Southern Vineyards: The Economic Significance of the Wine Industry in the Development of Los Angeles, 1831-1870, by Cleve E. Kindall

“In downtown Los Angeles there is a brief, rather colorless street bearing the French name of Vignes, which means simply, vines. The area around this street was once dotted by thousands of grape vines and ‘vignes’ could well have described the area, but the precise derivation of the street name was the surname of the proprietor of one of the great vineyards, Jean Louis Vignes.

The Frenchman lived in Los Angeles during the 1800’s, and gave to all of California a unique gift of great social and economic importance. He, as a personality, has been forgotten. His gift has long since ceased to be identified with his name. There is little to remind us of the past existence of this Frenchman, Jean Louis Vignes — only, perhaps, that one brief street.

To appreciate what this individual accomplished, one must first understand the City’s early economic and social situation. It is important to realize that, as a child Los Angeles lived in a very unpromising environment. The City’s location, roughly twenty four miles inland, was not conducive to the development of commerce and trade. Her climate and geography when combined with certain social realities which will be investigated, made small, diversified agriculture a difficult and risky proposition.

The primary roadblock to the development of social order was the presence of a proud and turbulent California aristocracy who controlled the land. This class of men, largely the product of Spanish New World expansion and Mexican nationalism, was naturally opposed to any alien forces that might threaten their way of life. The backbone to that way of life, and the basis for the economic existence of Los Angeles, was the thousands upon thousands of cattle that grazed over the Southern California basin. The hides and tallow derived from these cattle represented the area’s only trading item up into the 1840’s.

It is interesting to note that in the history of North America’s westward movement, cattle raising never significantly aided in the stabilization of social and economic forces. The story was no different in Southern California. On the contrary, the cattle and land barons of this locale displayed an even more sharply defined individualism than was usually the case. That characteristic was also marked by strong hedonistic tendencies. Representing as they did the ruling order, their influence helped to shape the social character of the local population.

This impact of the cattle economy on the area is partially revealed in the population figures of the 1836 Mexican census, which included the entire Los Angeles District. While these figures are probably unreliable in the specific, they do give a general picture of the area’s relatively unstable society. At that time the population is reported to have numbered but 2,228 people. Of that number 553 were Indians, while some fifty, not including the Spaniards, were foreigners. Out of this total only 421 were women, and of the 250 townswomen, fifteen listed their occupation as mala vida. The Los Angeles pictured here gives little promise of reaching maturity, yet beneath the surface, permanent foundations for future growth were being laid. One of the most outstanding of these was the beginning of a commercial wine industry.

As we look back from today upon the city’s position in the 1830’s, it may appear that the fruit of the vine was one of the few products that could have met the area’s requirements for survival. For one thing, the threat of crop destruction by cattle did not endanger the vine because it could produce a large yield of grapes from a small area and for this reason the cost of a protective fence was not prohibitive. Another important factor is that the vines, which are capable of sending their roots into the earth to depths of forty feet and more in search of water, were established early. Any vine cutting could be grafted onto the stocks and would be producing grapes within a few years.

However, in spite of the fact that this product seems peculiarly suited for the conditions which prevailed in Los Angeles at that time, it would be incorrect for us to assume that what is obvious today must have been equally as obvious then. Such was not the case, for commercial use of this product did not take place because it was the logical result of the environment. That the possibilities of such a development were recognized and acted upon and thus became a reality can be attributed to one man, Jean Louis Vignes. Through his efforts, Los Angeles was to see its first commercial development.

For the purpose of this paper the most significant character possessed by this man, the one that made all else possible, is indicated in a quotation from the California historian, William H. Davis, a contemporary and friend of Vignes. ‘(Jean Vignes)… was one of the most valuable men who ever came to California, and the father of the wine industry here. He had an intelligent appreciation of the extent and importance of this interest in the future.’

Davis is one of the few who recognized this ‘intelligent appreciation’ which Vignes possessed and exploited for the benefit of California. Others have largely ignored his efforts or arbitrarily restricted them to premature experiments in horticulture. The reason for this neglect is not hard to find. The violence of this changing era caught the imagination of the historical writer to such an extent that Vignes, and those like him, were buried beneath thousands of words dealing, romantically and realistically, with the activities of revolution, politics, gold, crime, war, and cattle. Vignes did not directly influence any of these elements in California history. He did not even make known which political faction he favored. Behind the adobe walls of his ranch, the member of many differing political factions enjoyed his wine and respected his neutrality. The quality of the man and his hospitality was enough for them, and these were known far beyond the boundaries of California.

But the genial host and avid horticulturist were bound up in the same man who gave Los Angeles one of her first saw mills, labored to produce her first quality wine, and envisioned the possibilities of coastal trade with the North. Although Davis recognized this, he did not fully appreciate the critical role which the results of Vignes’ efforts accomplished when they rose to meet the economic needs of Los Angeles.

