Historic Almaden Winery
newspaper articles decry the loss of the Paul Masson Winery and a
possible end to the 20 year tradition of “Music in the Vineyards.” Very
little has been written, however, about the departure of the Almaden
Winery to San Benito County in 1987.
Historically the Masson
operation pales in comparison to that of the Almaden Winery, located at
1530 Blossom Hill Road, which can claim the distinction of being the
oldest in northern California.
Almaden Vineyards can
trace its beginning back to the gold rush when Etienne Thee, a Bordeaux
farmer, settled in Santa Clara Valley. After some success at making
wine from his vineyard of indigenous “mission” grapes, he went into
partnership with Charles Le Franc, a tailor from Passy, France whom he
met in the expanding French community of San Jose. Unhappy with the
quality of the wine made from local grapes, Le Franc was the first
winemaker in northern California to import European stock (vitis
vinifera) to produce the varietal wines familiar today. These early
cuttings, Pinot, Sauvignon, Semillon, Cabernet and Grenache, were
grafted onto the mission root stock.
Le Franc married Thee’s
daughter Marie Adele in 1857 and became the proprietor of the Almaden
“Sweet Grape Vineyard.” He soon added to his holdings by purchasing an
adjacent vineyard for $250. A shrewd businessman, Le Franc realized
that there was a growing market for quality wines and brandies in
California, and he set in motion a company that would eventually be the
third largest producer of varietal wines in the nation. By 1862 the
Almaden Vineyard consisted of 75 acres producing approximately 100,000
gallons of varietal wine which was winning prizes at county fairs and
competitions. Le Franc represented the county at the first California
Wine Convention in San Francisco in 1862.
In 1869 Le Franc added
some German varietals to his stock by transplanting Johannesburg
Riesling and Traminer vines from a vineyard owned by Frank Stock which
had been located at Eighth and William Streets. Le Franc used
innovative viticultural practices such as setting vines on close centers
to increase the intensity of the flavors. His ports and angelicas were
known for their longevity, and his Malbec vines were the only large
acreage of fine Bordeaux vines in the West.
During the depression of
the 1870’s the Almaden Winery thrived while others in the Valley went
broke. 1876 saw the expansion of winery and the addition of the
substantial sandstone winery building. Le Franc sent a ten foot high
carved cask of his wine (capacity 3.447 gallons) to the nation’s
centennial in Philadelphia that year. (The same barrel returned for the
bi-centennial of 1976.)
The devastating epidemic
of phylloxera in France was advantageous to Le Franc, for not only did
it diminish imports of French wine thereby opening new markets for the
California product, but it convinced a young Frenchman named Paul Masson
to seek his fortune in San Jose.
Masson, who originally
came to San Jose to study business at the University of the Pacific,
became friends with Le Franc and his family which included the three
children Henry, Louise and Marie. Masson returned to France briefly
before returning to help market Almaden wines for Le Franc. It was
while working for Almaden that the young Masson began experimenting with
sparkling wines, eventually setting up his champagne cellars. Masson
first worked out of Almaden’s business outlet at 163-169 West Santa
Clara Street (the building which is now occupied by the D. B. Cooper
Saloon) until he established his own outlet on East Santa Clara Street.
Charles Le Franc
continued to be a leader in the California wine industry until his
tragic death in October, 1887 when he was tramples while attempting to
stop a team of runaway horses. His son Henry quickly assumed control of
the business. Paul Masson, shortly afterward, married Louise Le Franc
and became a part of the family. Masson, absorbed in his own champagne
operation, probably did not guess that someday he would control the
combined family fortune, but that is just what happened when Henry Le
Franc and his wife Louise Delmas La Franc were killed when an
inter-urban trolley smashed into their car on a county road. Their
daughter Nelty, thrown from the car, survived.
Masson managed both
enterprises right up to and into Prohibition. While most wineries went
out of business during this period, the crafty Masson sold his grapes
for juice and also became certified to produce sacramental and medicinal
wines. The aging winemaker sold the operation to the Almaden Vineyard
Corporation, headed by Charles M. Jones in 1930.
When Prohibition was
lifted in 1933, Jones, who had a large inventory of wine stockpiled by
Masson, was ready for full production. As one might guess, a whole lot
of inferior wine was quickly produced by start-up wineries. Jones, as a
founder and first director of the Wine Institute, did much to establish
standards to improve the quality of California wines.
After Jones’s death in
1940, the Almaden Winery was purchased by Louis Benoist and Brayton
Wilbur. These San Francisco businessmen revitalized much of the
vineyard stock and began purchasing vineyards beyond Santa Clara
County. Benoist, who appreciated Almaden’s traditions, had the old Le
Franc ranch house restored in a French Victorian manner. He hired the
former Novitiate brother and winemaker Oliver Goulet to create many
distinguished wines. Goulet’s Grenache Rose, with clever marketing,
changed the nation’s drinking habits.
Another important member
of the new team was Frank Schoonmaker, a connoisseur and wine author.
Schoonmaker enlisted the viticulturists of the University of California
in experimenting with grape varieties in areas of Monterey and San
Benito counties. Almaden started the movement that led to the area
becoming one of the largest wine producing regions of the world. During
the 1940’s and 50’s Almaden won top awards for many of its wines and
helped to make California wines serious competitors to the European
In 1967, at the height
of its success, Louis Benoist sold the Winery to National Distillers.
During their stewardship Almaden rose to become the third largest wine
producer in the U.S., and by 1980 the largest producer of premium
varietal wines. Thus, Charles Le Franc’s vision of making good,
inexpensive, varietal wines available to all was fulfilled.
During this last period
the management turned the historic property into a showplace. They
built a lavish chateau-style structure to house their offices, and they
installed a helicopter pad to facilitate quick trips to the airport and
San Francisco. A magnificent rose garden, named for Louis Benoist was
planted, and the original 1850 winery building was remodeled for wine
tasting and sales. Unfortunately, the original Le Franc ranch house
burned to the ground in the mid-1970’s.
Plans for turning the
winery and vineyards into an expensive housing development are well
under way. Most of the equipment has been moved or sold, but the fate
of the historic 1850 and 1875 winery buildings is under some dispute.
The site is a State Historic Landmark, and the winery buildings are
clearly eligible for the National Register, but local homeowners do not
want the area turned into an historic park. They are interested in
keeping only the new administration building as a possible community
for the Historic Landmark Commission, the Planning Department and the
City Council to assure that this premier historic site is integrated
into the development plans. The contributions of pioneers like Charles
Le Franc should not be forgotten in our rush into the future.
Original document by Jack
Almaden Winery - Original Document.pdf
Top of Page