Park docent Lou Leal looks over the foundations of the old winery at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen on Tuesday, November 26, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Winemaking at Jack London's ranch

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.

A wine drinker, London was known to buy from nearby Wegener Winery just down the road from his ranch, the site of Benziger Family Winery today.

"Jack's favorite meal was roasted wild duck with white wine," Leal detailed. "He used to get the white wine from Wegener."

The buildings lived on, more or less. The Kohler & Frohling winery had been damaged significantly by the 1906 earthquake and was built over by London for use as a multi-story guesthouse. Construction was overseen by his step-sister, Eliza Shepard, the property's longstanding superintendent.

The ruins, over many years, suffered through fire and decay. They now serve as the site of Transcendence Theatre Company's Broadway Under the Stars series of summertime performances. They poetically peer out to the current-day vineyards planted by the Shepard family, descendants of London's step-sister Eliza, who inherited the ranch in 1955 after London's widow, Charmian, died.

In 1972, Milo Shepard, London's grandnephew, started developing the vineyard, planting pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.

Shepard first made home wine, but in 1976 sold half of the grapes to Chateau St. Jean and the other half to Kenwood Vineyards. Kenwood co-founder Marty Lee has such an abiding affection and interest in Jack London that since 1977, all the grapes have gone to Kenwood and the pinot noir and some chardonnay removed to make room for more suitable plantings of cabernet, merlot, zinfandel, syrah and cabernet franc.

"Marty Lee wanted it that way," Leal said. "He felt a connection to Jack London and (Kenwood) negotiated for all the grapes."

There are 125 acres planted to wine grapes in all and about 30,000 cases of Kenwood Jack London Vineyard-designated wines produced every year.

"We don't do a lot of vineyard designates," said Kenwood senior winemaker Pat Henderson, "but the Jack London is just good year after year after year."

Henderson continues to work with Milo's son, Brian, to nurture the fruit.

"The ranch is tasting better than ever before," Henderson notes.

In 1977, the Shepards donated much of the ranch, including the winery ruins and cottage, but not the vineyard, to the State of California to add to the park. According to Leal, the park now has 800 acres out of Jack London's 1,402, the total owned by the time he finished buying parcels.

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at and followed on Twitter @vboone.

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