In the 1880s, at a time when women couldn’t cast a ballot, St. Helena’s Hannah Weinberger and Josephine Marlin Tychson were unusual — they were winemakers and businesswomen.
Both were neighbors as well, owning properties with their husbands north of St. Helena on Highway 29. After their husbands’ deaths, the two widows took over their estates and supervised grapegrowing and winemaking. Weinberger was more successful than Tychson, running her winery until it was closed in 1920 by Prohibition. Tychson ran into financial trouble and declared bankruptcy in 1895.
That the two were pioneers in the Napa Valley wine industry is clear from the researched and published history, but part of that published history is incorrect.
A July 18 article in the Napa Valley Register, written by an intern with the Napa County Historical Society, erroneously calls Tychson “the first true Napa Valley female vintner.”
The Register article states that Tychson demonstrated “a fortitude, when carving the vintner’s dream, a dream carried by both herself and her deceased spouse.” It is in the building of the wine cellar, the article suggests, that Tychson “encapsulated the role of a supervisor, making first-hand decisions after consultations with her foreman.”
So, who was the first woman vintner in the Napa Valley?
According to research conducted by Mariam Hansen of the St. Helena Historical Society and supplied to the St. Helena Star, it was not Josephine Marlin Tychson. It was Hannah Weinberger, whose husband was murdered March 21, 1882, four years before John Tychson died.
The property owned by the Weinbergers is now William Cole Vineyards, just north of Deer Park Road, north of St. Helena. Tychson’s cellars are now the site of Freemark Abbey, north of St. Helena’s Lodi Lane.
The Tychson story
Hansen said Josephine Marlin came to California with her family and settled in San Lorenzo. She married John C. Tychson and in 1881 the Tychsons bought 147 acres north of St. Helena that became known as Tychson’s Hill.
Her husband, who suffered from tuberculosis, committed suicide on April 9, 1886. After his suicide, Josephine supervised the construction of a new wine cellar that could hold 20,000 gallons.
According to Hansen’s research, in part based on newspaper articles published in the St. Helena Star, “The couple seemed to have kept their home in San Lorenzo. At the point when her husband committed suicide, she was sick and in her home there.”
Noted wine historian William F. Heitz also addresses the roles played by Tychson and Weinberger in an article, “The First Women Wine Makers in California.”
Of Weinberger, he said, “On the shooting death of her husband in March 1882, she took full control of the large Weinberger winery and continued its operations for many, many years. At the World’s Fair in Paris, France in 1889, she was the only (California) woman vintner honored with a (silver) wine medal. This was a significant honor since it was in the same year that Napa County moved up to become the premiere wine region of the state.”
Heitz also talks about Tychson, who directed the production of wine at her own winery north of St. Helena beginning in the fall of 1886.
“The St. Helena Star documents her building the winery and the operations in subsequent years,” he states. “I know of no earlier winery built in California exclusively by a woman. She was a remarkable woman.”
Heitz states, though, that four women — Mrs. Stuart, Mrs. Warfield and Mrs. Hood, all of Sonoma County, and Hannah Weinberger — “certainly preceded Josephine Tychson in the making of wine. Tychson, cannot therefore, be considered the first woman winemaker in California.”
The Weinberger story
Hannah Elizabeth Rabbe Weinberger was born Oct. 7, 1840, and after marrying John Weinberger in 1871, the couple moved to the Napa Valley. They bought 240 acres and spent three years building a three-story stone winery, which was completed in 1876, with 35 acres planted in vineyard.
Charles E. Sullivan, in his 2008 edition of Napa Wine, notes that John Weinberger was “one of the men at the first St. Helena Vinicultural Club meeting on Jan. 22, 1876,” and notes that he had “just made 50,000 gallons of wine” at his stone winery.
The late Kathy Kernberger and Shirley Penland wrote a series of articles titled “Now & Then” that were published in the St. Helena Star. One focused on the Weinbergers. It talks about the shooting of John Weinberger by a former employee, William J. Gau, on March 21, 1882. It states, “After the death of her husband, Hannah and her family picked up the threads of their lives. She took over operation of the winery and vineyards and also took John’s place as a director of the Bank of St. Helena.”
To Bill and Jane Ballentine, current owners of the former Weinberger winery, the question of who was the first woman vintner in Napa Valley is a matter of accuracy.
“We’re just trying to get the record straight,” Ballentine said. “When we went down and visited Mariam and looked at some of the history, we found that Josephine’s husband committed suicide in 1886 and Hannah’s husband was murdered in 1882. Those were the two big dates for us. Both husbands owned wineries and that was why Hannah was the first winemaker, because her husband was killed first.”
The Ballentines bought the 5.25-acre parcel in 1999. The winery was converted to a residence in 1938 and the couple spent five years restoring the bottom floor of the stone building to its original use and the top two floors so they could live in them. After Hannah Weinberger closed the winery in 1920, and after her death in 1931, her son, John Weinberger Jr., sold parcels of the 240-acre estate, so the family could keep the residence and winery.
The Harrison family bought the estate in 1938 and decided to raze Weinberger’s original Victorian-era mansion, which was ruined, and convert the top two floors into a summer residence. The Gonser family bought the property in 1965 and used it as a summer residence until the Ballentines bought it.
The winery — renamed William Cole Vineyards after Bill Ballentine and his son, Cole — was established in 2004 and released its first “Cuvee Claire” Cabernet Sauvignon — named for Bill’s daughter — the following year.
After the Ballentines bought the property, Jane’s father-in-law, Lorin Sorensen, and Kathy Kernberger spent a lot of time researching the history of the property.
“This place laid idle for so many years, no one really knew the history,” Ballentine said. “This place is like a treasure hunt. We keep finding different historical facts as we go forward.
“Whatever the end result is, we just want to get the record straight and not have it improperly represented. Hannah was a pillar of the community. The Weinbergers and the Krugs were apparently just the nicest people.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think our history will sell one more bottle of wine for us. People buy wine on the quality of the wine. History doesn’t really sell very much wine.”
Kristie Sheppard, executive director of the Napa County Historical Society, explained that new information provided to the St. Helena Historical Society by the Ballentines may have uncovered the true story about which woman was the first vintner.
The Register article by the Napa County Historical Society intern was “based on information we have here at the historical society,” said Sheppard. “We do not have the new evidence that Weinberger was the first woman winemaker.”
Sheppard said she has requested the information from the St. Helena Historical Society.