A Response to Columnist Fred Allebach

Posted on January 17, 2016 by Sonoma Valley Sun

A Response to “A History of Agriculture in Sonoma County” (Dec. 27, 2015)

I read with interest Fred Allebach’s “History of Sonoma County Agriculture”  but was disappointed  that his extensive historiography omitted any fulsome discussion of the most pivotal period of the Valley’s vinicultural development, the two plus decades from 1860 to the 1880s. It is indisputable that the leaderships and imagination of Agoston Haraszthy and the widespread use of Chinese labor  during these twenty-some years established the foundation of the Valley’s present day national prominence. This era was the most important period in the history of Sonoma Valley’s wine industry and deserved more than nod.

Unfortunately, in the paragraph beginning “Vallejo and A. Haraszthy…”Allebach conflates the importance to Sonoma County wine industry of  Vallejo and Camile Aguillon with  that of Agoston Haraszthy, the father of the Sonoma Valley viticulture and wine production,  notwithstanding   unambiguous  historical record that Haraszthy’s development of Buena Vista led to the modernization of the wine industry, improved the quality of the wines by using European varietals, and set the precedent for using Chinese labor in local viticulture.  Perhaps unintentionally,  Allebach leaves the reader with the mistaken impression that the three were equivalent historical figures in wine industry history. They were not.  Whatever their historical importance is to the Valley, Vallejo and Aguillon were of no consequence to the development of  SV Valley’s agricultural success.

While the article mentions the “critical” importance of the Chinese,  there is no  explanation of the role of Chinese labor in boosting mid-nineteenth century Valley agriculture to prominence. According to California labor historian Richard Steven Street,  “of all the Chinese field hands at this time (1860s), the ones who played the most important role in commercial agriculture” worked for Harazsthy.  Their importance can be gleaned from the Street’s description of the accomplishments at Buena Vista. A partial summary from Street’s fuller description:  the first year they planted 16,850 seedlings; they planted European varietals in a specialized manner, including  the never grown in California zinfandel;  established a vinicultural nursery; picked tons of grapes for sale in San Francisco; harvested grapes from the first crush; planted during the first year 16,850 seedlings,  created (arguably) underground wine cellars;  dug tunnels 100 feet into the hillsides; expanded existing cellars, erected a press house with excavated rock to accommodate all of the equipment. In winter they pruned the vines, in spring, they plowed between the rows, by late summer and early fall, they topped the vines, and then concentrated on the harvest crush. In addition, they picked and packed hundreds of pounds of fruit each day. All of this was accomplished on steep hillsides and infestations of rattlesnakes. They not only did field work, but they also made wine, becoming “the first Chinese to handle every phase of the process, including removing the grape stems and crushing the grapes, fermenting the juice, wracking it off, filling and corking wine bottles, even wiring champagne caps.”    For the Chinese workers at Buena Vista “no skill was beyond their comprehension, no task so odious they would not accept it,” according to historian Street.

Complaints  about white field labor was almost unanimous among the growers. These workers were unreliable, undependable, unskilled and expensive.  The use of Chinese labor solved these problems.     Haraszthy rented his Chinese when not in use, and local growers soon became familiar with their habits of skill, dependability and reliability, and, of course, were pleased by their low wages.  By 1877 they were indispensable to the Valley’s agriculture.  John Hill, a Glen Ellen grower, appeared before a congressional committee investigating the perils of Chinese immigration.  He explained to the committee that the Chinese were indispensable to Sonoma Valley agriculture, and that if he were forced to get rid of his Chinese labor he would have to abandon his grapes, and the same consequence would  befall other growers..  The economic consequences were obvious.

While it was unlikely that the local growers did not use the full range of Chinese abilities to the extent as did  Haraszthy, these skills were available if called upon. Many Chinese, for example, were skilled grafters, while some became expert tasters, while others performed a wide variety of functions in the vineyards. To this day, many Sonoma Valley locals claim that stone fences built by Chinese in the nineteenth century are still standing.   Street echoes many historians in noting the important contribution of the Chines during this period, noting “there is little doubt that the Chinese allowed winemaking and grape growing to prosper throughout the valley, and allowed local wine production to exceed that of Los Angeles in acreage and productions while planting a wide variety of fine European varietals.”

