Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Before the Cannery, the Winery

One of the big themes in the Santa Clara Valley has been the changes in industry, both in the recent and distant past. If you’re looking at modern Silicon Valley, you’ll find that the seeds of Google and Apple were planted back in the 1920’s when vacuum tube makers located out here to get far away from the patent holders on the east coast. Vacuum tubes led to high-power radio and microwave; high power radio’s material scientists had all the skills to make semiconductors, semiconductors led to microprocessors, which led to personal computers, software, and eventually to hipster chicken day care. (Making Silicon Valley gives a nice overview of Silicon Valley's early history, if you're curious.)

For the agricultural Santa Clara Valley, we see a similar progression. The cattle ranches of the Mexican-era ranchos became wheat fields as the anglo farmers exported huge amounts of wheat to Europe. The wheat fields turned into vineyards. Various setbacks turned the vineyards into orchards; the orchards brought the canneries, which in turn replaced the orchards with manufacturing, can-making, and other industry. If you wander around, you’ll find signs of that past, whether a cannery now holding a microbrewery in San Jose, a grain shed in an empty field in Tres Pinos , or a remnant of a former winery in the middle of suburban Sunnyvale. Each economic or technical change created a new set of successful businesses, but caused hardship for the folks stuck on whatever was the previous boom.

I also run across those reminders of change in historical research. When I was tracking down the history of the Hunt Brothers cannery in Los Gatos, I found a reference that the new cannery was using buildings left over from the “Delpech Winery”. The name was new, but some research turned up two familiar stories: an immgrant making wine just like in the Old Country, and the fall of the wine industry and rising of the fruit industry in the Santa Clara Valley.

Amedee and Germaine Delpech

The immigrant in question was Amedee Delpech, an immigrant from Lot in southern France. Amedee came to California in 1876. It's unclear what Delpech did upon arriving, but I can suspect the common story: he worked for several years, saved up a bank-roll, then either bought or leased land for his own farm. All the good land in the Valley was already taken, so Delpech, like the new Italian, Portuguese, or Yugoslav immigrants, was pushed up into the marginal foothill lands. In Delpech’s case, he landed on a small amount of acreage at Patchen, at the summit of the hill between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz. Hints from land sales suggest his farm was on Summit Road, just west of the current Highway 17.

Amedee planted his land in grapes, and quickly set to work making wines and brandies. In 1888, Delpech presented his wines at the 6th Annual Viticultural Convention in San Francisco, offering up a Sauvignon Vert, White Pinot, as well as mission and peach brandies, all from the 1886 and 1887 vintage. (His nearby neighbor, E. Meyer in Wrights, was meanwhile making some lighter red wines -Carignan, Ploussard, and a Zinfandel-Mataro blend.) For the 1892 and 1896 voter registration, he listed his occupation quite solidly as winemaker. By 1903, he'd moved up in the world; a city directory listed him as a “Wine Manufacturer.”

Possible location of the Delpech vineyard at 22231 Summit Road. Perhaps that's even the Delpech barn?

It was an odd time to be in the wine business; although Santa Clara County had been a center for wine-growing, the trade had been in decline since the 1880s thanks to a glut of wine on the market and the plague of phylloxera. The disease hit the Santa Clara Valley just before Delpech decided on the Los Gatos expansion. Cupertino, for example, had been a center for vineyards. (Vineyards were preferred over fruit because it only took three years, rather than five, to start getting marketable crops.) Between 1895 and 1905, phylloxera hit Cupertino and decimated the vines. By the end, half the vineyards were gone, often replaced with fruit trees. The effect was also seen in the wineries. The California Wine Company along the narrow gauge railroad at San Fernando Street became Griffin and Skelley's dried fruit plant in the early 20th century. Zicovich’s Winery, a competitor in the wine and brandy trade, burned down in 1899 during the Great San Carlos Street Just West of the Railroad Tracks fire. There's no indication it was rebuilt.

The boom-and-bust of wineries can be seen ins the statistics. Wine grapes occupied less than 1,500 acres in 1876, but took 12,000 acres in the 1890's and at the turn of the century. Phyloxxera cut grapes to 6,000 acres in 1904, and although it recovered a bit, there were only 7,500 acres of grapes in Santa Clara County through the 1940's. (Ernest P. Peninou, A Statistical History of Wine Grape Acreage in California, 1856-1992).

Gustav Hueter's Mountain Springs Ranch. See if you can spot the rolling tree stumps! From Los Gatos Public Library, Linda Ward collection.

