Jack London never made wine or, for that matter, had much to do with growing grapes. But the history of winemaking and grape growing goes back to before London's time on the property where he eventually lived and died, and where the ruins of a winery, distillery and sherry barn still stand, at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.
Park docent Lou Leal, a home winemaker and former educator, can explain it all, having compiled an extensive amount of research on the subject of winemaking at Jack London Ranch, also known as the Beauty Ranch, where Leal leads tours.
"I've admired Jack London's writing ever since I was a kid," Leal said. "That's how I got involved. The wine connection was a coincidence."
In Leal's telling, the parcel of land where the winery ruins now stand, just off the upper parking lot near the park's entrance, originally belonged to Hungarian immigrant Lajos Csomortanyi. He was a friend of another native of Hungary, Agoston Haraszthy, the founder of Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma.
Buena Vista was established in 1857. Around that same time, Csomortanyi, who served as director of Buena Vista Winery for a time, was encouraged by Haraszthy to buy 500 acres of land in Sonoma Valley from General Mariano Vallejo, where he planted 60 acres to vines and constructed a small stone winery and four-room, wood-frame cottage.
This land eventually became part of the Jack London Ranch, and the cottage is where London lived, wrote and died.
Csomortanyi called his land the "Tokay Vineyard," presumably in homage to Hungary's most famous wine, a sweet white named for the region of Tokaj.
Csomortanyi died less than a decade into his winery ownership. In 1873, his business partner, Jackson Temple, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of California who would settle in Santa Rosa, sold the property to Kohler & Frohling, a successful wine company out of San Francisco.
Charles Kohler and John Frohling had both emigrated from Europe, Kohler from Germany and Frohling from Prussia. Working musicians who first landed in San Francisco in 1853, the two decided to start a winery with grapes purchased from Los Angeles, when it was more sun-kissed farm town than sprawling metropolis.
After Frohling died at 35, Kohler pressed on, landing in 1874 on the 350-acre Tokay Vineyard in Glen Ellen, where he replanted phylloxera-infected vines with varieties grafted on sturdier rootstock of native vines, according to Leal.
The business thrived and Kohler & Frohling became one of the biggest wineries in California. Its label proudly proclaimed it as "California's pioneer wine house" and it produced a range of wines, from zinfandel to riesling, as well as sherry, port and brandy.
"They needed the brandy for the fortified wines," Leal explained. "In the late 1800s, wines that were sweeter and stronger were the ones that were the most popular."
When Kohler died in 1887, he not only had the impressive Glen Ellen property, but also owned thousands of acres in Fresno as well as an interest in Italian Swiss Colony winery farther north. His heirs carried on for awhile, becoming part of the California Wine Association, but the grapes were left mostly untended.
By the time author Jack London came along in 1911, the price of grapes was only $11 a ton and the vineyard was largely taken out, with the rest of the land terraced and planted to corn and alfalfa.
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