Today’s Memory Lane column will continue the look back into Napa City’s vintage past. This second installment of this two part series will focus on the only remaining vestige of this era—Joseph Mathews’ Lisbon Winery.
Currently, the Jarvis Conservatory occupies this handsome and sturdy building. It is located between Main, Brown, and Yount Streets. The Lisbon is one of the oldest wineries in the county. It is included with such notable wineries as Krug, Schramsberg, Sutter Home, Greystone and Beringer.
In 1979, the Lisbon Winery received its due recognition. Being historically, culturally and architecturally significant, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Construction of this winery took four years to complete: July 1880 to February 1884. This winery building incorporated Mathews’ sherry oven built in 1878. It was the largest sherry oven in California with a capacity of 30,000 to 55,000 gallons per baking. This oven could produce two batches, or 60,000 to 110,000 gallons, of sherry annually. Also during the winery construction, a small stone residence was built near Main Street for the Mathews family.
Mathews had many talents including being a master stone mason. He actively participated in the construction of his winery. When the stone was brought down from the eastern hill near Napa, Mathews dressed the ones for the facade. He also carved the decorative arches for the doorways.
The winery was named in honor of his birthplace, Lisbon, Portugal. Upon his arrival in America, he changed is name from Mateus to Mathews.
According to local newspaper accounts, Mathews arrived in Napa County in 1869. For several years, Mathews worked for William Woodward. This ranch and vineyard was located northwest of Napa City, in the Oak Knoll Road vicinity.
In 1872 a small sherry oven was built on Woodward’s property. Using the Madeira process, Mathews and John Ramos, also from Portugal, introduced Spanish-Portuguese style sherry making to the Napa Valley.
Eventually, Mathews and Ramos feuded over who could rightfully claim the title of “sherry pioneer.” But, from all indications and records, Mathews was the true “sherry pioneer” of Napa County.
Mathews was considered an expert sherry and winemaker. A July 1887 Napa Daily Register article reported, “Mr. Mathews is recognized as the boss sherry wine-maker and he has a large number of testimonials in the shape of diplomas to show for the best exhibit at various fairs.”
Mathews also had other accolades. His sherry and wines won numerous medals and prizes at various competitions, including the 1885-86 American Exposition in New Orleans and World’s Fair held in Louisville, Kentucky and 1889 World’s Fair in Paris as well as numerous California state fairs.
Ultimately, Mathews and his Lisbon Winery were known to produce the best sherry in California and the best Zinfandel in the county.
In stark contrast, his personal life and personality generated some unwanted notoriety. Apparently, Mathews had a hot temper with a very short fuse. Although, a possible explanation for the undesirable events of 1885 could have been a personal tragedy that occurred in 1884.
Just as his business future seemed bright with the completion of his Lisbon Winery, the 34 year old Mathews suffered a traumatic lose. In September 1884, his 32-year-old wife suddenly died from an apparent heart attack.
For the next year or so, Mathews was in and out of trouble. In February 1885 he was arrested for assault. He had kicked a Henry Gillan “in the region of the bowels.” In October, an Issac Blivens sued Mathews for allowing his team of horses, which Mathews was driving, to “run over him.”
Then in December 1885, Mathews rashly filed a petition of insolvency. He was being sued by B. Semorile and James Boggs. Mathews owed them $16,000 in back debt. Mathews lost all of his material assets and worldly possessions with one exception. He was able to keep his Lisbon Winery and home, but it was another two years before he would be back in operation.
Mathews continued making his sherry and wines at his beloved Lisbon Winery until his death in May 1893. He was just 43 year old.
His early death not only cut short his promising career and life, but it also probably contributed to him being deprived of his rightful place in the historical annals about Napa County’s vintners and viticulture. Surprisingly, neither Mathews or his Lisbon Winery appeared in any Napa Valley wine history book from the past.
Luckily for us, we have a physical reminder of the richness of our community’s vintage past. The handsome Lisbon Winery is our link to Mathews, his wine industry contemporaries and their contributions to our local heritage.