Every time I visit Meadowood in Napa Valley, I find myself spending time in front of a reproduction of an engraving that hangs somewhere in most of their rooms. It is entitled "The vintage in California, at work at the wine presses" and was the work of an artist named Paul Frenzeny in the late 1800's for Harpers Weekly. Here's what it looks like (click the image to view it full size):
I probably looked at this engraving half a dozen times before I noticed the details that now make it fascinating to me. In short, most of the people doing the work at this Napa winery are Chinese.
Here in California especially we tend to think about vineyard labor being Latin American in origin. Every news report, book, old photograph, or other story I've heard about the early days of Napa viticulture has included the migrant workers from somewhere south of the border.
But before the vineyards of California's wine country were filled with Spanish-speaking farm hands, they were filled with Cantonese immigrants.
I was reminded of this image again this week when I read a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that focuses on the Chinese beginnings of the California wine industry.
Indeed, many of the earliest vineyards in the state were planted and harvested by Chinese workers, many of whom came directly from laying the rails of the trans-continental railway, as well as from the immigrant communities surrounding the San Francisco bay area. The city of Napa apparently had it's own Chinatown at one point.
Heavily discriminated against, and segregated in many ways as a matter of official policy, the Chinese laborers faded from the scene as Prohibition eliminated the majority of their jobs. And now the only traces of the significant impact they had on the beginnings of our wine industry are a few gravestones in a Napa cemetery (most were wood and long since have burned or rotted away), and images like the one above.
Image courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.
A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. 2015 Roederer Award Winner.Learn more.
Wine News: What I'm Reading the Week of 5/1/16 I'll Drink to That: Charles Philipponnat of Champagne Philipponnat Vinography Images: White Wall I'll Drink to That: Author Ian D'Agata West of West Pinot Tasting: May 19, San Francisco Wine News: What I'm Reading the Week of 4/24/16 2016 Garagiste Wine Festival: May 19, Oakland Warm Up: Tannins I'll Drink to That: Winemaker Andy Erickson Vinography Unboxed: Week of April 17, 2016
Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent Forlorn Hope: The Remarkable Wines of Matthew Rorick Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation Passopisciaro Winery, Etna, Sicily: Current Releases Should We Care What Winemakers Say? The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Austria's Ruster Ausbruch Wines 2009 Burgundy Vintage According to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas Wine from the Caldera: The Incredible Viticulture of Santorini Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Chateau Rayas and the 2012 Vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets Forgotten Jewels: Reviving Chile's Old Vine Carignane The First-Timer's Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune