The Historic Almaden Winery
TO: Chip Bowlby
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
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.
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).
THE TOAST OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
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
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
LEFRANC’S UNTIMELY END
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.
BENOIST’S NAPOLEONIC ERA
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.
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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ALMADEN WINERY’S RICH HISTORY IN SAN JOSE
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
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.
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.
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
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”
Almaden now has 6748
acres of vineyards plus control of more than 8000 more; four wineries
and aging capacity of 26 million gallons.
Gatos plant is open to public tours on weekdays, and “tastings” are held
in a garden at San Juan Bautista.
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