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Glen Ellen’s ‘Three Lady Winemakers’ literally put the town on the map

Glen Ellen is named after both a vineyard and a woman - Ellen Mary Stuart, one of Sonoma Valley’s early winemakers. Originally from upstate New York, she joined her husband, Charles, in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, bringing their three children on the voyage. In the early 1860s, Charles bought property in Sonoma Valley, planted the “Glen Ellen Vineyard,” and began constructing a house nearby.

By 1870 the Stuarts were living there with their family. Two years later, local citizens petitioned for a post office. Their first suggestion, Lebanon, was denied because there were too many places with that name (and none had a zip code). When someone suggested “Glen Ellen,” the name stuck.

In 1880, just before harvest, Charles died. Left on her own, Ellen nearly doubled the previous year’s wine output. With neighbor Kate Warfield and Eliza Hood nearby, Ellen became known as one of the “Three Lady Winemakers.” Winning many prestigious competitions, their products were considered equal to European wines. The San Francisco Merchant observed that “the Ladies are not a whit behind the Lords … in their success as viticulturists.”

Ten percent of Glen Ellen’s vineyards were owned and managed by women at that time. Beyond the challenges of weather, phylloxera and marketing, they also had to contend with a legal system that didn’t automatically recognize their right to run a business. Stuart, Warfield and Hood all had to petition the courts to operate as “sole traders.”

In the late 1880s, Hood was one of the largest wine producers in California, bottling 140,000 gallons a year. In a statewide contest, Sonoma County won the first place wine prize “largely through the efforts of Kate Warfield.” Unfortunately, these accomplishments came just as phylloxera was devastating local vineyards and all three women were soon out of business.

In the years since, many prominent women have called Glen Ellen home. Freedom fighter, businesswoman and former slave Mary Ellen Pleasant, a powerful and controversial figure, owned Beltane Ranch in the 1890s. A contemporary remarked that “if she’d been white and a man she would have been president.” Her epitaph reads, “Friend of John Brown.”

Ninetta Eames, editor of Overland Monthly, first published Jack London and ran Glen Ellen’s Wake Robin Lodge. London and Charmian Kitteridge courted there and soon bought property nearby. Recent scholarship suggests that Charmian, a popular author in her own right, wrote some of the passages in London’s well-known books.

Preeminent food writer MFK Fisher was another author of the “Glen.” Her first bestseller, How to Cook a Wolf, was written during the food shortages of World War II. “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose,” wrote poet W.H. Auden. “Celebrating life by eating well” was her guiding principle.

Around 1900, Ellen Mary Stuart’s devastated vines were replaced with an orchard. When that, too, eventually declined, it was replanted with vines, which once again are being managed by a woman. Up the road, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s legacy continues at Beltane Ranch, which is still owned and run mostly by women. Likewise, Glen Ellen still boasts several widely published women authors today.

It seems fitting that a place named for a woman should count so many exceptional women among her past and current citizens.

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