Anderson Valley Wine History (Part 1)

Winegrowing and winemaking are such important parts of Anderson Valley today that it seem strange to realize that they are relative newcomers. The Valley is one of the most beautiful and productive areas of California's North Coast region with a rich and colorful history.

White men first came to Mendocino County in the 1830s when Mexican officials made several large land grants in the Russian River Valley. Throughout the Mexican era in California history Anderson Valley remained undisturbed as a homeland of the native Pomo Indians. Even the acquisition of California by the United States brought few changes.

What did bring about rapid change in California which eventually reached even a tiny remote Mendocino Valley was the discovery of gold. People rushed into California from all over the world in hopes of striking it rich in the foothills of the distant Sierra Nevada mountains. More people meant more pressure to find new land for farming and ranching.

One group that felt the lack of elbow room was the Walter Anderson clan. Walter and Rhoda Anderson left Missouri and crossed the plains and mountains with their children in 1845 seeking new land and new opportunities. They settled in the Sacramento Valley, several days ride northwest of Sutter's Fort. Two of the Anderson boys had been among the couple thousand daring Americanos who had taken part in the Bear Flag uprising at Sonoma in June of 1846 when they declared California to be a republic independent of Mexican rule. These same two went off to fight under John C. Fremont and other American officers in the war that wrested California from Mexico along with Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and parts of Colorado.

Not long after the fighting ended, and even before the peace treaty was formally signed, John Marshall made the fateful gold discovery in the tailrace of John Sutter's lumber mill in Coloma. By the middle of 1848 sailors were jumping ship in San Francisco and trying their luck in the gold fields. Within one year tens of thousands were leaving their homes in Europe, South America, China and all parts of the United States seeking the quickest route to the riches of California.

Most of them found more disappointment than gold. Lack of success did not send all of them back home however. Many former gold seekers decided to stay on in California and send for their families. The first great California land boom had begun.

To people like Walter Anderson the prospect of having neighbors within a few miles was most unwelcome. He had already wandered from Kentucky through Indiana, Illinois and frontier Missouri before coming to California and began to feel the need for more elbow room. In the spring of 1851 he loaded his family, livestock and possessions and headed west once again.

The Andersons considered settling in the Clear Lake area but kept moving when they found out that the local Indians were angry about a recent massacre by the US Army at "Bloody Island." The pioneer family eventually stopped in a small valley in northern Sonoma County near Cloverdale.

The three eldest Anderson boys went on ahead hunting for game to feed the family. The young men wounded and tracked an Elk for quite a distance when they came to a rocky ledge on a ridgetop. What they saw below both astonished and delighted them. It was a long valley stretching to the northwest, surrounded by dense woods on the southwestern side and grassy hills to the northeast. The young hunters descended to the valley floor and found the valley to be a veritable Eden. There were abundant meadow grasses and water for livestock. Deer, elk, bear and small game animals roamed the Valley and surrounding hills. They camped for several days exploring and taking in the natural wonders that had perhaps never before been seen by white men.

As soon as they rejoined the rest of the family the young explorers told of their find. Within a few days the Andersons were on their way to make their home in the small, jewel-like valley that was to be known afterwards as Anderson Valley.

The same beauty and abundance that had attracted the Andersons to the Valley soon drew other settlers. By the following year even old Walter was happy enough to have a handful of neighboring settlers since the local Pomo band had shown little enthusiasm for welcoming the newcomers. Within a few years a small but thriving agricultural community had grown up in and around Anderson Valley.

In the year 1856 a group of Swiss immigrants who had originally homesteaded in Illinois settled in the lower end of the valley between the present-day towns of Philo and Navarro. The Gschwend, Gossman and Guntley families brought with them old world skills and know-how. They planted orchards and perhaps vinifera grapes on their homesteads. John Gschwend built the Valley's first sawmill the year he arrived and neighbor Andrew Guntley brewed some grain from the first harvest into beer. Soon Guntley was distilling some of his fermented grain and fruit into brandy. The beverage industry in Anderson Valley had begun.

There is no mention of wine in early accounts of life in the valley. It is difficult to believe that none of the settlers, especially those with European backgrounds, like the Swiss, made and consumed wine. North American native (labrusca) grapes were as abundant as other wild fruits in Mendocino County. However, whatever wine was made by the early settlers must have been limited and kept for home consumption. No written accounts of commercial winemaking in Anderson Valley during this period have come to light thus far.