Delpech also apparently continued to expand his vineyards. In 1899, he managed to annoy his downhill neighbor by rolling tree stumps onto his property. The neighbor, Gustav Hueter, the San Francisco varnish king, appeared to be a bit high-strung, suing his downhill neighbors over water rights in Sheppard Gulch creek, and spending more on the lawsuit against Delpech than he claimed in damages. Delpech, in his defense, declared that his workers brought the errant stumps back:

In the Superior Court defendant Delpesch contended that although some of the rolling stumps had invaded the premises of Heuter they had done no harm except to bend over two madrone and three tanbark trees, and furthermore it was claimed that when a hired man of Delpesch had learned that some of the stumps had gone beyond their legitimate moorings they hitched onto them and hauled them up the hill again where they were blocked up to prevent their rolling tendencies.

If you ever thought the early landowner's life in the Santa Cruz Mountains was easy, just imagine trying to haul a bunch of huge redwood tree stumps back up a hill before your cranky downhill neighbor got annoyed. Almost makes wrestling a bear sound fun.

Hueter turns up in a couple other news stories, including one about some drunken yahoos shooting up the stuffed bear he placed at the entrance to his property on the Old Santa Cruz Highway. Then, in 1905, 65 year old Hueter was shot and killed by his thirty-three year old wife after he threatened her during a fight. The grand jury discovered that Kate Hueter had been overly friendly with the Los Gatos doctor which had spurred the row. Hueter had been in the process of contracting for oil drilling on his property to see if the Moody Gulch oil strikes might be repeated on his land. Hueter's land is now the Redwood Estates development.

By 1898, Amedee, was beginning to appear quite successful. His wife Germaine, and daughter Marguerite, had moved to San Jose, living in the Liberte Hotel (San Pedro and Post), then at 312 El Dorado (now Post) St - just about the time his daughter, Margaret, would have been starting school. They also had a small lot near the railroad tracks in Alma, bought in 1900, and another lot in San Jose downtown. Amedee was also active in politics, serving as a delegate for James G. Maguire for governor in the 1898 State Democratic Convention.

1900 was also the time for Amedee to try to grab at the gold ring of business. That year, he started building a winery in Los Gatos, at the intersection of the Saratoga Road and Santa Cruz Ave, with Jacob Lenzen and son designing the building, and Z. O. Field building the structure. The winery itself was incorporated in early 1903 as the “Los Gatos Winery”, with A. Berryman, P. J. Arnerich, J. J. Stanfield, and J. Bazus as directors - all proud burghers of Los Gatos business.

But even as the winery was built, its future fell into doubt. Amedee Delpech died suddenly in August, 1903:

"Amedee Delpech the well known winemaker of Los Gatos died at his home in that city on Wednesday from an attack of pneumonia.  The remains were forwarded to San Francisco today and the funeral will take place in that city on Friday at 2 o'clock under the auspices of the I. O. O. F. of which he was a member.  He was a native of France and was 52 years of age."
His friends in the Franco-American Lodge of the I.O.O.F. described him more explicitly in an obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Prominent Vineyardist Dead
Amedee Delpech, one of the best-known vineyardists and wine men of this county, died at his home near Los Gatos today. He was a native of France, aged 52 years. The funeral will be held in San Francisco tomorrow under the auspices of the Franco-American Lodge, I. O. O. F., of which he was a member.

His wife, Germaine, had the task of settling the estate; a sequence of real estate sales showed up in newspapers for the next couple years, selling the property at Patchen to Joseph McKiernan in 1904, and selling the downtown San Jose land in 1906. She later moved to San Francisco, “four children and one child still living.” Germaine ran a candy store for a bit, worked as a dress maker, and held a couple other jobs. In 1928, she lived in the Marina district.

The new winery itself spent a few years in limbo. At first, there was talk about the Los Gatos Cannery using the building for dried fruit packing in the 1906 season. The Los Gatos Fruit Growers’ Union, associated with George Hooke, claimed to have secured a lease for the 100 x 150 foot building, “half of which will be floored immediately and a model packing house will be arranged. Whether the union will pack its own fruit or not will depend on the prices offered in the bins by packers.” (August 27, 1906 San Jose Mercury News.) Another article claimed that quite substantial work was already in progress. After that, little can be found on the Los Gatos Fruit Grower’s Union.

