When John Prittie, proprietor of Beau Fleurs Flower Company in downtown Napa, bought his house on Oak Street two years ago, he knew it had a history and he wanted to find out about the previous owners. The home, built in 1910, is part of this year's Napa County Landmarks Candlelight Tour on Dec. 11, and Prittie hoped to have as much information as possible available for visitors.
He found the name of the original owner easily enough — but other questions were raised during his initial research.
Thus began a journey through records and documents that Prittie said uncovered a relatively hidden fact — the wine industry was started in Napa Valley by John Patchett in the city of Napa. Charles Krug often is credited with being the first to make wine commercially in Napa Valley, but Prittie said documents showed that Patchett made and sold wine in 1857 and actually hired Krug to help him make wine in 1858. Krug left the next year and founded his own winery in 1861.
Patchett built a wine cellar on his property in 1859, and in 1860 he received what may have been the first wine writer's review: California Farmer Magazine wrote a report indicating Patchett had "a vineyard of 11,000 vines in full bearing, with 12,000 young wines, an excellent wine press and cellar and a good stock of excellent wine on hand. The white wine was light, clear and brilliant and very superior indeed; his red wine was excellent; we saw superior brandy, too."
Prittie's research fills a two-inch thick notebook, not including numerous maps. He searched file after file in the county recorder's and assessor's offices, the library, the Napa Valley Wine Library in St. Helena, the records of the Napa County Historical Society and numerous books.
"All of the information (about Patchett making the first commercial wine) was out there, but unless you had a reason to look for it, you would not make the connection," Prittie said. "All the books, all the articles point to the same information, but nothing was ever done about it."
Records traced the ownership of the property to Benjamin Bradshaw, but the 1880 census listed Martha Patchett as the head of household. Who was Martha Patchett, Prittie wondered?
She was the third wife of John Patchett, and Bradshaw was her son.
As Prittie dug deeper, he learned that John Patchett had owned a large parcel bounded by Laurel Street, Napa Creek, Jefferson Street and what is now California Street, and it was referred to as Patchett's Grove.
Patchett was trained as a brewmaster in England, Prittie learned, and when he arrived in the United States at the age of 20, he lived first in Pennsylvania, then moved west. He could not find work as a brewmaster, so he took up farming, and when he heard of the California Gold Rush in 1849, he came to Placerville to mine gold. Records indicate that while living there he made several trips to Napa because he heard it was fertile land for farming, so he purchased a 16-acre parcel, and eventually he owned about 200 acres.
He had planted grapes by 1854 in what Prittie called the first commercial vineyard — though George Yount is credited with planting the first vines.
By 1857, Patchett's vineyard had enough mature vines to start making wine. He exported about 600 bottles and six casks, and Prittie said it was assumed that he sent the shipment to San Francisco.
"That was the first commercial shipment from Napa Valley," Prittie said. "The industry started in Old Town Napa."
Prittie's research includes comments from several historians, all of which solidify his claim that John Patchett was Napa Valley's first commercial wine producer.
Ill health overtook Patchett by 1873, and he was forced to retire. He sold his winery and much of the property around his house. He died at 79 n 1876. He was buried in the family plot at Tulocay Cemetery, as were his three wives and step-son, Benjamin Bradshaw.
Two years later, Patchett's wine cellar was destroyed when struck by lightning.
It's likely that Prittie will continue his research into the Patchett family. "There's lots more," he said, but "for now, I got tired."
"I learned so much about the Patchett family, who his wives were, his children," Prittie said. "I almost feel like a family member."
Tickets to the Candlelight Tour are $35 in advance, $40 the day of the event, which includes refreshments and entertainment in addition to the walking tour. For information call 255-1836 or Napa County Landmarks Web site: www.napacountylandmarks.org.