There are several mentions of Anderson Valley pioneer families growing grapes and like other agriculturalists, Valley people grew grapevines around their farmhouses for beauty and utility. In a 1982 remembrance, old-timer Alva Ingram said he remembered seeing a small 20-vine vineyard at the old Ball ranch near Boonville in 1897. He estimated from the size of the vines that they were then about 20 years old. He mentions having seen gnarly old vines that must have been planted in the 1860s or 1970s at several other Valley homesteads.

There are even suggestions that a few families may have tried to set up sizable vineyards just as they had planted orchards. Apples soon became the mainstay of Anderson Valley's export economy, but peaches, pears, prunes and hops were all grown with greater or lesser degrees of commercial success during the first half-century of settlement.

Two factors seem to have limited the growing of grapes and winemaking in the early years. The first had to do with the people themselves. Except for the Swiss families mentioned earlier, most of the early settlers in Anderson Valley were from the eastern United States where there was no tradition of winemaking or drinking. Andrew Guntley probably had no trouble finding takers for his homemade whiskey (at least until 1866 when new tax laws put an end to his commercial distillery) because that is what the people from Missouri and other eastern states traditionally drank. There wouldn't have been much demand for wine in the valley during those years and remoteness from larger communities combined with primitive transportation to restrict potential outside markets.

In fact it was difficult to ship any agricultural products from Anderson Valley to the outside world. Most of the apples and other fruit shipped outside the valley in the 19th century were dried before shipping. It wasn't until 1868 that the first toll road was completed linking the Anderson Valley to the seat of government in Ukiah only 25 miles away.

The second problem was climate. Those few who had tried to grow European (vinifera) grapes in Anderson Valley experienced problems with ripeness and frost. Most of the homesteads and farms were located on the valley floor where sub-freezing temperatures often occurred on spring nights. Springtime frosts rarely damaged apples but they usually resulted in low or even nonexistent yields for grapes. Except for native or a few ornamental vines, old-timers in the Valley were inclined to state that "You can't grow grapes in Anderson Valley," and leave it at that.

The first change in this situation took place in the 1890s. In the late 1880s L.E. White had begun turning sleepy Greenwood (the present-day town of Elk) into a major coastal lumber mill and shipping point. White built a new mill and wharf and began building railroad tracks up the Greenwood and Elk Creek watersheds. This new activity brought an increased need for labor and agricultural goods from nearby Anderson Valley. As it happened there was a group of people ready and willing to fill those needs.

Italian economic and political unrest fueled immigration to the United States during the 1890s and early years of the 20th century. Although many Italian immigrants settled in urban areas of the northeastern United States, a sizable number made their way to Northern California. A few of them had been in California since the gold rush days of the 1850s and they encouraged their relatives and friends to settle on the West Coast. They brought with them a number of old country ways including winegrowing skills and a taste for wine.

A number of Italian immigrants came to Greenwood from San Francisco in 1894. Among them were Angelo and Rosie Frati, Demeterio Tovani, Fausto Giusti, John Frati and Giovanni Giovanetti. These people homesteaded on Greenwood Ridge, high ground with a good road that connected the port of Greenwood with Anderson Valley, a road distance of about 18 miles.

Greenwood Ridge has a very different climate from Anderson Valley proper. The broad ridgetop plateaus and benches sit at elevations of up to 1600 feet above sea level. This puts them above the persistent coastal fogs that hang in the canyons of Greenwood Creek and the Navarro River, fogs which can chill lower portions of Anderson Valley in summer as well as winter. Ridge lands are drenched with sunlight. However, the close proximity of the Pacific Ocean keeps ridgetop temperatures from rising or falling to Valley extremes. Occasionally summer heat waves drive Anderson Valley temperatures well into the 90s or even to 100. Ocean breezes reaching Greenwood Ridge often moderate these highs by ten degrees or more. Springtime frosts are virtually unknown to many parts of the ridge where cold air drains down the steep slopes into the canyons below.

These were the climactic conditions the Italians encountered when they arrived on Greenwood Ridge in 1894. They had come from an area where grapes were traditionally grown on hillsides with the richer bottom lands reserved for more demanding crops. The climate and the rich clay soils reminded them of their native northern Italian homeland. So to make themselves feel even more at home they cleared the wooded slopes and planted their native vinifera grapes. Since few of these pioneer vines have survived the ravages of time and replanting, it is not known with certainty what varieties of grapes were planted in the 1890s.

Unlike today, most early viticulturalists did a certain amount of "blending" in the vineyard. The primary black (red wine) grape in most of these early plantings appears to have been zinfandel with some carignane and an occasional alicante thrown in for balance. For white wine, golden chasselas (palomino), malvasia Bianca and muscat grapes were the favorites. The cuttings from most of these early grapes probably came from established vineyards in neighboring Sonoma County.

