LeBaron: Fountain Grove Winery a landmark that wasn't

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.

Fountain Grove soon became important in California as well, continuing as one of the state's prestige vineyards into the 20th century, through Prohibition and beyond. With Buena Vista in Sonoma and Italian Swiss Colony at Asti, Fountain Grove brought Sonoma County to vintage prominence

Now, you may have noticed that the wine is two words — Fountain Grove — and the community, the place, the earthly Eden, if you will, is Fountaingrove — one word. This is not my decision; it was Harris,' and it has driven copy editors crazy for years. It's the two-word winery I went looking for when I saw the news brief.

I CONFESS that I always experience a kind of Rip Van Winkle effect when I drive Fountaingrove Parkway and adjacent streets — like I've slept 40 years and don't recognize old familiar places anymore. And no wonder. It's been more than 40 years since I first traipsed around Fountaingrove.

In the late 1960s, when then-owner Bob Walter first planned to develop the ranch, Harris' elaborate Georgian mansion with its spring floor ballroom for dancing and a library that he claimed was California's second-largest, was sitting empty.

But it was still there. And so was the Familstry, the two-story cottage where the women of the Brotherhood — if that makes sense — lived. The men's quarters, the three-story Commandery on the hilltop overlooking town, had burned long before.

And just up the lane, which was lined with exotic imported trees — mandarin orange, Japanese persimmons, grapefruit, all thriving because the area is graced with a thermal belt, was the office, the small building that had housed the printing press that produced Harris' work, the brick champagne cellar built in the 1930s by Nagasawa and the old stone winery, as interesting a structure as there was in the area. Beyond was a wood frame building, more like a shed or barn, where the blacksmith, a burly fellow named Xeno, labored.

It was worth touring — the empty koi ponds, the little man-made lake and surrounding trees and shrubs that were always compared to English parks.

The big house was demolished in 1970, the cottage soon after. I suppose some of the fruit and avocado trees and exotics are still there somewhere.

YOU CAN FIND Utopian Fountaingrove now in books. Harris' community is considered important by historians — Robert Hine, who wrote 'California's Utopian Colonies'; Paul Kagan, author of 'New World Utopias'; and a biographical tome titled 'A Prophet and a Pilgrim' written in the 1940s by Columbia University scholars Herbert Schneider and George Lawton.

People still come seeking Fountaingrove. A New York advertising executive who has been researching Harris the poet and mystic since college was here last year and is preparing a manuscript for publication. Japanese scholars and writers and TV companies come often, looking for new information about Nagasawa, the man well known in his native Kagoshima as being among the first to cross into the western world.

But they can't pay a visit to the old Utopia on the hill anymore.

I SUPPOSE Fountaingrove is still Utopian, in a 21st century way.

Money is flowing, jobs are created, big fancy homes are built (but none to equal Harris'). Thomas Lake Harris is a street name. Nagasawa's is on a lakeside park. The round barn, built after Harris' departure, still marks the spot.

But the footprint of the Eden of the West has disappeared.

The crumbling winery and the skeleton of the blacksmith shop, visible behind the fence across from medical giant Medtronic, which owns the property, is waiting to vanish as time takes its toll on history.

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