San Luis Obispo’s Earliest Winemaking Instructions

On 15 February 1868, San Luis Obispo’s first newspaper, the Pioneer, published the county’s first instructions on making wine, “Winemaking on a Small Scale.” The article had been copied, without attribution, from the October 1867 issue of the American Agriculturist, a journal published in New York City from 1842 and concentrating on agriculture in the Mid Atlantic and New England states, with “the West” represented by winegrowing not in California but around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In those areas, the 1860s grape mania was in full swing, but it was focused on varietals of Vitis labrusca, the American native grape, which did well on the Atlantic Coast, not on varietals of Vitis vinifera, the European grape, which did well on the Pacific.

In the Pioneer, the article is presented as a service to the county, suggesting there was already grape growing but no winemaking here. The Pioneer also leaves out a section at the end of the Agriculturalist’s article that extols the Iona, a labrusca varietal developed by the dentist and viticulturalist C. W. Grant on an island in the Hudson. The Iona was hugely successful at the time, and avoiding mention of it suggests it had already been found unsuitable to the local conditions.

A later San Luis Obispo newspaper, the Daily Republic, attributes Hypolite Dallidet’s first bottling of wine to the fall of 1868. This article in the Pioneer may not have been his source for learning about winemaking, but as it was printed in San Luis Obispo’s only newspaper, he could scarcely have avoided reading and learning from it.

The description of crushing grapes in a barrel with a wooden pounder sounds like Ken Volk’s first vintage as a Cal Poly student project: crushing grapes in a virgin plastic trash can with a Louisville Slugger. In small-scale winemaking, not much has changed. We reprint the Pioneer’s version of the article below.

—Hayley Goodwein, Researcher, Wine History Project

EDITOR PIONEER: Availing myself of your offer to publish anything of interest or advantage to our county [illegible] who would be benefited by a knowledge of how to make wine in small quantities. I cheerfully offer what information I am possessed of. [At this point text copied from the Agriculturalist begins.] There are many, who, having a few grapes, would like to convert them into wine for their own use, or to test the winemaking qualities of some particular variety. If the grapes contain sufficient sugar to make a good wine, the process requires but little care, as the wine will make itself, but with grapes deficient in sugar the process becomes less easy. The theory of winemaking may be briefly summed up thus:

Grape juice contains sugar; fermentation converts this sugar into alcohol. If the amount of sugar and the resulting amount of alcohol be small, then further changes take place, and vinegar is the result. If [illegible] the grape juice is naturally rich in sugar, so much alcohol is produced that the liquid does not readily pass into vinegar but remains as wine—and if there is a very large amount of sugar, more than is converted into alcohol before fermentation ceases, there will be a sweet wine—a thing not at present likely to occur with us.

The first requisite is good grapes. These must be as thoroughly ripened as possible. They are to be carefully freed from defective berries, removed from the stems, and crushed. With small quantities this may be done with the hands, or with larger ones, in a barrel with a wooden pounder. The steps after this will depend upon the character of wine desired. The juice may be at once pressed out and placed in the keg or demijohn in which it is to ferment, or, if it be desired to extract color and aroma from the skin, then the unpressed mass is put in a tub or other vessel, covered with a cloth over which some boards are laid, and allowed to ferment for two or three days, or until the color of the skins is sufficiently extracted.

At the end of this time, press out the must, and transfer it to the vessel in which the fermentation is to be completed. This will take place in from ten days to several weeks, according to the richness of the grape, and it will go on more or less rapidly, according to the temperature of the room. A week must will ferment readily at 60 deg., while a heavier one will require a higher temperature. With rich grapes, the only thing necessary is to fill the vessel to the bung or mouth, allowing the froth to be thrown over. The loss must be supplied from must kept for the purpose. If the must is poor, it is better to close the vessel with a tight bung or cork, with an India rubber tube inserted in its center. This tube, which may be a foot or two long, should have its free end dip below the surface of water in a cup conveniently placed. As fermentation goes on, the liberated gas will bubble through the water, but no air can enter.

When fermentation is complete, which will be known by the liquid becoming quiet, the vessel is to be closed and allowed to remain until the wine becomes clear. It should then be carefully racked off, or transferred to another and perfectly sweet and clean cask or vessel. Another fermentation, less violent than the first, will take place when warm weather returns, after which the wine may be bottled. If sufficient care be used, these experiments may be made on a small scale, but they need careful watching.