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Eat, Drink, Savor: The spectacular 170 year old lineage of Cienega Valley Wines

How Theophile Vaché and William Palmtag established fine winemaking in San Benito County.

When you enjoy a glass of negrette at DeRose Winery, you are also tasting a surviving piece of the early commercial wine history of California, on the spot where it began—in San Benito County’s Cienega Valley.

Pioneer winemaker Théophile Vaché first planted grapes in this remote valley in the Gabilan Range in 1851. Eight acres of negrette vines planted before 1880 are still growing there; one of the acres was planted by Vaché in 1855.

“We only get about three tons of grapes off those acres,” said winemaker Al DeRose. “It’s a lot of work to make this wine—it’s not even a barrel off an acre. But it is worth it.”

Almost 40 acres of French varietals planted before 1906 still grow on the original Vaché estate, now the home of DeRose and Eden Rift Wineries. The two properties make up the oldest commercial vineyards in California, producing wines that have been winning awards internationally for over 120 years.

Winemaking in California began with listán prieto grapes from the Canary Islands. Better known as mission grapes, they were first planted by Junipero Serra at Mission San Diego de Alcalá in 1769. The oldest living vine in California is believed to be one at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, which tradition dates to 1775.
The Spanish grew grapes wherever they settled throughout the Americas. Mission grapes became the dominant variety for almost a century, used as table grapes or made into wine.

Lots of wine.

Peak output at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel alone came to 50,000 gallons a year. What the church did not use for sacramental purposes it sold throughout the state. It was produced quickly, in weeks rather than years, and did not age well, spoiling in a matter of months.
“If you have tasted sacramental wine,” said Eden Rift founder Christian Pillsbury, “you will understand why the mission grape is not used much anymore. The grapes may be high yielding and relatively easy to grow, but the wine is generally pretty one-dimensional, and occasionally a bit rough. Think ‘hearty country red’ more than a wine of much particular character.”

The grapes began to vanish after the secularization of missions. The vineyard lands were sold off and converted to other uses. During the Gold Rush, mission grapes were replaced by classic Old World vines brought by French and German farmers who came to seek their fortunes.

And joining the wave of immigrants was Théophile Vaché, the son of a French baker.

The signature of Theophile Vaché. Courtesy of Monterey County Historical Society
The signature of Theophile Vaché. Courtesy of Monterey County Historical Society

Vaché did not set out to be a winemaker. Born in 1814, in Bordeaux, France, he came to New Orleans in 1840 and took up his father’s trade. He seemed to have an almost incurable wanderlust: after six months, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico; then he was off to Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1842; and back to Santa Fe in 1843. He returned to France in 1845, after another brief stay in New Orleans.

In 1846, he and his brother Adolphe left  France and sailed around Cape Horn to Peru. Once again his stay was short and they sailed to San Francisco in 1849.

Adolphe was an experienced baker as well and family lore holds that the Vaché brothers introduced French bread to California. That distinction actually belongs to Isidore Boudin and Boudin’s Bakery in San Francisco.

However, it’s possible that the Vaché brothers worked for Boudin. They arrived in San Francisco the same year Boudin founded his bakery. Boudin was about the same age as Théophile Vaché and also a native of Bordeaux.

Once again their stay was short. The two brothers moved to San Juan Bautista in 1850, with Théophile initially working as a sheep rancher and Adolphe opening a bakery in the Tuccoletta Hall building on Third Street.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when Théophile established his vineyard. The family tradition says he started in 1832, which is not possible. Besides his being 18 years old that year and living in France, it’s far outside of the timeline of his known travels.

Vaché's Vineyard. From The History of Monterey County, 1881
Vaché’s Vineyard. From The History of Monterey County, 1881

Eden Rift Winery uses 1849 as the date, based on the claim of a previous owner of the vineyard, Valliant and Son Winery. Their advertising slogan was “under vine since 1849”—but 1849 may only have been used because it rhymed. And, again, the timeline is incorrect. Vaché was in San Francisco in 1849.

DeRose Winery uses 1854, which is the year Vaché started selling wine. That agrees with the date given in an article that appeared in the Pacific Rural Press in 1874. It’s certainly a safe date and appears in several reference books and histories of wine. But it does not account for the years it takes for planted vines to mature enough to produce grapes to make wine.

“History of Monterey County,” published by Elliott and Moore in 1881, suggests 1851 as the date, which seems to fit the timeline best. It allows for three years of vine growth before production and, since Vaché started with 10 acres of mission grapes, it also gives him enough time to produce and bottle the very basic wine he was selling.

It’s normal to think of Sonoma and Napa as the heart of the California wine industry, but Vaché had his fields planted before either region had commercial wineries. Agoston Haraszthy, known as the “father of California wine” founded Sonoma’s first winery in 1856, five years after Vaché. And in 1861, Vaché was expanding his vineyards with black pinot noir, trousseau and trousseau gris vines sent around Cape Horn in soil-packed barrels at the same time that Charles Krug founded Napa’s first winery.

