Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: A by-product of wine and how it grew in Napa Valley
Memory Lane

Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: A by-product of wine and how it grew in Napa Valley


A naturally occurring byproduct of wine-making is bi-tartrate. Processed and refined, it is transformed into the culinary ingredient known as cream of tartar. During the late-19th century, cream of tartar manufacturing became a lucrative Napa County industry.

Cream of tartar was, and is, produced from two different sources. The first was from the wine press pomace, the grape skins, seeds and stems, producing an industrial grade substance.

The second, and preferred, source was the lees and argols, the crystallized sediments adhere to the sides and bottom of wine casks during fermentation, that produce a culinary quality ingredient. In the 1800s, they were also called “wine cheese.”

Prior to 1880, with the exception of the San Francisco-based California & Pacific Cream Tartar Works, Europe was the primary manufacturer and supplier of the compound. However, as California’s wine industry grew so did the domestic supply of the essential raw materials.

Also, wine producers soon realized they were literally throwing away a side business worth $500,000 annually. Shortly thereafter, the local cream of tartar industry began with the establishment of two Napa Valley plants. They were the Charles Farrand & Company in St. Helena and the Napa Cream of Tartar Works in east Napa owned by A. Bertrandias.

The St. Helena firm was located on Pope Street alongside the creek and the railroad tracks. Exclusively using lees and argols, Farrand produced an extra fine, high-quality cream of tartar. It commanded a higher market price of 32 cents versus 22 cents per pound.

The Napa facility initially manufactured crude tartar, bi-tartrate of potash. In its first year, the Napa plant produced 7,000 pounds of bi-tartrate. At first, these two companies operated only seasonally.

Later in the 1880s, the industry was changing and growing globally. For instance, Pedro Napoles of Portugal invented and patented a mobile cream of tartar manufacturing system. In May 1888, following his successful promotion of the device throughout Europe, Napoles arrived in California to establish partnerships with vintners and capitalists.

In Napa County, his primary partner was Joseph Mathews, a fellow Portuguese immigrant. To promote the apparatus, they displayed it in front of Mathews’ winery (now the Jarvis Conservatory.) In addition to producing cream of tartar, the system could distill brandy and alcohol from the raw materials.

In 1899, the Napa Register reviewed Napoles’ invention. “The apparatus is a great success, extracting fine quality brandy, and manufacturing high grade cream of tartar, tannic acid and other chemicals of great commercial value.”

A few years earlier, a Mr. Bousquet and Mr. Christin opened their refining operation on Pearl Street in Napa. However, in 1887, they relocated to the former Alta Napa wine cellar. To generate a sufficient raw materials supply, they also provided a cask cleaning service for local and regional wineries.

The 1890s ushered in boom times for the local cream of tartar industry. Those golden years lasted for decades. Due to this increase in business, growing competition and new advancements, the Napa Cream of Tartar Works was extensively expanded and retooled to include facilities to purify, whiten and mill the compound.

When completed, the complex was of considerable size, state-of-the-art and envied by its competitors. The upgraded Works had a minimum annual production capacity of 200,000 pounds, or 100 tons, of product.

In addition to processing lees and argols, this new factory was able to transform pomace into high grade cream of tartar. The lengthy process began with the pomace being boiled and then squeezed by hydraulic presses to produce a concentrate used to manufacture a top-quality ingredient. The squeezed pomace fueled the boiler furnace. Its steam powered the complex’s machinery and electrical plant. The campus was illuminated with incandescent lights. The Works was completely energy independent and self-sufficient.

It was owned by the Bertrandias, Johnson & Locke partnership. The latter two actively participated in the company’s daily operations. The partners also established the California Pomace Company in 1890. Located adjacent to the Works, it produced crude tartar and “almond cream or oil” made from peach, apricot and plum kernels. This factory cracked, boiled and processed tons of kernels to produce the extract, “almond cream or oil,” used by perfume and cosmetic manufacturers.

By 1900, Georges de Latour opened the final local cream of tartar factory. His facility was constructed near Seneca Ewer’s Rutherford winery, de Latour’s future Beaulieu Vineyards.

Over time, the Works, Farrand and de Latour operations became the primary Napa County processors. However, with Prohibition and the drastic reduction of raw materials, they shutdown. With their closures and the subsequent collapse of the American cream of tartar industry, Europe dominated the market once again.

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