If ever there was a social and political “perfect storm” that dramatically changed a wine region, it happened in the Napa Valley in 1848.
The first contributing force was the establishment of American rule when California became a U.S. territory, and in particular the U.S. efforts to break land into small farms for the ever-expanding American population.
Although the U.S. courts sometimes upheld the legality of the large Mexican land grants, increasingly these grants were challenged. The Land Act of 1851 required all Californians to prove the validity of their grants. After this, the grants were continually broken up.
The second powerful force was the Gold Rush. After gold was discovered in 1848, many of the ’49ers found their way into the fertile Napa Valley, where they set about breaking up the large ranchos.
According to historians Denzil and Jennie Verado, “… the original Mexican land grants from Mariano Vallejo … (such as) Yount’s Caymus were successfully carved up almost completely by squatters, and the other Mexican land grants eventually succumbed as well.”
The Gold Rush changed the basic social structure of the Napa Valley, too.
Prior to 1848, virtually the only non-Mexican immigrants to California were agrarian, immigrant parties from the Midwestern frontier. The year 1848 was the beginning of tremendous political and social turmoil throughout Europe. Revolutions erupted in Prague, Paris, Naples and Berlin. Every revolt failed and resulted in authoritarian political regimes coming to power. The Gold Rush provided the perfect rationale for many to flee their native lands to avoid political persecution or to avoid living under repulsive regimes.
As a consequence, another type of immigrant became a part of the blend in the Napa Valley. Skilled, well-educated and well-to-do immigrants from European countries steeped in the tradition of wine and winemaking began to make their homes here.
At first, the new immigrants to the valley focused on wheat farming to supply flour to the miners in the fields just north of the valley. But viticulture continued to grow, and the Napa Valley went from having no true vineyards before the Gold Rush to having 433 vineyards in 1881.
As the valley was converted to a land ownership structure suited to viticulture, and immigrants with wine knowledge began to arrive, new American trade policies also made it possible to trade wine within California as well as with the outside world.
The hard work and perseverance of many early vintners helped establish the wine industry in the valley, but five men, each in his own way, set the tone for the wine culture we know today. Charles Krug brought wine excellence and varietal diversity to the Napa Valley; Jacob Schram pioneered in wine-making innovation; Jacob and Frederick Beringer introduced the importance of a beautiful ambiance for valley wineries, and Gustave Niebaum was the first to emphasize the importance of hospitality.
“Charles Krug was a prototype of the bourgeois refugees of the chaotic Europe of 1848 who were entrepreneurial, educated and skilled, and had knowledge of viticulture and winemaking because they came from some of the great winemaking areas of Europe”, according to historian C.A. Menefee. Born in Prussia in 1825, Krug was imprisoned in 1848 and came to America in 1851.
He arrived in San Francisco in 1852 and lived in San Mateo County where he met Colonel Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant who had also left Europe because of political turmoil.
Haraszthy had been experimenting planting grapevines in California. Drawn to Haraszty because of his grape growing skills, Krug followed the colonel to San Francisco and joined him in business. It was only a matter of time until the two men left the city and pursued their destiny amongst the vines. In 1858, Haraszthy purchased a tract of land and planted vines in Sonoma, and Krug went with him.
In the spring of 1858, John Patchett of the Napa Valley met Krug and invited him to make wine from his grapes. Using a small cider press, Krug made 1,200 gallons of the first wine commercially produced in Napa County. Krug apparently saw many opportunities in the Napa Valley. He became a winemaker for Patchett, made wine for other farmers, and in 1860, he married the daughter of one of the Napa Valley’s prominent citizens, Edward Bale. That year, he planted 20 acres in grapevines on land that was part of Caroline Bale’s dowry and is still part of the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena.
Krug was the first major vintner to use traditional European techniques — and to apply scientific methods in viticulture. To be sure, Krug owed a great deal to Haraszthy, who was the first to use these methods in California, but Krug had helped to develop them and brought them to the Napa Valley.
Although not the first to introduce non-mission grape varietals, Krug was the first strong advocate of diversity in varietals. Reliance on the mission grape that dominated in the valley was likely to result in inferior wines and a bad reputation, he said. “Nothing ruins the prices and reputation of good California wines more than the sale of inferior wines at low prices,” Krug said. “The grape man must sell his inferior grapes and the wine man his inferior wines to the distiller.”
Jacob Schram was born in Germany near the Rhine River. At 16, he immigrated to New York and became a barber. In 1852, he headed west by ship to San Francisco.
He came to the Napa Valley in 1859 and continued to work as a barber, but he harbored thoughts of owning vineyards. Limited in financial resources, Schram made up for this with innovation. Most of the land under cultivation was on the valley floor, where planting, cultivation and irrigation were the easiest. Schram purchased a large piece of land on a steep mountainside at the north end of the valley. He called his property Schramsberg.
Using land that others had avoided, he and his wife cleared the densely wooded hillside and planted varieties of wine grapes that were favored in Europe and thrived on the hillsides. He adapted, and in some cases invented, techniques of viticulture that took advantage of the terroir.
Their first crush was in 1865 or 1866. Noting the extreme temperatures during the summers in the Napa Valley, he concluded that caves would be necessary to store wines during a hot season. He discovered that the hills behind his vineyards were made of soft limestone, and so he dug a system of caves to store his wine — the first Napa Valley vintner to do so on any large scale.
The Beringer Brothers
German-born Jacob Beringer worked in wine cellars in his small hometown as well as in Berlin and had a good deal of wine experience by the age of 15. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1868 and opened a shop in New York City, probably with the help of his older brother, Frederick.
No one knows why he suddenly left New York and headed to the Napa Valley, but he did. No doubt he’d had contact with or heard about the success of people in viticulture in the Napa Valley. The fact that Charles Krug hired him to be his winemaker when he arrived in the Napa Valley in 1870 suggests that is true. Frederick Beringer joined his brother in the valley and purchased property north of St. Helena in 1875. Jacob Beringer’s experience in winemaking with Charles Krug inspired him and his brother to select land that would enable them to produce wines in the European style and tradition. They also decided to create a beautiful place for guests to visit. The Beringer House, begun in 1883, was completed two years later. Historian Linn Weber called the Rhine House “a temple of sorts to the cult of elegance that began to surround the juice of the grape… The attitude of old world refinement that these men portrayed (and possessed) set a style that has continued to the present day in many of the region’s wineries.”
Gustave Niebaum, born in Helsinki, Finland, went to sea in his 20s and became the captain of a ship at an early age. He went to the Arctic and Alaska in the late 1850s. When he arrived in San Francisco with more than half a million dollars worth of furs, he immediately attracted the attention of the elite and became involved in several businesses.
Even though his native Finland is not a famous wine-producing area, Niebaum became intrigued with prospects of the Napa Valley. He purchased land and established Inglenook Winery in Rutherford, and began operations sometime around 1880 — a newspaper account credits Charles Krug and E.B. Smith with making wine in Niebaum’s winery in 1879.
Niebaum “believed that everything about a winery should be first rate, reflecting an attitude of elegance and European ease. His ‘sample room’ where visitors could taste the wine he made was lavishly appointed with ornate curve of woodworking, fine crystal and stained-glass windows …” according to Linn Weber. Niebaum’s early version of a tasting room was not the first in the Napa Valley, but it was the first to emphasize hospitality. Carefully and extravagantly designed to show off Niebaum’s wines and estate, it doubtlessly set the standard for future winery tasting rooms.
From 1860, when Krug first planted grapes on his estate, until 1879 when he is thought to have made the first wine for Niebaum, the Napa Valley appeared to be on its way to establishing a thriving wine industry, but a series of crises would hold it back for almost a century before it finally began to take its place as one of the great wine regions of the world.
Next: From a century of trouble to the triumph of today’s Napa Valley Wine