Vaché’s selection of the Cienega Valley for his vineyards was astute. The winery sits directly on top of the San Andreas Fault, and that rift has created a perfect wine-growing environment.

“Because of the proximity to the coast,” said Al DeRose, “we have a good climate with cool nights and warm days. Because of the elevation, we don’t get the fog. Our soil profile has a lot of limestone, which makes for quality grape-growing regions. It is a perfect area for growing.”

Vaché eventually owned 320 acres and, by 1860, was producing 1,500 gallons of wine a year from 25 varieties of grapes. He sold it for 50 cents a gallon at the Vaché Wine Depot in San Juan Bautista, an adobe that still stands on the corner of Third and Washington streets.

He hit a small snag in his operation in late 1867, when the federal government seized 326 gallons of brandy, 150 gallons of wine, and his copper brandy still. He went to San Francisco to contest the seizure and was successful—his casks of brandy are mentioned in later reports by the county assessor.

By 1868, his business was important enough for the Monterey County Board of Supervisors to authorize a road running south from San Juan that ended on his property.

Vaché's Newspaper Ad. Daily Alta California, 1870
Vaché’s Newspaper Ad. Daily Alta California, 1870

By 1870, Vaché began having health problems and tried for two years to sell his business. One announcement described him as having 36,000 vines “unsurpassed by any for the variety and beauty” along with 350 fruit trees and 50 tons of grapes.

By 1880, according to Elliott and Moore, he was producing 10,000-15,000 gallons of wine from 25 varieties of grapes annually. Vaché was described as the “happy possessor of the only vineyard of any particular importance or pretentions in the county.” In 1883, he finally found a buyer in German immigrant William Palmtag, selling his vineyard for $10,000. He returned to France, dying a year later.

In 1883, Palmtag was 36 years old and already a busy man. In 1876 he was elected Hollister’s town trustee, the equivalent of mayor, and was reelected twice. Besides now owning the finest vineyard around, he was also treasurer of the County Agricultural Society, trustee of the Bank of Hollister, and on the board of the Hollister Fire Department. He had a liquor and cigar business, was a broker for a lumber company, and was an agent for two different steamship lines.

In 1884, Palmtag purchased more land and expanded his varietals to include ploussard, petit pinot, cabernet franc, and white riesling vines. His white riesling became known as his masterpiece.

William Palmtag. From the Pacific Wine and Spirit Review, 1893
William Palmtag. From the Pacific Wine and Spirit Review, 1893

In 1889, he built a distillery to make brandy. By this time, his vineyard was something of a social destination on weekends, and Palmtag built a pool and bath house. Between vintages, his fermenting room was used as a dance hall.
The winery was also a self-sufficient community for its 25 employees. He raised his own beef and lamb, made butter and cheese, and had farmlands and fruit trees. Palmtag himself lived in Hollister, on Palmtag Road, but visited his winery on Tuesdays and weekends, going there to bring the mail and wine orders as well as inspect the grounds.

In 1900, he entered his white riesling, Johannisberg riesling, sauterne, cabernet, angelica, sherry, port, brandy, and muscatel into the Paris Exhibition. Over the course of three months, the judges tasted over 10,000 wines from around the world. At the end of the judging, five California wineries were awarded gold medals and 13, including Palmtag, won silver medals.

“Vaché founded the winery,” said DeRose, “but Palmtag expanded it. He is really the one who put this area on the map by winning a silver medal at the 1900 Paris Exhibition.”

Fresh from that victory, Palmtag incorporated the winery in 1901 with the help of two major stockholders, John Dickinson and C. M. Lewis. The 1906 earthquake did major damage to the property, destroying almost all of the wine stored there, and in 1907 both Palmtag and Lewis sold their interest, leaving Dickinson in control.
During Prohibition, a San Francisco bank took over, but the vineyards still remained active and cultivated, selling grapes and making sacramental wine. After Prohibition, there was a succession of owners including Edwin Valliant, W. H. Taylor, and Almaden Vineyards.

By the 1980s, the historic winery was in disrepair. Vintage grapes were harvested, then sent off to become mass-produced, lower-shelf wine. This distinctive valley had gone from being a driving force in the wine industry to essentially a grape factory.

In 1986, Almaden sold the land to Heublein, Inc., and they split the vineyard into two pieces. They sold part to the DeRose and Cedolini Families, who created the DeRose Winery, and to Joseph Gimelli who founded Pietra Santa Winery. Finally, after decades of neglect, the weeds and overgrowth hiding the old vines were cleared out and classic fine wines were once again being produced.

In 2016, Christian Pillsbury bought Pietra Santa and created Eden Rift Winery.

With the DeRose Winery as a next-door neighbor and Calera Winery just up the road, the proud tradition of winemaking that Théophile Vaché began in the Cienega Valley 170 years ago is in good hands indeed.

In the coming months, BenitoLink will feature a series of articles on the wineries and breweries of San Benito County. The next article will explore DeRose Winery’s remarkable old vine wines and as well as its line of Parrone and Alchemy wines from Chile, produced by winemaker Al DeRose.

 

 

Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.