We know very little of the background that helped shape this Frenchman. However, with the bits of information which are available, it is possible to make some assumptions. He is reported to have been raised in the town of Cadillac, France, where he was born in 1779. This community is within the famous wine district of Bordeaux. Since Vignes was accomplished in both wine distilling and coopering, it would be reasonable to assume that his family was connected with wine making. In 1827 the family became involved in difficulties, but whether the nature of these were political or economic it is not known. It was because of these difficulties, however, that Vignes was forced to leave his family home to seek his livelihood in Hawaii. For a time he was employed by a trading firm, but the company, unable to maintain itself, went bankrupt, leaving the Frenchman with a number of religious statuettes and medals as payment for his services. With these in his possession he arrived in Monterey, California, in 1831, and, with a dispatch that does credit to his salesmanship, he had soon sold them all.

Later in the same year he arrived at the small pueblo of Los Angeles and, returning to his early trade, began making wine barrels for those land owners whose holdings surrounded the little community. Nostalgia for his native soil must have crept into the thoughts of this wandering Frenchman at that time. Once again he was surrounded by the gnarled stocks and broad leaves of the grape vine, thriving in a climate similar to that of his native Bordeaux. There, within Los Angeles, more than 100,000 vines of the Mission variety were cultivated.

The Mission vine, so-called from its origin and use, was purported to have been first cultivated in America by Father Juan Ugarte in 1697. From his vineyard in Baja California, the vines passed to the hands of the mission Fathers and were spread northward along the Camino Real. From Mission San Diego in 1770 to San Francisco de Solano in 1823, vineyards accompanied Christianity, step by step, as each new link in the mission chain emerged, for the wine from these was destined primarily for the altar.

In Los Angeles, these vines were cultivated by many not connected with the mission administration, and the grape juice was used to make aguardiente, or brandy, for local consumption. Some wine was made as well, but since these people had only wanted knowledge of the processes necessary for good wine, the quality of their product was poor. As further deterrent to a satisfactory result, the Mission vines produced a grape better suited to the table as fresh fruit. When crushed for wine, it lacked the delicacy and fruitiness of taste associated with quality vintage. These reasons, however, were secondary to the fact that the population at this time was not conscious of the need for a commercial wine product.. Their thoughts and actions were directed toward, and by, the basic factor in the economy at that time — cattle.

In 1831, some 76,000 head of Mexican bred cattle roamed over the flat basin of land in which Los Angeles was located. These cattle were allowed to shift for themselves, and, as a result, were largely bone and muscle. Since there was little demand for beef, no attempt was made to improve the herds. From time to time a rodeo was held to round up the stock, and large numbers of them were slaughtered for their hides and tallow. These two products were the city’s trading items and represented almost all of her business activity. William Davis estimates that over 62,500,000 pounds of tallow were shipped from the area in the years between 1826 and 1848. In the first half of the nineteenth century, he has placed the number of hides shipped from Los Angeles at a minimum of five million. Money was so scarce in the area that the hide became the common bartering item, and was often referred to as the ‘California banknote.’ This situation was essentially unchanged up to the time of the gold rush.

These were the economic conditions that Jean Vignes faced during his early days in Los Angeles. His experience and background turned him away from any connection with the city’s only major business, cattle, and led him towards the vine. He was able to recognize the shortcomings of the local vineyards, and, at the same time, realize the possibilities that the area represented. The soil and climate, he knew, could support an industry and produce wines comparable to Europe’s best. He is quoted as declaring that the area was ‘just the place to grow them [oranges and grape vines] to perfection.’

This, then, was the purpose and the vision Vignes had before him when he purchased, in 1831, one hundred and four acres of Los Angeles land. The new ranch, El Aliso , and its owner were quickly accepted by the local population, who respectfully referred to the Frenchman as Don Aliso.

He moved immediately to meet the technical and environmental requirements for quality wine. Recognizing the drawbacks of the Mission grape, he turned to his native land for a more suitable variety. From Bordeaux came cuttings of the Sauvignon Blanc and the Cabernet vines, which were grafted into the stocks of the Mission vines already growing on his land. His faith in their adaptability to this new environment proved sound and Vignes became the first to import successfully a foreign variety of grape vine to California.