Like many of the Italian-Americans of Greenwood Ridge, Angelo and Rosie Frati made wine and bread to sell in Anderson Valley and Greenwood. As more Italian immigrants came to cut timber, work in the lumber mills and to perform agricultural labor in Anderson Valley orchards, Greenwood Ridge vineyardists found an increasing market for their products. The Fratis reportedly sold their wine for a dollar a gallon and bread for 50¢ a loaf. As the logging railway pushed his way up Greenwood Creek from the coastal mill, it brought customers closer to the budding wineries of the ridge.

Italian Americans were not the only people to grow grapes or make and sell wine in the early 1900s. Charles Hagemann bought the John Studebaker property next to Giovanni Giovanetti in about 1910. Giovanetti had been growing grapes and making wine for years. A land survey made at the time of the sale showed that a good-sized portion of the Giovanetti vineyard had been planted on Studebaker's land. Hagemann is said to have given the crop to his neighbor for five years and then claimed the vines and fruit as his own.

While Giovanetti mourned his loss, Hagemann was planting more grapes. Zinfandel and Alicante reds were set out, along with Riesling, Malvasia Bianca, and Sweetwater whites. The enterprising Hagemann reportedly carved and burned out a large redwood tree stump to use as a winepress and built a 1900-gallon fermentation tank. By the end of World War I he was delivering wine to Anderson Valley and Greenwood by car. His neighbor Giovanetti kept up a lively business with the remaining vineyard delivering five and ten gallon barrels and wicker-covered demijohns to his customers by horse-drawn wagon.

The quality of the wine produced on Greenwood Ridge must have varied according to a number of conditions -- including transportation -- prior to its sale. The Ridge was certainly famous on the Coast and Valley for its wines. Greenwood Ridge was referred to in the vernacular of the region as "Vinegar Hill." (Boontling, the elaborate local language developed in Anderson Valley at the end of the 19th century, recognized the importance of the Italian winegrowers and makers. Boont speakers called the winegrowing ridge area "Iteland," and referred to wine grapes as "Frati shams" in recognition of the Frati family’s pioneering contributions to winegrowing.)

Customers who liked their spirits but found the sourness of wine disagreeable had another choice. Several of the winemakers had also built stills which produced "grappa" brandy. Prices were accordingly higher. Since several of the school districts in Anderson Valley had voted to outlaw the sale of alcoholic beverages in their areas (by 1914 both Boonville and Navarro were “dry” and the saloons were out of business; business on Vinegar Hill must have been brisk).

The success of the Greenwood Ridge vineyards led to plantings in other nearby areas. On ridges south of Anderson Valley, Italian-American families found similarly suitable conditions for growing grapes and making wine. There may have been as many as 150 acres of wine grapes growing in the Fish Rock Road area of Mendocino County during the World War I era and portions of two of these high elevation vineyards -- about 14 acres in all -- survive and produce high quality zinfandel to this day. Greenwood Ridge probably was home to more than 200 acres of wine grapes at that time.

Ridges were not the only places to be planted during the early years of the 20th century. The Pinoli family began buying property in the Mill Creek/Lazy Creek area between Philo and Navarro, and they planted grapes on sloping hillsides above the creek. Joe Pinoli began planting his vineyards in 1911 or 1912 and is said to have founded the first bonded winery in the Valley. John and Charles Pinoli bought land nearby and began planting grapes in 1917. Zinfandel, Alicante and Sweetwater were the variety chosen for their venture. These vineyards situated on warm south facing slopes survived the frosts and showed that wine grapes — planted in some Valley locations at least — could grow to maturity.

Just when things were looking up for Anderson Valley growers and their wineries, Prohibition brought down the curtain. It was one thing to work around the local ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages but quite another to take on the US government. By 1921 making and selling wine had become a federal offense.

Federal agents came calling on winery owners — with axes.

Although some of the older residents could speak little English, they soon got the point. Olga Tovani Hill recalls the Feds making a raid and smashing her family's wine tanks. She remembers the wine running down the road in ruts and potholes. As soon as the agents were outside, the children collected it and put it in small barrels for later use.

According to most accounts the raids did put a dent in winemaking but never really stopped it. Most of the old winemakers still sold wine and grappa "through the back door." Hard times in the lumber industry and fear of federal action certainly clouded the outlook for the local wine industry during the 1920s and 1930s. Many vineyardists let their vines fall into neglect or pulled them to make way for orchards or open grazing land. Some sold their land and moved on to other parts of California. Still there were a few people who believed that the future would be brighter.

(To be continued…)

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