The Forgotten Kingpins Who Conspired to Save California Wine


By Ben Marks 

If you live in San Francisco and want to show off your knowledge of California wine to a few friends from out of town, you might take them to a wine-savvy restaurant like Boulevard, a block or so from the Ferry Building and San Francisco Bay. Scanning the multi-page wine list, you’d say something knowing about how hot Kongsgaard is right now, but you’d pass on the $165 bottle of its 2013 Chardonnay and order a $94 bottle of Far Niente—same varietal, same year—instead. Perusing the reds, you’d remark that the $650 price tag for a bottle of 2010 Sine Qua Non Stockholm Syndrome Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County is actually quite reasonable, but that the 2010 Qupé Syrah from the nearby Edna Valley is also nice and, at $105, a bargain by comparison.

These recommendations would be sure to impress. But what if one of your old chums, rising to the challenge of your enological expertise, suddenly turns and asks if you know that the city of Richmond across the bay—home to a noxious Chevron oil refinery and is considered one of the 10 most dangerous cities with populations under 200,000—was once California’s undisputed wine capital?

You’d blink, and accuse your pal of pulling your leg, until he starts telling you the story of the rise and fall of the California Wine Association, which, in 1907, built a 47-acre compound there, evocatively named Winehaven.

Top: In the late 1890s, the California Wine Association sold some of its members’ wine under the Big Tree brand. Click to enlarge. (Courtesy ofEarly California Wine Trade Archive) Above: A 1902 map touts the C.W.A.’s awards and geographic reach. (Courtesy Gail Unzelman)

The location was not a whim: In 1906, 10 million gallons of C.W.A. wine had been spilled in the San Francisco earthquake and boiled in the fires that followed. By the time your friend has finished explaining that as many as 12 million gallons of wine and brandy a year were once produced at Winehaven, you’d realize that while you may be able to order a decent bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant, you don’t know beans about California’s wine history, especially before Prohibition.

Few people do. In fact, if those who shop at BevMo for bargain bottles think about California’s wine history at all, their timeline usually begins in 1976 at the so-called Judgment of Paris, in which a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, both from the Napa Valley, stunned the international wine world by beating some of France’s most esteemed Bordeaux and Burgundies in a blind tasting.

To be sure, one would not directly credit the C.W.A. for the Judgment of Paris, but this watershed moment in California wine history didn’t come out of nowhere. Or at least that was my reaction after reading a terrific new book called Tangled Vines by Frances Dinkelspiel. Even though the main thread of Dinkelspiel’s narrative concerns the events leading up to an arson-caused warehouse fire in 2005, which destroyed 4.5 million bottles of wine worth at least a quarter-billion dollars, the story of the C.W.A.—at one point, it controlled a staggering 84 percent of California’s wine business—figures prominently. What else might Dinkelspiel know about the C.W.A. that didn’t make it into her book? My interest piqued, I decided to call her and find out.

“In the 1890s, the California wine industry was a mess,” Dinkelspiel told me when we spoke a few days later over the phone. The economic panic of 1893, she explained, had created a glut of grapes, severely depressing the price of fruit and wine alike. “The timing was right for someone to get in there and dominate the market in order to stabilize it,” she says.