By Libbie Agran
Pierre Hypolite Dallidet is celebrated as the first commercial winemaker in San Luis Obispo County, and he confirmed his fame when he also became the first commercial distiller in the county. His legend is one of adventure, upheaval, service to his country, viticulture, and travels abroad—from his village in southwestern France to Tahiti to Hangtown and finally to San Luis Obispo, California.
From the 1860s to the 1890s, Pierre Dallidet was well known for his pioneering commercial wine and brandy making, sourcing his fruit from his own vineyards and orchards. He was famous for assisting the French government in saving the premium French grape varietals decimated by the Phylloxera epidemic that destroyed historic vineyards in France in the 1870s.
The French Ministry of Agriculture contacted French men living in areas of Mediterranean climates in the Western Hemisphere. They were asked to accept grapevine cuttings and graft them onto local rootstock to preserve the premium varietals of French viticulture. Vineyards owned by viticulturalists of French descent were planted with these cuttings in Chile, California, Delaware, Upper New York State, and the Ohio River Valley in an international effort to save the French varietals. At the end of the epidemic, fresh grapevine cuttings were returned to France to replant their vineyards. Pierre Dallidet’s son, Louis Pasqual, recorded the dates and details in his diaries of numerous trips to the French Consulate in San Francisco to receive French cuttings. Louis Pasqual, who was attending Heald’s Business College in San Francisco at the time, shipped the designated grapevine cuttings to his father in San Luis Obispo.
Pierre Dallidet was born on December 12, 1822 in the village of Paizan le Cort in Canton de Melle in southwestern France. He grew up in France experiencing the turmoil of war, government upheaval, the Napoleonic Dictatorship, and the July Revolution of 1830. At this time unrest and unemployment were festering at high levels, and the future for young men and women looked bleak. Young men were encouraged to join the army, and they often served overseas in French Colonies where they could ultimately retire from service and live comfortably as middle-class farmers.
In 1843, at age 20, Pierre decided to enlist as a French “soldat” for a salary of one centime per day, in addition to food and housing. He was assigned to the Royal Corps of Artillerie and sent to the Island of Tahiti in December 1846. It was a peaceful environment with a barter economy. He learned skills as a trained carpenter in the military and saved his salary for future investments.
Pierre was discharged from the Royal Artillerie on December 31, 1850. He joined others on a voyage to San Francisco Bay to seek his fortune in the California gold fields. He settled in Hangtown, now known as Placerville, but his timing was unfortunate. California was transitioning to an Anglo-American society with little tolerance for other ethnic groups, especially those seeking their fortunes during the gold rush days. Mexicans, Chinese, and the French were persecuted in many ways from brutal physical punishment to restrictive laws that prevented them from owning land or working mining claims. The “Foreign Miners License Tax” required non-citizens to pay $20 per month to work their claims. We do not know how much success Pierre had in mining gold, but he did accumulate enough money to purchase significant land holdings in San Luis Obispo. By 1870 he owned 150 acres of land in what is now downtown San Luis Obispo. By the mid-1880s, Pierre Dallidet was the largest single landholder in the City.
The perilous journey from Hangtown to San Luis Obispo took place in late 1851 with approximately 150 French “soldiers of fortune” who decided to move on to Mexico where soldiers were welcomed to help rebels establish French colonies in the state of Sonora. As they passed through the Central Coast, some decided to settle in San Luis Obispo and others in Santa Barbara. Pierre saw the opportunity to make a new life for himself, first as a carpenter, then as a landowner. He hoped to make his fortune farming and exporting his produce to the outside world.
In the 1850s and 1860s, Pierre acquired land, built his own home of adobe, planted his vineyards, built a commercial winery, bottled and sold his first wines. He married Ascension Salazar in 1855 who bore him nine children. She, unfortunately, died during childbirth. Five of the children lived well into adulthood. Pierre began to develop real estate projects with his brother-in-law Victorino Chaves. He acquired 150 acres suitable for viticulture and farming, including all the mission era vineyards, in what is now known as downtown San Luis Obispo.
Dallidet collaborated with other vintners to plant a variety of grapes on disease resistant rootstock. He planted Charbono, Black Malaga Muscat of Alexandria and many other varietals. He sold cuttings to other vineyardists and consulted with them on grafting these to the mission grape rootstock which appeared to be hardy and resistant to disease. Local growers, including A. B. Hasbrouck, shared their knowledge, their cuttings, and their rootstock. Dallidet bottled his wine and sold it locally as well as throughout the state of California. He is the first winemaker in the county to make blended wines. His wines are mentioned in a number of newspaper articles with praise. He had the skills to make his own wine barrels in French style wine cellar below his adobe, but it is not certain that he became a cooper.
According to the Daily Republic, in an article published on Thursday, October 3, 1889, “Until the last two or three years there was scarcely any wine made except by Mr. Dallidet, who usually made about 6,000 or 8,000 gallons annually and a few hundred gallons of brandy. Wine made from the mission grape and bottled twenty years ago by Mr. Dallidet is now equal to the best Chateau wine of France.” This is proof that age and skillful bottling are the chief factors in making good wine in this locality.
Mr. Dallidet kept financial records and noted that during the financial boom of the 1880s, his wine made a profit of 25 cents per bottle less 9 cents per bottle for shipping. His brandy, shipped in the same size bottle, yielded a 75-cent profit per bottle less the 9 cents shipping cost. And thus, he applied for and became the first licensed distiller in San Luis Obispo County. Dallidet had the only distillery in the county prior to World War I. Local records show that Mr. Dallidet ceased making brandy and wine in the mid-1890s. He achieved his dream of making a product that he could sell to the outside world profitably.
Pierre died in 1909. His later life was marred by financial ruin, family disputes, one son murdering another. He reminisced that his home attracted artists, archaeologists, writers, and musicians. His five children were educated and talented. He served in local government and contributed to local culture. His last surviving son, Paul Dallidet, willed the family adobe and garden to the City of San Luis Obispo at his death in 1958. The Dallidet Adobe and Gardens are located at 1185 Pacific St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 and open to the public from April to October. The Dallidet Adobe is recognized as a California Landmark #720.