By Margie Lew
A happy group of 228 persons enjoyed an eight-course gourmet dinner with wine at the Golden Palace Restaurant. President George Yee introduced Elne Meline, President of the Conference of California Historical Societies; Merrill Baugham, Vice-President of Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society; Claire Crain, Conference Vice-President (14B). There was a strong showing from the Santa Clarita Valley and San Fernando Valley Historical Societies. President Yee’s anecdotes describing the changing attitudes towards the Chinese in the past 30 years added to the warm camaraderie of the evening. Vice President Gerald Shue introduced the guest speaker, Mr. William F. Heintz of Glen Ellen (Sonoma Valley), who has the distinction of being the only professional wine and viticultural historian in the country.
Mr. Heintz ‘ topic, “The Role of Chinese Labor in Early California Wine Making”, brought out many heretofore unknown (or hidden ) facts. For instance, numerous books, newspaper and magazine articles have brought out the fact that there were many thousands of Chinese in California in the second half of the 19th century working on the railroads, laboring in various industries such as fishing, shrimp, farming, mining. But there has been little, if any, documentation of the very vital role played by the Chinese in the wine industry. To be certain, there was mention of them laboring in the
vineyards picking grapes and pruning grapevines. Now, however, the cobwebs are being slowly swept out of history’s dusty bins, and a number of astounding facts have come to light. Through diligent and persistent research, Mr. Heintz has discovered that the Chinese built many of the wineries in California, as well as working on numerous wine cellars
(also known as tunnels) which entailed a great amount of blasting and excavating. These buildings and tunnels were so well built that many of them are still standing and are being used.
The Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, the oldest operating winery in the state, was built by the Chinese in 1860. Agoston Haraszthy, the founder of the winery and generally recognized as the “Father of Viticulture” in California, was the first to employ Chinese in the vineyards. Mr. Heintz states, “Sometime in 1861, Haraszthy made a trip to Europe to study grape cultivation. On his return to California, he brought back several hundred thousand cuttings of the best wine grapes in France, Germany, Italy, etc. The Chinese laborers very carefully unpacked and unwrapped each cutting, planted them, nursed them with painstaking diligence, and removed them again from the soil to be replanted elsewhere in the state. From these· cuttings the commercial wine industry in California was born.”
Another outstanding structure built by Chinese labor was the Occidental Winery, a beautiful stone building which still exists near Yountville. In 1887, construction began on the then largest winery in California, the Christian Bros. Winery in St. Helena. Although there was no actual documentation indicating the contribution of the Chinese in building this structure, several “old timers” in the area stated that the work was most definitely done by them.
Mr. Heintz has also uncovered the fact that there were several Chinese Vintners during this period. One such person was Young Moon, who became an experienced wine taster and blender at the Chauvet Winery in Glen Ellen. Mr. Heintz states, “There have been other Chinese wine makers, but none I have documented so thoroughly. It is my conclusion
that most of the wine made in California during the 19th century was made by Chinese or with Chinese help. This is based on the simple, inescapable fact that Chinese made up 90% of the vineyard and winery help in those years. They not only pruned the vines in the spring and picked the grapes in the fall, they made or helped make the wine in the wineries in the 1880’s.”
Without reservation, Mr. Heintz feels that viticulture in California would have been set back 30 to SO years were it not for the Chinese vineyard worker. At least two circumstances bear this fact:
. . . . .
For the first 40 years of grape-growing in California, it was believed that the vines should be no higher than 18 inches from the ground. Picking grapes required continuous bending and stooping in addition to lifting 30-50 lb boxes of the fruit under a hot sun for hours at a stretch. Caucasian laborers could not work under such conditions, so it was the Chinese who did this heavy, painful work from the 18S0’s to about 1890 .
. . . . .
In the 1870’s, a vine disease called “Phylloxera” (native to our East Coast) threatened to wipe out the vineyards in California. Twenty years of experimentation finally brought forth the discovery that Eastern American grape roots, grafted with the fine European grape, was the only solution. Since most of the grapevines had been wiped out by the phylloxera, the vineyards had to be replanted. This was done by the Chinese laborers, who also took over the tedious work of grafting the vines, a delicate and technical undertaking. (Field grafters of vines today are among the most highly paid professions in viticulture). Mr. Heintz further states, “The phylloxera story is one of the highlights in the history of the grape and wine in this state. You can read about it in most history books. But nowhere will you find any reference to the Chinese contribution.”
Much has been written, in years past, of the outstanding contributions made by the Chinese in railroad building, fishing, land reclamation, and other fields, but Mr. Heintz’ discourse on the grape culture and wine industry was indeed a Chinese “eye-opener” for many individuals, Asian and Caucasian alike, who heretofore had not even a slight suspicion that thousands of Chinese laborers played so vital a part in one of California’s leading industries.
In conclusion, the speaker requested the audience to join him in a wine toast to the memory of the “unknown winemakers – the Chinese”:
“Gentlemen: At long last you have received your well-deserved place in history. Your countless hours of labor were not in vain, but our “thank you” is a little late and long overdue!”
The Society also acknowledges the receipt of one case of Haraszthy 1974 Green Hungarian, a very delightful wine, generously donated by Buena Vista Winery. The Winery that first hired Chinese back in 1860.