Zinfandel and Black St. Peters (under a variety of spellings) became recognized as a valuable red wine grape but at the time, the wine industry was very small. Zinfandel did become important sometime in the late 1870s. The importance was not recognized until the 1880s when Zinfandel became the darling of the wine industry.
An infestation of phylloxera insects, which destroy grapevine roots, and the Franco-Prussian War decimate French winegrowers and lead to the expansion of the small California wine industry. Phylloxera reduced French wine production by about 35 percent between 1870 and 1885.
On the Sonoma side, William McPherson Hill made what Sullivan believes was California’s first really famous Zinfandel from vines he planted in the early 1860s. Thomas Hart Hyatt discovered it and gave this review, “we sampled … a bottle of wine from the cellar of Wm. Hill … made from the Zinfandel grape, a new variety that is rapidly growing in favor with winemakers of this county. This wine … was pronounced by the gentlemen who tasted it to be superior to any they had tasted in the state.”
Zinfandel table grapes were being shipped east from California on the new transcontinental railroad.
Report to the California State Agricultural Society by J. H. Lockwood gave us the first descriptive picture of Zinfandel claret, “the two prominent excellencies of its wine are tartness and a peculiar and delightful flavor resembling the raspberry.” This variety he predicted would allow California to compete with the French imports. He discussed dozens of good wine grapes but closed by remarking that if a winegrower could plant only one, it should be Zinfandel.
At the end of the 1869 vintage, new Sonoma Mission “claret” brought forty cents a gallon; new Zinfandel in bulk brought ninety cents per gallon.
Local paper the Democratic Standard publishes “Profits of Grape Growing,” recommending Muscat of Alexandria, Black Hamburg, Black Malvoisie, Golden Chasselas, and White Tokay. Voter roll lists Hypolite Dallidet as a winemaker, the San Luis Obispo County’s first.
Alta California, always an advocate for better California wine, was calling for Missions to be grafted over to Zinfandel as early as 1872.
Early tax records show that over 40 acres of grapevines had been planted in San Luis Obispo County.
Small crack in the wine depression when several Napa and Sonoma vintners received unexpected orders for bulk wine from new East Coast consumers.
Edward Bosqui published the beautiful Grapes and Grape Vines of California.
New planting begins in small amounts.
Fewer than 4,000 acres were planted in Napa County.
James Anderson, winemaker, Zinfandel and Burger grape grower
1876: James Anderson returned to California and settled in San Luis Obispo County. He purchased a farm from Andrew York on Toro Creek and raised grain for three years.
1879: James Anderson sold the farm on Toro Creek and bought 163 ¾ acres from Mr. Dunn in the Ascension District at the base of what is now known as York Mountain. He cleared the land, planted an orchard and vineyard of 20 acres. He bought the farm that he would live on for the rest of his life.
James selected a red wine varietal, Zinfandel, which was the most commonly planted red wine grape in San Luis Obispo County at the time and a white French varietal, Burger. James Anderson was the first to plant a white wine varietal in the York Mountain, and he may have been the first to plant Zinfandel as well. Andrew York did not arrive until 1882. The land was located on Anderson Creek (named after him) at the foot of York Mountain, about half-way between Templeton and the Pacific Ocean.
A short time later, James Anderson built a winery and purchased winemaking equipment including a 16,000-gallon redwood storage tank. He traveled all over the Pacific Coast and studied soils and climate. He may have been the first person to build a winery in the Ascension District. We have not found evidence of an earlier winery.
Henry Ditmas, Zinfandel grower
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.
1874: Henry returns to England to marry Rosa. 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.
1875: Henry built a cottage in Avila and their son, Cecil, was born on November 7th, 1875.
1877: This year 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.
1878: Henry opened a grocery store in Avila. However, the population of Avila was small, and the business soon failed. 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” meaning willow trees. Henry built a wood frame cottage on the site, and Rosa planted an English flower garden.
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.
Jacob Grandstaff, Mission Grape grower