The Rise and Fall of LA’s First Winery

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It all started in on Mount Wilson.

We moved to Sierra Madre, California a little over a year ago.

Sierra Madre is a little bit cuter than the rest of the world and it’s residents enjoy a 1800’s western town that is nestled on Mount Wilson above the San Gabriel Valley.

The mountains air is 10 degrees cooler than the valley during the hot summer months and it’s filled with hiking trails, historical craftsman houses and a quirky artistic mentality.

Every fall there is a scarecrow making contest and every spring for the last 99 years, the Wisteria Festival.

Wistaria-vineWisteria is a pale lilac climbing flower of the pea family and the town boasts the biggest shrub in the world.

Sierra Madre is home to a community of old money and artists.

Guess which ones we are?

As the legend goes Sierra Madre was founded by “Don Benito” Wilson, who was looking for suitable wood for his wine casks.

Wilson went exploring up the mountain for cask wood and in the process built up an Indian trail which we now know as the Mount Wilson Trail.

The hiking trail became popular with locals who would make a weekend trip up the 5 mile summit and the town of Sierra Madre grew around the trail as a tourist destination for hiking.

Below the mountain lay the San Gabriel Valley, where the first pioneers of California settled.

donbenitoSan Gabriel Wine Company

Around 500 A.D. the Tongva indians migrated from the Mojave area to what would become the Los Angeles County which included the San Gabriel Valley.

Their name means “People of the Earth”.

By 1769 there were 5,000 Tongva living in 31 villages.

The Tongvas were integrated into the culture of the local Spanish mission and were the first to carve a trail in Mount Wilson to carry timber down from the mountain for the construction of the San Gabriel Mission in 1771.

“Don Benito” Wilson was a local rancher, winery owner and first Anglo mayor of Los Angeles.

Lake Vineyard, he said, was “the prettiest and healthiest place in California.”

The property soon became the showplace of the region and no visit to Los Angeles was complete without experiencing the abundance of Lake Vineyard.

Original Mission vines were already on the property with 6 foot high trunks when Wilson took over in 1876 and they may have been planted there as early as 1815.

But Don Benito didn’t stop with the Mission Vines, he continued to experiment with new varieties in hopes of finding the best wine for the terroir.

He also experimented with different wine types and made the first sparkling wine in California.

Don Benito continued to buy land and plant grapes and soon his vineyards exceeded 100 acres.

He started shipping and selling his wine globally in the late 1800’s except to Boston Mass.

According to the University of California Press, “The Bostonians were so accustomed to adulterated wine they no longer believed in the possibility of anything else; in consequence they mostly drank whiskey.”

Wilson’s neighbors started planting grapes to sell to him and soon the San Gabriel Valley was the biggest vineyard in California.

By 1875 Lake Vineyard was the largest wine manufacturer on the Pacific Coast and produced over 150,000 gallons of wine annually and 116,000 gallons of brandy.
winevalleyLavish showplace of Los Angeles

In 1877 Wilson’s son-in-law, J. De Barth Shorb, built a big house on the property and named it “San Marino” after his family estate in Maryland.

San Marino was soon a lavish showplace of Los Angeles that every dignitary had to visit.

In 1882 the San Gabriel Wine Company was formed from Lake Vineyard, financed by English investors and prominent Californians.

The goal was to flood the markets of Europe with California wines as the European wine grapes were being ravaged by phylloxera.

The winery aimed to become the largest in the world with a fermenting capacity of a million gallons and the storage capacity of a million and a quarter.

It was state of the art, built with brick and powered by steam but the wine spoiled during the long rail journey through the southwestern deserts and across the midwestern plains.

Transportation from the West Coast to Europe was a major obstacle but a way to get around it was by the method of concentrating the unfermented juice of the grape for shipment and then adding water to it later.

The juice was fermented into wine once it got to it’s destination.

Since concentrating the juice got rid of the water, the product was economical to ship and avoided the alcohol duties.

It seemed the perfect solution to the shipping problem but didn’t yield the finest wine.

The San Gabriel Wine Company amassed over 1,170 acres of land and had assets of just over $700,000 by 1896 but struggled financially until the end of the century.

boonegallery_0The property was eventually bought by Henry Huntington and is now the Huntington Art Gallery.

I have been a member of the Huntington Gallery for over 10 years and I had no idea that where it stands was once the heart of the largest viticulture region in California history.


The Bottle Shop

I first noticed the Bottle Shop when I moved to Sierra Madre about a year ago.

Bill Sullivan’s family has owned the property since the 60’s.

The Bottle Shop has a state of the art tasting room with an amazing selection of automatic pour wines.

If you’ve never tried it it seems a little impersonal at first but once you get over it you can zip around the room and try all of the varietals.

automaticA wine bar can keep dozens of wines on tap without bottles spoiling and are all served fresh at the perfect temperature.

These systems allow wine bars to offer small tastes or glasses of more expensive wine.

Before if a wine bar opened a $300 bottle of wine for a customer to taste, they had to sell the rest of the bottle within a couple of days.

The wine would go bad and the bar would lose money. With an automatic system, the bottle stays fresh for upwards of two months.

I had a taste of a 2013 Brothers Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that was icy cold with no acidity and just heavenly.

wine cooler 2The Bottle Shop has one of the most impressive walk-in red wine cooler that is also doubles as a store display that can be viewed from the outside.

It is a custom made 600 square foot walk-in cooler and stays at approximately 70 degrees and holds an impressive 800 bottles.

“We can make it colder but we want to keep it at a comfortable temperature for people to walk around and shop for wine,” said Sullivan.

Bill made the red wine cooler himself with foam insulated walls and double pained windows keeping the wine at a consistent temperature keeps it from spoiling in the blazing hot Southern California summer.

Sitting at the foot of a mountain in California and sipping wine shipped all the way from New Zealand would have been unfathomable in the not too distant past.

Proper refrigeration in shipping and storing has quite literally globalized the wine industry.


Effects of Heat on Wine

The pace of chemical reactions is driven by the amount of energy in the system they’re in. As energy levels rise, the rate of reaction increases. Changes that may have taken place over several years at low temperatures might happen in as little as a few hours at high temperatures.

Not every chemical reaction has the same heat threshold, however. Some require small amounts of heat while others require more. In wine, which contain over 1,000 different chemicals, adding heat destroys the internal chemistry responsible for its flavor. Tannins, for example, tannins polymerize at low temperatures while sugars ferment at high temperatures. Adding heat also accelerates the formation of acetic acid, one of the main components of vinegar, and disturbs the formation of esters, one of the main flavor components of wine.


Effects of Heat Fluctuation on Wine

The only thing worse than storing your wine at the wrong temperature is storing it at an unstable temperature.

Temperature fluctuations cause wine to expand and contract, which puts a lot of pressure on the cork. It loosens and recedes, allowing wine to seep out and oxygen to seep in. Oxygen not only encourages bacterial growth, but it also harms the wine’s phenolic compounds and gives it a stale, astringent taste.


Ideal Wine Storage Temperature

The ideal temperature for wine storage is 55°F. At this temperature, the chemical processes in the wine proceed roughly in tandem and any lingering bacteria are held in check. Temperature fluctuations should never exceed 5°F in either directions, so storing it in a wine coolers or wine cellar, away from major heat sources, is essential.

Wine Storing Temperature and

NewAir AW-321ED 32 Bottle Dual Zone Thermoelectric Wine Cooler

As they say, the bigger the wine, the warmer the serve and the lighter the wine, the colder.

A dual zone wine cooler allows you to have a section for white wine and a section you can use for either storage or red wine.

So which style of wine cooler is right for you?

It really boils down to this question…are you using your wine cooler for service, storage or both?

If it is service, or both, then a dual zone unit is what you need.

  • Compact black and stainless steel case fits seamlessly in decor
  • Monitor temperature easily with digital display and push-button controls
  • Store up to 32 bottles of wine in separate dual zone compartments
  • Thermoelectric system runs quietly and is vibration free
  • Wooden pull-out drawers allow easy access to wine

This wine cooler is backed by NewAir, a name you can trust, with a 1 year in home service & repair warranty

How envious Don Benito would have been!


To find out how to store and serve your favorite wine

Check out


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