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Memory Lane

Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: How Christian Brothers wines saved Mont La Salle

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Rebecca Yerger

Rebecca Yerger

The Christian Brothers and their Mont La Salle have been an integral part of the Napa Valley community for 90 years, but the Mount Veeder icon's formal dedication on Sept. 5, 1932 was overshadowed by an overwhelming financial burden threatening its very existence. However, and appropriately for Napa Valley, their wine and brandy became their saving grace and salvation.

Prior to Mont La Salle, the Christian Brothers campus was located in Martinez. It was established in 1879 with the purchase of about 70 acres. Twelve of those acres were in vineyard. According to the oral history given by Brother Timothy Diener, that same year some of the Brothers did not want those grapes to go to waste. They, of course, made wine with the juice of those grapes. Although Brother Timothy described the process and equipment of those earlier days as “very primitive,” it marked the beginning of their winemaking legacy.

By the 1920s, the rapidly growing community of Martinez was encroaching upon the Christian Brothers property. Desiring more serenity, the Christian Brothers searched for a new site. They found an idyllic setting on Mount Veeder west of Napa.

In 1930, Christian Brothers purchased the 338-acre former wine estate. The property included an old stone winery, a small still, 100,000 gallons of dry wine, 12,000 gallons of grape juice, orchards, gardens, a swimming pool, ponds and 12 small cottages. It became the present-day site of Mont La Salle, although more land was purchased over time to total nearly 500 acres.

The “History of Mont La Salle for Diocesan Record” provided a brief chain of title for the Redwood Road property. It stated that M.H. Hudeman had purchased the property in 1864 where he settled and farmed the land. Due to the numerous springs on the property, he named it Spout Farm. Twenty years later, Rudolf Jordan Jr., purchased the land and planted 75 acres in vines. He renamed the property Lotus Vineyard in honor of the Egyptian lotus that thrived in a man-made lake on the property. Next came Theodore Gier, who bought the Mount Veeder acreage in 1900. In addition to planting more vines, he constructed the stone winery and named it Sequoia Vineyards.

Another name change came when the Christian Brothers purchased the hillside estate 30 years later. They renamed it Mount La Salle in honor of the founder of Christian Brothers, St. John Baptist de la Salle. However, in 1931, they modified that name by substituting the French word “Mont” for “Mount.”

The purchase of the estate and construction of the Mont La Salle buildings was made possible by a bond of $500,000. The campus plans included three two-story buildings, a chapel all connected by arcades and three patios. These buildings and structures are in the Spanish Romanesque and Mission architectural styles.

Originally, the primary function of Mont La Salle was to provide high school education, religious training for those entering the order, and a home for retired Christian Brothers known as the Holy Family Community. Unfortunately, as the Christian Brothers began to settle in at Mont La Salle in 1932, the future of the new campus was tenuous at best.

The Diocesan Record explained: “In 1936, Mont La Salle was faced with the dire effects of the Depression when the De La Salle Institute declared bankruptcy because it did not have the funds to redeem the bonds that were issued in 1930 for the construction of Mont La Salle.” That same year papers were drawn up for the sale of Mont La Salle. Brother Alfred Brousseau, author of “Called to the Pacific,” a Christian Brothers history book, stated De La Salle Institute bondholders were paid off from the profits of the Christian Brothers winery in 1945. With that payment, the Brothers finally held clear title to Mont La Salle.

Brousseau continued, “Shortly after the move to Mont La Salle, two events occurred which would radically alter the Brothers’ winemaking business.” The first event was the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The second was the appointment of Brother John Hoffman to their winery operations in 1934. A year later, he became the general manager of the Mont La Salle vineyards. He attended UC Berkeley’s winemaking program to become a better winemaker and also upgraded Mont La Salle’s equipment.

In 1937, Hoffman was contacted by Alfred Fromm of Picker-Linz Importers of New York City. Fromm, described by Brousseau as “an imaginative merchandiser,” not only offered to market and promote Christian Brothers wines, he had developed a nationwide distribution plan. Fromm also rebranded their wines from “Mont La Salle” to Christian Brothers.”

Under Brother John’s leadership, in 1941, Mont La Salle Vineyards crafted and sold its first brandy. Brousseau added, “This venture was quite successful from the start and would supply De La Salle Institute with most of its revenue. These were key milestones in the history and continuation of Mont La Salle.”

Invited guests, friends and family took took part in a celebration to usher in harvest season in the Napa Valley at Schramsberg Winery in Calistoga.

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George Altamura, Sr. is well known as a successful Napa real estate developer with direct and bold style of communication and forthright personality. Most are unaware, however, that Altamura, who has called Napa home since the late 1940s, loves to cook.

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