments of others. By 1857, Jean Louis Vignes boasted of possessing some white wine twenty years old…

While on the subject of vineyards, I may describe the method by which wine was made here in the early days and the part taken in the industry by the Indians, who always interested and astounded me. Stripped to the skin, and wearing only loin-cloths, they tramped with ceaseless tread from morn till night, pressing from the luscious fruit of the vineyard the juice so soon to ferment into wine. The grapes were placed in elevated vats from which the liquid ran into other connecting vessels; and the process exhaled a stale acidity, scenting the surrounding air. These Indians were employed in the early fall, the season of the year when wine is made and when the thermometer as a rule, in Southern California, reaches its highest point; and this temperature coupled with incessant toil caused the perspiration to drip from their swarthy bodies into the wine product, the sight of which in no wise increased my appetite for California wine.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of Project Gutenberg, The Internet Archive, “Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913 Containing the Reminiscences of Harris Newmark,” by Harris Newmark, Maurice H. Newmark, Marco R. Newmark, May 10, 2013. (top) Image courtesy of the Huntington Digital Library, Maps, “Map showing the location of the old Zanja Madre, ditches, vineyards and Old Town, etc..,” by M. Kelleher, May 7, 1875

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