Once these cuttings began to bear, the production of quality wine depended on Vignes’ knowledge of the intricate processing. His first vintage is said to have been in 1837. By the year 1839, he had 40,000 vines upon his land and wine aging in the cool recesses of his cellars. Did these efforts produce the quality which he felt possible? We can only take the word of his contemporaries, and of these, William Davis and J. J. Warner were both historians and men of recognized good taste. The first, in reporting a well known incident in California history (the apology delivered by Commodore Thomas ap Gatesby Jones of the U.S. Navy to Governor Manuel Micheltorena for the impulsive capture of Monterey, in 1842), states that Vignes ‘delighted’ the Commodore and his officers as well as the Governor at a social meeting with ‘wine eight or ten years old and of fine quality’. On another occasion, William Davis mentioned that Vignes’ choice old wine could be drank with impunity. It had an agreeable, exhilarating and strengthening effect, but no unpleasant after consequences.’ Don Warner’s tribute to Don Aliso’s wine making skill is almost too magniloquent. ‘Vignes,’ he wrote, ‘could produce from his cellars a brand perhaps unexcelled through the world.’

From these quotations it becomes apparent that Jean Vignes had succeeded in his first purpose — to produce fine wine from the soil of Los Angeles. This was not the end, but the beginning of Vignes’ hopes. With a good wine he could begin to develop a successful wine trade. In 1840 he began to search for markets to the North. So it was that the aged wines of El Aliso found their way to the communities of Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco.

By 1842 he was making regular shipments to these towns, where he received four dollars per gallon for his brandy and two dollars per gallon for his wine. In little more than ten years he had realized all of his earlier visions and became the proprietor of the largest commercial vineyard in California as well.

The importance of this growing industry and the establishment of trade with the North are obvious. There is, however, even another service which Vignes made to California. In a number of letters to his relatives in France, he wrote of his enthusiasm for the potentials inherent in this new land. He asked his relatives and intelligent countrymen to leave France and join him in the development of of California. We cannot be certain of the exact number of these Frenchmen who, caught by the enthusiasm of Jean Vignes, came to California, but it is known that some did and that the efforts of that number were important to the growth of the state. Men such as the Sainsevains, nephews of Vignes’, and Victor Prudhomme, who aided in developing the Cucamonga area, came — to the betterment of the country.

After twenty-four years of this labor of love, the respected Don sold his entire holdings to his nephews, Pierre and Jean Sainsevain, for forty-two thousand dollars, the largest real estate transaction in Los Angeles to that date. When the Sainsevain Brothers took over El Aliso, it was the most extensive vineyard in California, with 40,000 vines, 32,000 of them bearing, capable of producing 1,000 barrels of wine annually.

At the time of the sale of El Aliso in 1855, Los Angeles had established her supremacy in quality wine production and was steadily developing her wine trade with the North. What Vignes had begun almost single-handedly was now moving ahead through the work of many. His successes, and the increased demand for wine, which was created by the flow of gold hunters into the State, attracted new personalities into the growing industry. Some of these new figures, such as William Wolfskill, and Kohler, and Frohling, had been producing wine prior to the gold rush days.

Wolfskill, an ex-trapper, had settled in Los Angeles about the same time that Vignes did. Both men were interested in wine but Wolfskill centered his attention on experimentation with oranges and entered into the grape trade with San Francisco.

Kohler and Frohling represented the largest wine firm Southern Vineyards Southern California in 1857. In that year they produced 60,000 gallons of wine. This firm later established the first exclusively California wine house in New York. In 1868 they sent some of their wines to Germany, Denmark and other European countries where they proved equal to the best German wines.

The Sainsevain Brothers were also active after they purchased Vignes’ winery. They experimented with champagne and their efforts resulted in the brand called ‘Sparkling Californian,’ which was reported to have been of fair quality. In 1861, they joined with Benjamin Wilson, another vineyardist, to make the first large shipment of Californian wines to New York.

The efforts of these men were to play an exceedingly important role in the economic life of Los Angeles in the early 1860’s. At that time, the city received a shock which threatened her very existence. This shock was caused by the collapse of the cattle industry which, along with the products of the vine, had been enjoying a period of unprecedented activity resulting from the gold rush.

The onslaught of the forty-niners created a need for beef as well as a demand for grapes and wine. Before long, the cattle ranchers were swept into a period of almost unbelievable prosperity. In spite of the poor quality of their herds, the ranchers were soon receiving thirty and forty dollars a head where they had formerly received four dollars. However, there were gaping flaws in this type of economy, and it was not long before they began to be visible to any who cared to look.

To begin with, the California rancher was not prepared for this boom. To have his simple economy shattered in this fashion had extravagant results. The ranchers began to spend money as though they had no understanding of its value at all, and, indeed, it is more than likely that they did not appreciate its significance. They borrowed on their present and future herds in order to expand. They became extravagant in the extreme. Without economic experience or knowledge, and without analytical ability, they accepted their sudden prosperity as a normal and healthy situation. It was psychology of most booms — the end was never considered.

But the very environment on which this wild, almost primitive industry thrived, began to destroy it. Law and order almost disappeared. The violence and lawlessness of the mining camps could not compare with the anarchy that spread over Southern California. Cattle thieves and organized bands of outlaws operated with devastating effect on the uncontrolled herds. Indian attacks from the south and east added to the depreciation. Human life and property were cheap and cattle were as good as gold.

