The Historic Almaden Winery


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TO:                  Chip Bowlby
                        NEW CITIES

FROM:           Doug Von Dollen

Here is some further information on the historical sources consulted for our article in the Vintage newsletter.  If you need more detailed citations, I would be happy to give them to you.

Most of the factual information on Etienne Thee and Charles LeFranc comes from “Like Modern Edens” by Charles L. Sullivan (1982), “History of San Jose” by Clyde Arbuckle (1985), and “Historical Footnotes of Santa Clara Valley” by Jack Douglas (1989).  In most cases, facts have been verified through at least two of these texts.

The quote regarding the “scale of hues on tempering steel” comes from “Vines in the Sun” by Idwal Jones (1949).

Information on LeFranc’s death, the country house’s furnishings and Louis Benoist is from a 1987 SJMN article by Marjorie Pierce and a 1974 SJMN article by Jim Choate.

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Vintage at the Almaden Winery

Vintage at the Almaden Winery would like to invite you to celebrate a Grand Opening – and the continuation of a 140-year tradition.  Though our 3, 4 and 5 bedroom homes are new, our commitment to excellent quality at affordable prices stretches back more than 150 years to the days of Etienne Thee.

Thee founded the Almaden Winery near Blossom Hill Road in the late 1840’s.  A French farmer, he may have come west to mine for gold only to discover richness of a different sort:  a beautiful setting that one visitor described as having “colors, indeed, (that) seemed to change like the chromatic scale of hues on tempering steel.”  People talked like that back then.

Unfortunately, the local wine grapes weren’t quite as stellar as the location.  It was Thee’s son-in-law, Charles LeFranc, who brought superior vine cuttings from the old country and, consequently, helped elevate California wines to their current world-class status.  Though unschooled as a vintner, LeFranc was a quick learner and brilliant innovator.  He was also an expert tailor, and kept a list of clients for more than a decade after the winery was founded (apparently he thought it would be nice to have something to fall back on).


LeFranc’s Almaden wines leterally became the toast of Northern Calfornia and, much to his own amusement, the winemaker became something of a local celebrity.  President Ulysses S. Grant and his prodigious thirst stopped by for a visit, and stage actress Annie Held supposedly bathed in champagne in the country home’s deep, long tub.  LeFrance also had a trap door installed in his dining room which led to his personal wine cellar.  This won’t be an optional feature at the homes in the Vintage neighborhood!

In due course, LeFranc hired another young Frenchman to be his bookkeeper and marketing expert.  Though he had little experience, the new man did have an eye for the boss’ daughter – which proved to be a good thing for everyone involved.  After all, Paul Masson needed to get his foot in the wine cellar door somewhere and he desperately needed someone to look after him.  In hindsight, it seems only fitting that the future champagne magnate celebrated landing his new job with wedding cake and a glass of bubbly.


The family’s bliss was broken when LeFranc was run over by a team of runaway horses.  The animals were frightened when a crate of LeFranc’s own wine fell behind them.  It was the sort of irony people just buzzed about even before there were tabloids and grocery store checkout lines.

Masson helped guide the Almaden Winery through the difficult days of Prohibition, then swapped the property for a 26,513-acre ranch near Gilroy.  While he went on to build a champagne empire from his base in Saratoga, the Almaden Winery continued to thrive, becoming the nation’s second biggest seller of table wines by the 1960’s. 


One of the winery’s owners during the 1960’s was Louis Benoist.  His wife restored Thee’s country home down to the smallest detail, even refusing to allow workmen to straighten the sloping floors in the dining room and upstairs bedroom.  However, she did allow her husband to indulge his rather overweening admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte.  Pictures of the little general covered the walls and a traditional Napoleonic hat hung on the clothes tree in the hallway.

As Almaden’s owners bought more land in the Central Valley, production at the original vineyard was reduced.  It was phased out completely in the 1980s.  Sadly, the country house burned in a 1989 fire.

Vintage at the Almaden Winery will preserve other pieces of the vineyard’s rich history for the entire community to enjoy.  New Cities Development Group, the neighborhood’s creators, will dedicate 40 descendants of the original grape vines to the San Jose Historical Museum.  Just as importantly, New Cities is preserving the dream of affordable quality that gave inspiration to Thee, LeFranc and Masson.  You’ll find this commitment built into every inch of Vintage at the Almaden Winery.

