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LeBaron: Fountain Grove Winery a landmark that wasn't

  • A postcard shows the old Fountain Grove Winery. (Credit: Sonoma County Museum via Sonoma County Library)

It wasn’t much of a fire. Just part of an old building. It took firefighters less than 20 minutes to knock it down. “Teenagers hanging out,” the fire department spokesman speculated. No big deal. Just one more step toward obliteration for a significant piece of California history.

This is old news now. And it wasn’t exactly big news when it occurred two weeks ago in Santa Rosa. But the brief account in our Around the Empire summary caught my eye.

What burned was a 50-by-50 foot portion of the Fountain Grove Winery, a quarry stone and redwood structure, more than 130 years old, that woulda, shoulda, coulda been a historic landmark — if anyone had cared.

There’s been a lot of talk around town lately about historic buildings. St. Rose Church, the Cannery and, always on our mind, the Carrillo Adobe, oldest of them all. But not a lot is said about what’s left of the Fountain Grove Winery, although it is the remainder of five significant structures that once made up the “Home Centre” of the Brotherhood of the New Life, one of the more important Utopian communities in California — indeed, in America.

There was religious fervor, social experimentation, shall we say, poetry, music and art and, most important from our current perspective, viticulture.

It was an interest in wine as a commodity that brought Thomas Lake Harris, the self-proclaimed “Father and Pivot and Primate and King” of the Brotherhood, to Santa Rosa in the late 19th century.

In the early 1870s, Harris was growing wine grapes at a community in Brocton, N.Y., on the shores of Lake Erie, and selling the Brotherhood Wine in a shop in New York City. He read in a wine publication about promising new vineyard regions north of San Francisco Bay and, anxious to escape the bitter Eastern winters, arrived here in February 1875. He brought four followers with him, including a 22-year-old student named Kanaye Nagasawa. He was one of the first (perhaps the second) Japanese to arrive in America and would prove to be an important figure in both countries, becoming a distinguished vintner who is still honored in Japan as a pioneer in East-West relations.

In New York, Nagasawa had worked with a winemaker named John S. Hyde, a Harris disciple. Hyde was “sent for” to create a California vineyard. While the small group of Brotherhood members operated a dairy and a cottage industry making brooms to make a living while they waited for wine, Hyde and Nagasawa supervised Chinese workers in clearing the land. The choice, phylloxera-free vines were in place by 1879. The first winery was built in 1882, with Hyde still in charge, but Nagasawa learning fast.

By 1888, in a second, larger, stone winery built after the first one burned, more than 200,000 gallons of Fountain Grove Wine were produced, much of it shipped east, where it won prestigious competitions and sold from its own exclusive wine shop on Vesey Street in New York City.

So Fountain Grove was among the first California wines to “travel well, ” even crossing the ocean to sell to Harris faithful in England and Scotland who were lured by the suggestion that his wine was imbued with spiritual properties that were transmitted in the drinking of it.

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