That same year, George Hooke, the owner of the Los Gatos Canneries, decided he didn’t have enough excitement in his life, and decided growing a new cannery would be more fun than running the old one. Hooke sold the Los Gatos Canneries to the Hunt Brothers Packing Company, and left to manage new canneries in Watsonville and Sunnyvale. The Hunt Brothers needed to modernize the very victorian plant in the middle of Los Gatos’s downtown; by the next spring, Hunt decided that the best solution would be to build a modern plant, and saw the Delpech cannery as the perfect location - a huge space, easy rail access, and an existing building ready for reuse. Hunts also brought in their own people; Hooke had claimed Hunts would keep the existing management in place, but the manager and other staff were replaced within a year by Hunt veterans.

Hunt Brothers Making Extensive Improvements for New Canning Plant” - April 16, 1907 San Jose Mercury News.
“Very few people realize the vastness of the improvements that are underway at the Hunt Brothers big cannery at the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and the Saratoga Road. The immense winery building that was erected by the late A. Delpech has been ceiled overhead, and a floor three feet above the ground, and ventilator and light shafts installed at convenient distances. At the north of the main building boilers are being installed, and when that is completed a suitable building will enclose it. The southwest corner of the lot has been covered with a high one story building that will be used as a receiving room, and as the fruit is processed it will finally be placed in the large warehouse alongside the track, the foundations of which are already laid. This building will be eighty feet wide by a length of two hundred and twenty five feet, and on the east side of it for the whole length is the spur track adjoining the main track of the Southern Pacific Company... Their superintendent C. C. Van Eaton has made his home here permanently. All the operations of moving from the old plant, which they purchased from the Los Gatos Canneries, has been made under his personal supervision. He brings with him skillful assistants in several departments who have been with him a number of years."

And with that, Delpech’s dream of a winery in Los Gatos instead helped the canning industry expand - the industry that chased the vineyards out of the Santa Clara Valley. Delpech’s would eventually see wine again; after Hunt Brothers closed their doors in the early 1930’s, the building was sold to Paul Masson (then owned by Seagrams), who used the former cannery for storage.

Delpech's winery and the Hunt buildings were torn down in the late 1950s; a strip mall took over the land in the late 1960's. If you go to the site of the old Delpech winery today, you’ll find a rather nice little wine-bar where you can enjoy some very good wines, and wonder what Amedee Delpech would have thought.

Amedee Delpech's story isn't that uncommon. There are shades of it in my great-grandfather's own story - immigrant comes to the United States, buys his own (marginal) land, and makes a home, vineyard, and farm. Delpech's story also matches Paul Masson, another French immigrant. Masson, who came to work for Charles LeFranc in his Almaden vineyards, later created his own winery that became world famous - probably just the ending Amedee Delpech was hoping for.

Photo of Amedee and Germaine Delpech courtesy of Sandy Herve. Mountain Springs Ranch photo from Los Gatos Public Library; they have several other photos of the Heuter property.


  1. Thanks for this very interesting history. I was born in San Jose in 1938. I don't remember conversations on vineyards but do remember the ones about the fruit.

  2. A bunch of postings on Santa Clara Valley wineries in ( showed a graph of total wine grape acreage in Santa Clara County between 1850 and 1972. There was a huge spike between 1890 and 1900 up to 12,000 acres, dropping to 6,000 acres in 1904 and recovering to around 7500 acres through the 1940's. There's a bunch of references to Carignane and Sauvignon Vert; some vintners found such vines in old vineyards. Some times they made great wines, but often had problems with marketing because no one believed the varietals could produce good wine.

  3. From Pacific Rural Press, December 9 1893:
    "The Los Gatos Chronicle reports that Amedee Delpech, who conducts the Charles McKiernon ranch near the summit, about ten miles from Los Gatos, crushed this season from a single acre of vineyard 3000 gallons of wine. Grapes yield usually 140 gallons of wine to the ton, and taking those figures for a basis, the grape yield was about 14 tons.
    The Los Gatos News, summing up the work of the season, says that the year's production has been enormous, and that, notwithstanding the increase in the yield, the fruit has been handled with more satisfaction to all parties concerned than ever before. Up to the middle of November the total Eastern shipments from San Jose were as follows:
    Green fruits: 18,940,480 pounds
    canned fruits: 8,235,165
    dried fruits: 30,519,165, apportioned as follows:
    prunes: 25,049,500
    apricots: 3,335,055
    peaches: 1,800, 615
    other dried fruits 392895
    This gives a grant total shipment of all classes of fruit to eastern markets of 57,964,810 pounds to November 12. Final shipments will vastly increase these figures."