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SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
THURSDAY, JANUARY 23, 1997

Community Focus

ALMADEN / SOUTH SAN JOSE

Winery park: a double benefit

Buffer: A gift from a developer means a play area 'hundreds' will use.

By DICK EGNER
Mercury News Staff Writer

A developer's gift to the city of San Jose will allow completion of Almaden Winery Park as a buffer between a new subdivision and two historic buildings of the winery that became the nation's largest producer of premium varietal wines before its sale a decade ago.

One year ago, New Cities Development Group of Pacific Grove planned to add several houses on an elbow of land between the older of the winery buildings and the Tresor subdivision, one of three totaling some 370 units on the former winery property south of Blossom Hill Road.

Some of the planned houses would have been just a few yards from the older winery building, built in 1852 and used for wine production and storage until its conversion to business offices the past two decades.

The plan was changed following a request in early 1996 by Councilwoman Pat Dando for donation of 1.6 acres to the 3.7-acre park site.  Dando acted in response to residents in the Tresor, Vintage and Vineland subdivisions who make up the Almaden Winery Neighborhood Association, some of whom wanted the land used for a children’s play area.

"We're very, very excited about the developer's gift," which augments the park and makes possible the tot lot, said Stacey Holden of the neighborhood association.  "Literally hundreds" of children will make use of the lot and park, Holden said.

City council members accepted the gift - land valued at $900,000, toward which Dando contributed $300,000 in District 10 park funds at their last meeting of 1996.

A kids' play area will buffer homes from the rest of Almaden Winery Park.

Plans are to build a tot lot at one corner of the elbow and, for the time being, turf the rest of it, said Dando aide Erik Schoennauer.

The other 3.7 acres contain the three-level winery building, including a two-level wine cellar; a larger two-level winery administration building (with tasting room) built in the 1960s that now houses municipal offices; and a picturesque garden, featuring two gazebos perched on the brow of a low hill, between the two buildings.

Renowned landscape architect Thomas Church designed the garden under a commission from Louis Benoist, who bought the winery in 1940 from the Almaden Vineyard Corp. headed by Charles Jones.  Benoist sold it in 1967 to National Distillers, which expanded production to 13 million cases in 1981 before selling it in 1987 to Heublein Inc.

Contacted by members of the neighborhood association, a group of landscape architecture students at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo have volunteered to submit plans for restoring the garden to the way Church designed it.

The winery was started by Charles Le Franc, who in 1852 imported pinot, sauvignon, semillon, cabernet and grenache cuttings to graft onto mission root stock.  Not long after Le Franc was trampled and killed in 1887 while attempting to stop a team of runaway horses, control of the winery passed to his son-in-law, champagne producer Paul Masson.

Masson survived Prohibition, which killed many wineries, by selling grapes for juice after becoming certified to produce sacramental and medicinal wines.  He sold out to Almaden Vineyard Corp. in 1930.

The gardens' gazebos and their supporting platforms will be rebuilt under a $14,000 Community Action and Pride grant from the city.  The former winery administration building can be turned into a community center, with a kitchen, on the ground floor and offices on the second level.

The older winery building is a registered historic landmark but fell into disrepair during the years from 1987, when Heublein bought it, until the city acquired it in 1995.  The exterior is deteriorating, it has been vandalized several times and the city has boarded up its broken windows.

A $156,000 grant that has been applied  for to the Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission would be used for seismic retrofitting and renovation.  When that is completed, the wine cellar can be used to display winemaking artifacts and for gatherings, and the upper level for other public events desired by the community.

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