When Friends of the Winemakers was founded in 1975, the stated aim was preserving the art and history of winemaking in the Santa Clara Valley. Sadly much of that history is lost, as urban development has taken over what used to be vineyards and orchards. There can surely be no better example than that of the Almaden Winery.
Almaden was founded in 1852 by Éthienne Bernard Edmond Thée, and is credited as California's oldest winery. Thée began with a 350 acre parcel along Guadalupe Creek and together with Charles LeFranc planted Mission grapes, naming the winery after the nearby New Almadén mining community. In 1857 Thée's daughter Marie Adele married LeFranc, who became part owner and eventually took over the operation. LeFranc was dissatisfied with the quality of the Mission wines, so sourced cuttings "from the most celebrated vineyards in France" and grafted them onto native rootstock. Over the next two decades he expanded the vineyard to 75 acres and production to over 100,000 gallons.
Following the death of Charles LeFranc in 1887, control of the company passed to his children, Henry, Louise and Marie. Paul Masson married Marie LeFranc and, together with Henry formed LeFranc & Masson with the aim of producing Champagne. Masson initially used Almaden grapes and was responsible for marketing the Almaden brand of wines. He went on to build the Mountain Winery in Saratoga. Throughout prohibition Masson produced champagne, for which he had a licence 'for medicinal use' as well as dry wines at Almaden. By the end of Prohibition it's estimated there were 1,000,000 gallons of quality wine in bond in Almaden. The winery and its assets was purchased by Charles Jones in 1932 but within 6 years went bankrupt.
In 1941 the property was bought by Louis Benoist. Together with winemaker Oliver Goulet and wine expert Frank Schoonmaker, Almaden once again established a reputation for quality, producing bottle fermented sparkling wines and medium priced table wines. But as the population surged in the post war years the pressure of suburban development increased and by the 1950s the winery began to look for alternative locations further south. The winery established vineyards in Cienega Valley and Paicines. In 1967 it was sold to National Distillers, who took advantage of the 1970s trend towards mass produced 'jug' wines. Then in 1987 it was taken over by Heublein, who sold off many of the company's assets. The historic Almaden vineyard was sold to developers in 1988 and the main winery building from 1876 was destroyed by fire the following year.
Today the area is a residential community. At the gateway on Blossom Hill Road there is a historical marker, number 505, which incorrectly credits LeFranc with planting European grapes in 1852. At the heart of the development, on LeFranc Drive, there is a park which houses the original winery building dating from 1859, though fenced off and locked. There's also a rose garden with a basket press as a centerpiece and across the park five rows of sprawling grapevines pay tribute to the first commercial vineyard in the state.
Some other relics remain, including these carved redwood barrel ends which were recently on display in the Forbes Mill Museum in Los Gatos.
Sources include Like Modern Edens and A Companion to California Wine, both by Charles L. Sullivan
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