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Memory Lane: Napa's little known Sherry pioneer
Memory Lane

Memory Lane: Napa's little known Sherry pioneer

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Most individuals associate Upvalley locations with Napa County’s wines and wineries. But at the height of Napa Valley’s first wine era, the late 1800s, about a half dozen wineries were operating within the city of Napa.

Today, the only remaining representative of this era is Joseph Mathews’ Lisbon Winery, located between Main, Brown and Yount Streets. The Lisbon, one of the oldest wineries in the county, today houses the Jarvis Conservatory.

In 1979, the Lisbon Winery received it due recognition. Being historically, culturally and architecturally significant, it was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Its path to that honor began nearly a century earlier. Construction of the winery complex took four years, July 1880 to February 1884. At the same time, a small stone residence was built near Main Street for the Mathews family. The new winery building incorporated the existing 1878 sherry oven, the largest in California. Its capacity was 30,000 to 55,000 gallons during each baking. The oven could produce two batches of Sherry per year.

The winery’s visionary, Joseph Mathews, had many talents, including being a master stone mason. He actively participated in the construction of his winery made from stone brought down from the east hills near Napa. He carved the decorative arches for the doorways and named the winery in honor of his birthplace, Lisbon, Portugal.

Upon his arrival in America, he had changed his name from Mateus to Mathews. According to newspaper accounts, he arrived in Napa County in 1869. For several years, Mathews worked for William Woodward at the Woodward Cellars, located in the Oak Knoll area.

After Woodward built a small Sherry oven in 1872, Mathews and John Ramos, also from Portugal, used the Madeira process to produce and introduce Spanish Sherry-making to the Napa Valley.

Eventually, Mathews and Ramos feuded over who could rightfully claim the title of “Sherry pioneer.” Based on historical records, Mathews was the true Sherry pioneer of Napa Valley.

Mathews was considered an expert in sherry wine-making by his colleagues, as substantiated by an 1887 Napa Daily Register article. “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 had additional accolades. His Sherry and other wines won numerous medals at various competitions, including the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, France. Ultimately, Mathews and his Lisbon Winery became known as the best producer of Sherry in California and the premiere Napa County Zinfandel producer.

In contrast to his excellent professional reputation, his personal life and personality garnered Mathews with another type of notoriety. It seems he had a hot temper with a very “short fuse.” But a personal tragedy may have contributed to his issues.

Just as his business future seemed bright with the completion of his Lisbon Winery, Mathews suffered a traumatic loss. In September 1884, his 32-year- old wife suddenly died of a heart attack. For the following year, or so, Mathews was in and out of trouble. He was arrested of assault after kicking Henry Gillan “in the region of the bowels,” said the Register. A few months later, Issac Blivens sued Mathews for allowing his team of horses to “run him over,” the Register reported.

The most significant of his legal problems came in December 1885 when Mathews rashly filed a petition of insolvency when being sued by B. Semorile and James Boggs for payment of a back debt of $16,000. Ultimately, Mathews lost all of his material assets and worldly goods with one exception, he was allowed to keep his Lisbon Winery and residence. But it would be another two years before he could resume operations.

Mathews continued to make his Sherry and wines at his beloved Lisbon Winery until his death in May of 1893. He was just 43 years old.

Mathews’ early death not only cut short his promising career but it deprived his of his rightful place in the annals about Napa’s vintners and viticulture. Surprisingly, neither Mathews or his Lisbon Winery appear in any publication about Napa County’s early wine history.

But luckily for us, we have a visual reminder, the handsome Lisbon Winery as our link to Joseph Mathews and his contributions to our vintage past.

ANNOUNCEMENT: For those who find the history of Napa Valley’s early wine industry interesting, I will be teaching a four-week evening course (Tuesdays, Sept. 22-Oct. 13 from 7 to 8 p.m.) titled, “Napa County’s Ghost Wineries” in partnership with Napa County Landmarks. The course fee is $40 for NCL members and $45 for non-members. Presented in a Zoom format, each class will feature a former “ghost winery,” its history, preservation and revival as well as define what is a “ghost winery.” For more information and to register, visit or call 707-255-1836.

Watch now: First Street Napa: A tour

Contact Rebecca Yerger at

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