Henry Ditmas, 1878

Henry Ditmas – The Man Who Planted the First Zinfandel Vineyard in SLO County

Written by Libbie Agran

Henry Ditmas was the son of an Englishman, Colonel Thomas Ditmas, who was stationed as governor of a British military cantonment with his wife at Secunderabad, British East India. Their son Henry was born in Secunderabad, British East India in 1845; Henry’s mother died soon after his birth. Henry later was sent to England for his education; he graduated from college as a civil engineer at the age of 18 in 1863.

Henry’s first job was that of an assistant engineer to an army officer in New South Wales, Australia. The British army was building military roads for the British government. Henry finished the surveying and road building when the army officer in charge became ill. It took three years to construct the road, supervising laborers who were natives of Australia. Henry was regarded highly for his accomplishments in completing the project. In 1866 Henry received a “letter of recommendation as an engineer” from the British Colonial Office which launched his career.

After returning home to York, England, Henry was sent to British East Africa to build a military road through jungles. He was 21 years old and in charge of about 200 Black Africans and their Portuguese crew. There was no common language between Henry and the workers, but Henry was a Latin scholar and had a facility for language. He mastered Portuguese and learned a number of African dialects so that he could train the workers to master the road building skills needed for the challenging job. Henry contracted a fever which was diagnosed as malaria in British East Africa; the disease required him to return to England for medical care. While in England he spent time painting watercolors of English sailing ships. Several of the beautiful paintings are in a private collection in Arroyo Grande today. He also fell in love with the talented and beautiful Rosa, who played the piano after losing some of her hearing during a bout with scarlet fever. Henry gradually recovered from malaria but began to suffer from rheumatism. After much thought, Henry decided to emigrate to the United States to seek his fortune. He convinced his cousin to join him in the adventure.

In 1871 Henry Ditmas and his cousin, Eben, traveled to San Francisco by ship. They were interested in pursuing the sheep and wool trade. They met a man named Benriamo, a local hotel owner in Avila, who convinced them to come to San Luis Obispo County which Benriamo claimed was the finest sheep country in the world. The cousins worked a few months for various sheepherders in the Arroyo Grande area to learn the business. They decided to lease pasture land in the Los Osos Valley and bought a few thousand sheep. During these years Henry Ditmas built a cabin in the American Canyon along the Salinas River, above what was later called Pozo. He drove the sheep to pasture in American Canyon during the summer and explored the land in the Upper Arroyo Grande Valley. Henry filed citizenship papers, intending to homestead land in American Canyon. He later sold his claim to Ned Douglas.

Henry returned to England to marry Rosa in 1874. They took a long honeymoon cruise to California via the Isthmus of Panama. They arrived in Avila at Port Hanford and decided to settle there. Henry built a cottage in Avila and their son, Cecil, was born on November 7th, 1875.

1877 was a severe drought year in California. Henry sent his sheep to pasture in the Sierra Nevada mountains, but most of the flock died in a spring snowstorm. Henry gave the remaining animals to one of his sheepherders and decided to try a new business. In 1878 he opened a grocery store in Avila. However, the population of Avila was small, and the business soon failed.

In the same year, 1878, Henry filed a government claim for 560 acres adjoining Ranchita Arroyo Grande which was owned by the Steele Brothers; he named it Rancho Saucelito for its many bordering willow trees, saucelito means small willow grove in Spanish. Henry built a wood frame cottage on the site, and Rosa planted an English flower garden. The following year, 1879, Henry cleared land and planted Zinfandel and Muscat grapevines. The vines were sent from Europe and purchased locally according to the Ditmas family. This is the first documented planting of Zinfandel in the upper Arroyo Grande Valley. Horticulturist David F. Newsome later gave Henry grape vines that were suitable to the warmer climate of Rancho Saucelito. Rosa pursued cattle ranching; the Ditmas Brand was recorded on April 23, 1883, at the request of Rosa C. Ditmas to be used by her in branding her own stock. It is the only brand on record in the name of Ditmas, and is consists of a broad arrow.

Bostonian A.B. Hasbrouck bought the neighboring 4,437-acre Rancho Arroyo Grande for $27,000 from the Steele Brothers in 1883. He established the St. Remy Ranch on the property in 1883. He soon built his home, planted ornamental and vegetable gardens as well as a vineyard over the next few years. In 1884 he started work on his St. Remy Winery, building a stone foundation.

The first Harvest Fair was held in Arroyo Grande in 1885 just as the Ditmas Saucelito vineyards had their first harvest. Henry sent grapes from this first harvest to the Fair. Hasbrouck sent some of his famous Ranchita Arroyo Grande cheese. Henry Ditmas began to sell table grapes and raisins to neighbors and locals in Avila and Arroyo Grande. The following year, Henry Ditmas sold grapes to A.B. Hasbrouck, who began to make wine at St. Remy Winery with under his own label, St. Remy. The men became friends and explored the art of grape growing. Ditmas and Hasbrouck understood that a hardy rootstock was necessary for a grapevine to survive. A.B. began to plant his own vineyards with several varietals. Henry Ditmas’ granddaughter confirms that both men bought rootstock from Pierre Hypolite Dallidet and grafted cuttings of Zinfandel and Muscat onto this rootstock. Both men studied and followed the writings of Agoston Haraszthy of Sonoma who advocated planting Zinfandel and Muscat.

Rosa and Henry’s marriage failed in 1886; they chose to divorce. Rosa continued to live in their cottage in upper Arroyo Grande Valley with baby Cecil; she managed the cattle ranch and vineyards. Henry moved to San Francisco after deeding his property to Rosa.

The 1887 County Board of Trade Pamphlet contains an article written by P.H. Dallidet, the first commercial winemaker in San Luis Obispo County, on the conditions of the wine industry; Mr. Dallidet’s article states “I am of the opinion that the wealth of San Luis Obispo County can and will be greatly increased by the planting of vineyards. Mr. Hasbrouck of the Ranchita and Mr. Ditmas of Musick each have vineyards.”

After Henry Ditmas moved to San Francisco following his divorce, he moved to Boston where he later died of complications of malaria and pneumonia in 1892 at the age of 47. He had started yet another career in photography and owned a shop in Boston specializing in commercial artwork. Rosa married A.B. Hasbrouck and moved into the St. Remy house with him. They raised Cecil Ditmas who inherited both properties from his mother at her death. Rosa leased the Saucelito vineyards to various tenants until she died in 1927. The wines made from the grapes planted by the legendary Henry Ditmas were always noted for their quality and superior flavor. The vineyards on Rancho Saucelito endeavored to survive over the years in spite of being abandoned in the early 1940s, burned, and overgrown by native plants. Bill Greenough discovered the land in 1974 in his search for a vineyard property that would have a high elevation with ocean breezes. He purchased the property from Henry Ditmas’ granddaughters, Margaret Coyner and Barbara Tanis, and spent several years reviving the Zinfandel vineyard. Four years later in 1978, grapes were harvested from the original Ditmas vines, and Bill started making award-winning wines as vineyard manager and winemaker. The Greenough family still owns the Saucelito Canyon Vineyard. Tom Greenough, Bill’s son, is now the winemaker and vineyard manager in 2018.

Sources: According to Madge by Madge Ditmas, correspondence of Barbara Ditmas Tanis dated September 5, 1974; Correspondence between Cecil Ditmas and SLO County Abstract Office dated October 17,1917; article written by Dan Krieger in the Telegram Tribune June 22, 1991.

See also, ZIN|SLO exhibition.