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The Almaden Winery property encompasses two historic landmarks.  The first designates the 1852 first planting in California of high-quality French varietal wine grapes.  The second landmark is the winery built in the same period by pioneer vintners Etienne Thee and Charles LeFranc.

One of the original wineries to be built in California, the Almaden Winery was destined to succeed beyond even the dreams of its founders.  By 1862, the Almaden Vineyards extended over 75 acres and produced 100,000 gallons of prize-winning wines.

Innovations at the Almaden Winery influenced generations of California wine makers, including Paul Masson, who married LeFranc’s daughter and ran Almaden Winery until selling it in 1930 to Charles M. Jones.  A competent wine maker, Jones contributed to the continually increasing quality of California wines.  After Jones’s death in 1940, Almaden was purchased by Louis Benoist and Brayton Wilbur, who were later joined by Frank Schoonmaker in developing Almaden into one of the largest wine-making companies in the world.

Benoist sold the winery to National Distillers in 1967, and by 1980, Almaden was the largest producer of premium varietal wines in the nation.  When it was sold in 1986, Almaden Winery was the oldest working winery in the United States.

Though the winery built by Etienne Thee and Charles LeFranc has suffered from the past years of neglect, New Cities Development Group will be working with the City of San Jose to fully restore it as part of the development of Vintage At The Almaden Winery and the adjacent Almaden Winery park and gardens.  The vineyards that have died will reappear as another kind of American dream, a community of high quality homes to be owned and cherished by more than 300 families.

Almaden Vineyards

Rancho San Juan Bautista, granted to Jose Augustin Narvaez in 1844 by Governor Micheltorena, covered 8880 acres.  Within its boundaries were much of today’s Willow Glen, Hillsdale, Robertsville and the Lone Hill area.

Narvaez sold a portion of the rancho to Etienne Thee, who came from Bordeaux, supposedly lured by California Gold Rush. Thee picked a piece of land on the Guadalupe River about half way between Los Gatos and the New Almaden quicksilver mine.  In 1847 he built a home on a high knoll with a sweeping view of the valley and surrounding mountains.

Thee planted mission grapes on the property, but when he was joined by a neighbor, Charles LeFranc, also from France, the latter in 1852 planted cuttings from the old country.  Almaden Vineyards counts its beginnings from that moment.  This was one of the first successful commercial plantings of fine European wine grapes in California, but the first crops were for table consumption.

When San Francisco started growing up from a rough village to a cosmopolitan city, LeFranc and Thee built a winery and lined the adobe walls of the cellars with great oaken casks from France.  LeFranc chose the name New Almaden.

LeFranc married Thee’s daughter, Adele, and eventually inherited the property.  By 1880 his vineyard boasted vines from the districts of Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley.  There were 130 acres producing 100,000 gallons a year.  At the centennial in Philadelphia in 1876 he displayed a great oval cask 10½ feet high, 9 feet wide and 8 feet deep with a capacity of 3447 gallons.

The cask was displayed for a second time in Philadelphia during the Bicentennial.

LeFranc died in 1887 when he was run over while trying to stop a runaway team with a spring wagon.  His son, Henry was killed in a trolley accident in 1909.  A daughter, Louise, married Paul Masson, who established his own winery at Saratoga and operated 350 acres at New Almaden until the property was sold in 1930.

During the prohibition years grapes were grown and the cooperage maintained, but the winery remained inactive.  In 1941 it was acquired by Louis Benoist who, assisted by Frank Schoonmaker and Ollie Goulet, the winemaster, undertook rehabilitation of the plant.

The population of Santa Clara Valley had mushroomed over the years and the view from Etienne Thee’s hilltop showed more roofs than trees as the 1950’s progressed.  The economics of growing grapes on urban land caused Almaden Vineyards to look elsewhere.  The search for new land took the wine men to the Paicines area in the Gavilan mountains south of Hollister.  Along  with acquisition of the Valliant vineyard, the largest single planting of varietal grapes was made.

In June, 1967, Almaden became a wholly-owned subsidiary of National Distillers and Chemical Corporation with further expansion following and Almaden “going public” in 1972.

Almaden now has 6748 acres of vineyards plus control of more than 8000 more; four wineries and aging capacity of 26 million gallons.

The Los Gatos plant is open to public tours on weekdays, and “tastings” are held in a garden at San Juan Bautista.

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