Through the use of Chinese labor Sonoma Valley agriculture became the beneficiary of a new way of marshalling and organizing the agricultural labor force – the Chinese labor contractor. Through the use of these contractors local farmers were divorced from their work force, no longer required to hire, fire, discipline and pay individual employees. The labor contractor provided the required number of workers, with the necessary skills, for the duration of the harvest, and paid the workers. These contractors were the grower’s “insurance policy” that the extremely time-sensitive grape harvest would not fail because of the lack of skilled field hands. I have read of no instances where harvests failed because of the failure of labor contractors to produce an adequate work force in number or skills or of Chinese workers walking off the job.

These labors were performed at the height of the anti-Chinese movement in California and Sonoma County.   By 1886  anti-Chinese sentiments raged throughout the state. In January an attempt was made to starve the Chinese out of Sonoma Valley (and elsewhere in the county)  by imposing a boycott of Chinese businesses and employers of Chinese workers. During the three months of the boycott Chinese throughout the county suffered great privations. However, the attempt to force the Chinese out of the Valley and the county failed, but the anti-Chinese feeling continued in the county well into the twentieth century.

The Chinese left the Valley and the county to return to urban areas beginning in the 1900s.  By the 1930 only 190 remained in the entire county; the Valley’s Chinese population was then in the single or low double digits. Among the reasons the Chinese left Sonoma County was the growth and success of Italian winegrowers who used their countrymen for field labor and the aggressive competition of the equally skillful Japanese in the fields.

I would not have expected Allebach to have commented in as much detail as have I, given the general, far ranging effort of his article. But I would have hoped that his encyclopedic knowledge of SV agriculture would  have emphasized this most important era in Sonoma Valley agricultural history. I hope he will use his considerable talents to address this era at greater length in future articles.

Perhaps the article reflects the general loss of cultural and historical memory of Sonoma Valley’s nineteenth century agricultural history.   Having lived in Sonoma some 22 years, I know the how much Sonoma honors its past, and this brief summary was written in that in mind.  While it was my intention to point out some errors in the article and offer a brief exposition of this pivotal period in the Valley’s agricultural history,  more importantly I wanted to attempt to refresh local historical recollection with hope some readers might be inspired to  study  this most interesting era of Valley history and the remarkable Chinese  whose early labors were such a large part of the success the Sonoma Valley wine industry. The Sonoma County library history and genealogy section in Santa Rosa has a vast array of historical material available for the researcher. The staff is knowledgeable, friendly and ready to help the novice researcher.   Locally, the Penglai Sonoma Sister City Committee, in conjunction with their Chinese counterparts in Penglai, have undertaken a remarkable project to construct a monument and Chinese garden to honor and memorialize the contributions of these long-forgotten field hands whose labors help boost the Sonoma Valley wine industry to international prominence. The web site for the Penglai Sister City Committee is


Chan, Sucheng, This Bittersweet Soil: the Chinese in California agriculture, 1860-1910. Berkeley: University  of California Press, 1986.Street, Richard Steven, Beasts of the Field: a narrative of California farm workers. Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 2004.

Gordon Phillips
Aqua Caliente/Seal Beach

3 thoughts on “A Response to Columnist Fred Allebach

  1. The story of the Chinese in the Valley is indeed important. Please see the Depot Park Museum; it has a small exhibit showing photos and prints of the Chinese in the Valley. There was a Chinese winemaker who worked for the Chauvet winery in Glen Ellen.

  2. I believe the name of the Chinese worker Ms. Page is referring to is Young Moon. His distinction is that he was not a field worker but a blender, illustrating the variety of work the Chinese performed. Later, he became steward at the Elk’s in Santa Rosa, became beloved by the members to the extent the held a special “Moon Night” in his honor, and set all prejudice aside. He was one of them

    1. Yes, it was Young Moon. We have a photo of him at the Depot Park Museum and he has such a pleasant smile. I am not surprised that they had a Moon Night for him. It is a nice reflection on the Valley of the Moon, the Elks and Santa Rosa that he was treated well. Thanks for the info.

Comments are closed.

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA