Where the valley met the vine: The Mexican period

2009-06-19T00:00:00Z Where the valley met the vine: The Mexican periodBy TIM GAUGHAN, Special to the Register Napa Valley Register

Spanish rule over California ended with the close of Mexico’s War of Independence in 1821. Like the Spanish before them, the Californios, as the Mexicans living in California were known, tended to live near the coast from San Diego to San Francisco where the missions had been founded by the Spanish.

Attempts to spread Mexican control over the land north of the Golden Gate resulted in the discovery of the Napa Valley. In 1823, a party led by Padre Jose Altamira became the first non-indigenous people to explore the Napa Valley. They were looking for a site for a mission, and eventually they built one in Sonoma, the last, most northerly, and the only mission built by the Mexicans.

Although the Mexican government had no interest in wine in California, the policies they introduced concerning land ownership, trade and immigration in California, and the blend of people that came to live here during this period led to a surprising number of landmarks in the history of wine in California, especially considering that the Mexicans ruled here for only        27 years.

When it took power, the Mexican government closed the missions and expelled the priests. Mission land, virtually the only place where viticulture had taken place during the Spanish era, was given to a new landed class in the form of huge land grants that became ranchos used mostly for livestock. Trade and immigration laws were also liberalized. Trade with the outside world was allowed in California, and immigrants were allowed to become Mexican citizens and acquire land, usually through the land grant process. This resulted in an interesting mix of foreign-born trappers, traders and adventurers and a Mexican landed elite all living on immense tracts of land. Among them was George C. Yount.

The early life and time

of George Yount

 George Yount, for whom the town of Yountville is named, was the first person of European descent to settle in the Napa Valley and the first to plant grapevines of European descent here.

A mountain man, explorer and pioneer settler, Yount knew many of the people who made wine history in California — and,  even though wine did not seem to interest him until much later in his life, he made a bit of wine history himself,.

Yount was born in North Carolina in 1794, and when he was 10 his family moved to Missouri. He married his wife, Eliza, when she was 15 and he was 24. He developed a case of wanderlust and after several long trips away from his wife, he sold almost everything that he had, gave the money to her and traveled west. He never saw her again.

Because of Mexico’s liberalized policies toward trade and immigration, groups of Americans and others began to travel to Mexican soil, primarily to trade, hunt and trap beaver. The starting point for most of these expeditions was New Mexico, another desolate outpost of Mexico inherited from the Spanish. After hearing reports about the wonders of California, Yount joined an expedition led by William Wolfskill, a capable wilderness explorer.

Wolfskill and his party left Taos, N.M., in September 1830. The party was a “dream team” of mountain men that included Jedediah Smith, the first American to cross the Sierra into California in the 1820s, and Kit Carson who had actually explored the Napa Valley the year before on a hunting trip, and most likely told Yount about the valley.

 When they arrived in Southern California in early 1831, Wolfskill and Yount went on to the coast to hunt sea otter. Wolfskill eventually returned to Southern California, and Yount decided to go north, and the two parted company.

What does George Yount’s relationship with William Wolfskill have to do the evolution of wine in the Napa Valley? Wolfskill came to California for the hunting and trading, but when he got here, he took advantage of the new Mexican land ownership laws and became a pioneer of viticulture in Southern California. 

After acquiring land from the Mexican government where downtown Los Angeles now stands, Wolfskill began growing grapevines. He eventually planted 32,000 vines on a 48-acre vineyard. Initially, he planted mission vines, but he experimented with other varietals later. At his death in 1866, he was producing 50,000 gallons of wine a year. He was, by far, the greatest producer of table grapes in California during the Mexican era and has been named by historians as one of the three most important men in the history of California viticulture.

If we go one degree of separation from George Yount via Wolfskill, we encounter Wolfskill’s neighbor, friend and business rival in the tiny pueblo of Los Angeles, the French immigrant Jean-Louis Vignes. He arrived in Los Angeles from Bordeaux in 1832 and bought a ranch on the Los Angeles River near Wolfskill’s property. In 1833, he was able to get cuttings from a number of varieties of grapevines from Europe, which he grafted onto mission grapevine root stock.

Vignes was the first person to import European vines other than the mission varietal into California. He imported French varietals — cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. In 1840, he made the first recorded shipment of California wine; he is regarded by some as the "father of the wine industry in California.” His El Aliso Winery eventually became one of the largest in the world, producing 150,000 bottles a year.

So while American mountain men and French immigrants were busy revolutionizing California grape growing and wine making in Los Angeles, what happened to George Yount? After leaving Wolfskill, Yount traveled up the coast, all the way to the northern frontier beyond the Golden Gate, going as far as the mission at Sonoma. There, he befriended and eventually went to work for Governor Mariano Vallejo.

Vallejo was the colorful governor of the Mexican territory that included all land north of today’s San Francisco, including Sonoma, the Napa Valley and the surrounding territory. He took advantage of the new Mexican laws and distributed large portions of the former Sonoma Mission to himself in the form of a large rancho. Eventually, his land holdings totaled 175,000 acres.

Like most Californios of his stature, Vallejo’s huge parcels of land were used primarily for raising cattle. He lived the typical lifestyle of the Californio, enjoying the bounty of his land while doing relatively little to develop it.

Unlike most other rancheros of his time, however, Vallejo included vineyards in his vast land holdings. He had taken mission grapevines from the San Rafael and Sonoma missions, and he was one of the few Californio rancheros to produce wine. According to a 1961 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “(Vallejo) began commercial winemaking in 1839 and his was the first winemaking operation north of San Francisco Bay — and wound up dominating the region’s vintners for 25 years.” 

Yount endeared himself to Vallejo in part by making roof shingles (virtually his only skill outside of hunting and trapping) for the general’s home. As governor, Vallejo had the permission of the central government to give land grants to people — Americans included — whom he thought would be a benefit to the Mexican government by settling the area north of San Francisco. In 1836, Vallejo gave Yount the first land grant in the Napa Valley, which Yount had first explored in 1831.

Yount’s land grant, which he named Rancho Caymus, consisted of 11,814 acres that today roughly follow Highway 29 and extend from slightly above Yountville through the Oakville and Rutherford appellations. He began to prepare the land and build, but did not move there permanently until the spring of 1838. Yount brought with him grapevine cuttings, most certainly from Mariano Vallejo vineyard.

Historians such as Charles Sullivan, author of “Napa Wine, a History,” believe Yount first planted his vines during the dormant season of 1838-39. The mission grapes he harvested from his small vineyard were the first Vitus vinifera grapes ever grown in the Napa Valley.

Partly because his land grant property was so immense, Yount did not engage in any intensive viticulture or any other large-scale agriculture. Instead, like the other Californios, he raised some cattle, hunted and fished on his property and grew a few vegetables (ever the mountain man, Yount always claimed to have a strong dislike for farming).

While other settlers eventually planted mission grapevines in the Napa Valley during the Mexican period, very few records exist of actual wine making. There is no record of Yount making wine until the Gold Rush, when everyone in the Napa Valley either dropped everything and headed for the gold fields or began providing products for the throngs of miners. Wine and brandy were popular items.

Yount remained on Rancho Caymus until his death in 1865, well into the American period.

Yount’s first neighbor in the Napa Valley was Edward Bale, an Englishman who had married Mariano Vallejo’s niece and settled on an enormous land grant property that extended north of Rancho Caymus up to today’s Calistoga. Although he is on record as having planted some mission vines on his property, he also spent very little effort developing vineyards.

Bale did, however, make genuine Napa Valley wine history by giving his daughter a 500-acre dowry when she married the “father of the Napa Valley wine industry,” Charles Krug.

Krug converted the           500 acres into vineyards that are famous to this day, but before that he is credited with being the Napa Valley’s first “wine consultant,” making wine for many Napa Valley residents during the early American era. One of his clients was the former mountain man George Yount. As a result of Krug’s winemaking using the grapes from the vines that Yount had planted, Yount, the man who would rather hunt or fish than farm, became a respected vintner in his older years.

Next: The American Era

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