Most people, tourists and locals alike, generally associate Upvalley locales with Napa County’s wine industry. At the height of Napa Valley’s first wine era, the late 1800s, about a half dozen wineries were operating within Napa City. This first installment of a two-part series about Napa’s vintage past will provide an overview of some of these enterprises and entrepreneurs.
The Napa city area played an important role in the establishment of the county’s wine industry. Within today’s Napa city limits are sites of important viticultural events.
In 1850, John Patchett planted one of, if not, the first Napa County commercial vineyard. Planted to Mission grape stock, this vineyard was just west of 1850 Napa City. Patchett also built the first Napa Valley stone winery and cellar.
In 1857 Patchett also sent the first shipment of Napa Valley wines, six casks and 600 bottles, to San Francisco. But, little did Patchett know he would profoundly influence the course of local winemaking history by hiring a young Prussian winemaker, an immigrant named Charles Krug.
Up until the 1850s, California wineries used the method of grape crushing devised by the Spanish and Mexicans. Everything from the stem to seed was crushed in troughs and fermented together. This method created a rather poor quality product. Often the wine was described as “passable” to “sour, unpalatable stuff which served its purpose.” But that changed when Patchett hired Krug.
During the 1858 harvest and crush, Krug used a revolutionary method of crushing. At Patchett’s winery he used a second-hand cider press to squeeze the juice from the grapes. Krug produced 1,200 gallons of wine for Patchett using this new method. This was the first Napa County crush using a press. It also established Krug as a pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. As a result, his services were in great demand.
In addition to Patchett, the list of Napa City area wineries and vineyards was fairly long. This list included the Uncle Sam Winery, Migliavacca Wine Company, Gier Wine Company (Hess Collection), Lombardi Wine Company, Christian, Eschol (Trefethen), J.J. Sigrist, William Woodward and William H. Winter. Two of these businesses, Uncle Sam and Migliavacca, were located in downtown Napa.
In 1866, G. Migliavacca of Italy began his local winemaking endeavors in the back part of his Main Street home. He gradually expanded his operation. By 1874 Migliavacca had a large facility located on Brown Street, the present-day Napa Library site. The winery consisted of a two-story brick cellar with a 150,000-gallon capacity. A 440-gallon distillery was also part of the plant.
Author C.A. Menefee wrote, “The quality of his wine was good and met with ready sale. Mr. Migliavacca, by his industry and his skill, has built up a fine business for himself in Napa.”
Located nearby was the Uncle Sam Winery. At its peak, its production nearly equaled the combined output of all the county’s wineries. A November 1872 Napa Reporter article reported, “We do not doubt that this enterprise, owing to the efficiency of this firm and the able management of Mr. Bustelli, will provide a financial success and next year may expect to see these gentlemen doing as large a wine-making business as is done in Napa County.”
“These gentlemen” referred to the winery co-founders and partners, Van Bever and Thompson. They began making wine in 1870. The original Uncle Sam Winery was located in a large building near the First Street bridge. About two years later, Van Bever and Thompson expanded and moved the winery to the corner of Main and Fourth Street alongside the river.
This winery was quite large with a 500,000-gallon capacity. Like Migliavacca, the Uncle Sam Winery had a distillery that could produce 500 gallons of cognac.
In 1874, a unique feature was added to the winery, a vinegar factory. This factory could produce 200 to 250 gallons of vinegar a day; it was either a testament to Van Bever and Thompson’s thriftiness or an indication of their wines’ quality.
Actually, according to reviews by Menefee and others, “(Uncle Sam wine) bears a good price at market, and is said by experts to compare favorably with the best.”
By 1881 Charles Carpy, who lived in Napa at that time, purchased the Uncle Sam Winery. This French native also owned two cellars in San Francisco and, eventually, the Greystone Cellars in St. Helena.
Returning to Napa’s days as a wine center, next week’s column will conclude this look back into Napa’s vintage past.
For those interested in the unique aspects of the Napa Valley wine industry and its history, please, join me on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m., at the Napa Library for a special program titled, “Trailblazing Women Winemakers—Past, Present & Future.” Following an historical overview about Napa County’s pioneer women winemakers—Josephine Marlin Tychson and Hannah Weinberger, panelist Amelia Ceja, Michaela Rodeno and Tracey Reichow will talk about their experiences in the wine industry. For more information, please, call 707-253-4235 or visit www.napalibrary.org.