On top of these difficulties, the California ranchers were faced by a Congress that proved hostile to their interests. Prior to statehood, the California landowners had been assured by the U.S. officials that the American Government would safeguard all existing land titles. More than this, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo bound the U.S. Government to protect the Californians’ property and to recognize all legitimate titles to property. Congress, however, passed a law that challenged the validity of every title in California. It required that every land grantee must be able to prove the validity of his Mexican grant before a committee that had been appointed by Congress. The Californians, ignorant of American laws and custom, were at a great disadvantage. Legitimate costs and excessive lawyer fees, plus the lack of ready cash, forced many a rancher to sell or mortgage property to meet costs.

The death blow was dealt from the hands of nature. Drought and floods ravaged the land in 1862. Thousands upon thousands of cattle perished. The ranchers, heavily in debt, were helpless to replenish their herds. Competition from outside the state drove the price of beef on the hoof down. The situation, by 1864, is clearly shown in Santa Barbara, where 50,000 head were auctioned off at the average price of thirty-seven cents a head. The industry was on its knees.

If the wine industry had not been mature enough to move into the vacuum created when the cattle economy collapsed, the city of Los Angeles would have suffered a blow that could well have paralized her for many years to come. But the measured steps of the slowly maturing grape and wine commerce had never halted since Don Aliso had set them in motion in the early 1830’s. The records show the progressive importance of the vine to the area: in 1845, 1,000 barrels of wine and brandy were shipped to the North.

By the year 1855, the area nurtured 125 vineyards capable of producing 70,000 pounds of fresh grapes and 100,000 gallons of wine and brandy. The care and produce of the 800,000 bearing vines employed over 4,000 people, and represented one million dollars of invested capital.

In 1856 grape and wine commerce contributed close to two-thirds of the total coastwise trade, valued at $233,635.

Three years later, in 1859, the value of the coastwise export trade was estimated at $1,284,000, with the wine trade contributing $139,000, and the fresh grape, $67,000.

This pace continued into the 1860’s. The activity and vitality of this industry soothed the area’s shaken economy, but it meant more than just business. Anyone familiar with a small community can readily see, almost feel, the psychological influence of this activity on the people. It represented life and purpose. While the cattle died on the range, the wagons loaded with casks and boxes of wine and grapes jolted through the streets on their way to San Pedro for shipping. While drought swelled the tongues of the dying beef, the vine bore its fruit. While floods swept over the land and the herds, the roots of the vine held firm and lived. While the cattle industry sank, the vine grew and flourished.

The year 1861 represented another big step. The Sainsevain Brothers, as was previously mentioned, joined with B. D. Wilson to make the first large shipment of California wine to New York. By 1869, this trade was established. Newmark & Company, sixth ranking exporter of California wine to the East, in that year shipped 13,500 gallons. During the following year, the firms total rose to 30,303 gallons.

By this time, the transition of the Los Angeles economy to a more orderly status was well under way. It was not, however, a turn to smaller, diversified agriculture as yet, for when cattle failed they were replaced by sheep, not farming. But the time was not too distant when livestock would be replaced more completely. In 1870, the ninth census showed a total livestock value of $1,398,556. At the same time, wine production alone amounted to only $335,136 short of that total stock figure. When it is remembered that the value of fresh grapes and brandy has not been included in the above figures, one can see that the vine was in a position of importance in the area.

As the 1870’s progressed, and the railroad and citrus industry appeared on the scene, assuring the future of the town’s growth, the apex of the wine-making art began to move North, settling in Sonoma. Col. Agostin Haraszthy, the champion of California wine interests, did much to make the northern area conscious of its superb wine growing land and climate.

But the development of the wine industry to the north is outside the pale of this paper, which wants only to show the importance of the vine in the history of Los Angeles. What we have seen is, in many respects, an old story and an expected one. It is expected that the success of one man will attract others, as was the case of Jean Vignes and his successful wine experiments. Nor is it surprising that the wine industry should develop in California; the soil and climate were ideally suited for such a venture.

What is important and significant here, is that a man with ‘intelligent appreciation’ made the discovery and began the development of the industry when he did. By creating a product, and a market, he gave to Los Angeles the means by which she was able to maintain her economic health during the tragic years of the 1860’s. Perhaps the story can best be summed up by stating that the wealth which flowed from those vines, served as a bridge between the collapse of the cattle boom, and the birth of the citrus and oil booms in the 1870’s. In those years between, Los Angeles was given the opportunity to catch her breath and adjust to a new way of life. This, then, was the gift that sprang from the mind and the hands of Jean Louis Vignes.”

-Excerpt and (top) image courtesy of the Internet Archive, Historical Society of Southern California, “The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Volume XLI, Number 1,” March, 1959

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