Samurai sword once owned by California ‘Grape King’ found months after Sonoma County wildfires
In the ashes of Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery, a critical piece of Sonoma County’s past was feared lost in the October wildfires.
Hope dwindled as the months passed, and repeated searches of the rubble failed to turn up any trace of the priceless artifact: a samurai sword owned by renowned Santa Rosan Kanaye Nagasawa more than 150 years ago.
But earlier this month, before trucks arrived to clear away the remnants of the Fountaingrove winery, a debris worker made one final sweep of the property. He found the sword hidden in the wreckage of the winery tasting room where it once had been displayed.
He immediately dialed the owners of Paradise Ridge.
“I started crying,” Sonia Byck-Barwick, who owns the winery with her brother Rene Byck. “I haven’t cried since the fire. Losing the winery didn’t feel the way it felt for most people who are forced to rebuild, and I just felt sad for people. But that exhibit meant a lot and was irreplaceable.”
Nagasawa, a Japanese immigrant who came to the region in 1875, helped to shape early Fountaingrove, including construction of the historic Round Barn in 1899. He previously operated the old Fountain Grove Winery shortly after its creation by Thomas Lake Harris in 1882 on the estate next to where Paradise Ridge stood.
Paradise Ridge came to own several Nagasawa-related items when his relatives donated them to Walter Byck and Marijke Byck-Hoenselaars, who founded Paradise Ridge in 1978.
Now run by the Bycks’ children, the winery created a historical exhibit to share the story of his life with visitors. It featured photographs of Nagasawa, his samurai outfit, tuxedo, a crystal set and some of his awards. The training sword dated back to Nagasawa’s childhood, when he aspired to be a Satsuma clan samurai like his father.
Known locally as “The Japanese Baron of Fountaingrove” and “The Grape King of California” back in Japan for his winemaking abilities, Nagasawa hosted grand parties for everyone from ambassadors from his native country to celebrities of the era such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
“A big part of his story was the lavish parties where anyone of any interest and dignitaries were going to Fountaingrove and dining with Nagasawa,” said Byck-Barwick. “He loved entertaining, so we tried to weave who he was into the exhibit.”
Upon Nagasawa’s death in 1934 at the age of 82, his desire to will the Fountaingrove property to his niece and nephew was ignored because of a state law that denied Japanese nationals the right to own land in California, according to the Smithsonian Institution. The winery, which at one point produced more than 200,000 gallons of wine annually, ceased operations in the early 1940s.
A trustee later won ownership of the property in a legal battle with Nagasawa’s heirs, who were incarcerated with other Japanese-Americans in U.S. internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He eventually parceled it out and sold everything off in pieces.
“By the end, (Nagasawa’s) entire legacy boiled down to his relatives got the equivalent to a few hundred bucks when all his materials were auctioned off, and kind of kicked off the land,” said Eric Stanley, curator of history for the Museums of Sonoma County. “All of that material would have been very fascinating - the contents of the mansion, the winery, all the pictures and artworks. That’s all been scattered to the winds, sadly.”
The local museum possesses a large collection of Nagasawa’s personal effects, much of which was donated by his grand nephew for showing and preservation. It is mostly made up of photos, books and other documents, however, making other Nagasawa items still in the community unique.
Through a loan to the museum from Paradise Ridge, the sword will soon be displayed in an exhibit to mark the 150th anniversary of Santa Rosa, called “Lost Santa Rosa” that opens April 14 and runs through Sept. 16.
Once cleanup is complete, Byck-Barwick intends to rebuild Paradise Ridge and hopes to reopen the winery in the fall of 2019. She plans to re-create an exhibit dedicated to Nagasawa to once again restore his place in Fountaingrove.
Will she restore the charred sword to its former glory? Byck-Barwick said the damage wrought by the fire adds something important to the sword and helps to tell its tale of resiliency.
“Right now, we’re leaning toward leaving it, but we’ll probably clean it up so it survives another 100 years, or 150 years,” said Byck-Barwick. “This is part of the sword’s story and the Fountaingrove story, and the Round Barn and the other big parts of the history of the property. This is part of its life, surviving this fire, and it makes the story even more interesting for me.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect that Paradise Ridge Winery is located next to the land previously owned by Kanaye Nagasawa where Fountain Grove Winery stood, not on the same property.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.