Pioneering vintner resurrects classic grapes

His youth was like that of Gavroche, the impoverished youth from “Les Misèrables.” By the 1880s, Pierre Hypolite Dallidet was one of the wealthiest men in our region. His adobe was the center of many key commercial transactions.

Dallidet was directly involved in resurrecting the viticulture and wine production that had been started by the Franciscan missionaries 80 years earlier.

Born in 1822 in southwestern France, Dallidet reached his teens just as high unemployment contributed to crime and social unrest. The government responded by taking young men in the army for overseas service in Algeria, Guyana and Tahiti.

In 1843, Dallidet joined the artillery corps, where he learned carpentry. By 1846, he was sent to Tahiti. Since there was no money economy in Polynesia, young Dallidet could save his centimes while enjoying life. He had a good bankroll at the time of his discharge in 1850.

Dallidet immediately headed for the California goldfields, where he found the best claims were all taken.

The high cost of living in the mining districts and American prejudice against foreigners drove him into associating with a band of French veterans who planned to invade part of Mexico.

Stopping in San Luis Obispo en route to Mexico in 1853, he learned that the leader of his group had been arrested and shot by a Mexican firing squad.

He reckoned it was a sign from a higher power to settle here. His carpentry skills were in demand. By trading land, he soon acquired 150 acres, including the Old Mission vineyard.

During the 1870s, the vineyards of France were ravaged by phylloxera, the dreaded root louse, to which North American vine stock seemed resistant. To save the classic varietals, the French consul in California contacted French immigrants. They were asked to accept cuttings from the afflicted French vines and graft them onto the hardier rootstock.

Dallidet grafted thousands of cuttings onto the rootstock of the Old Mission vines. Soon, he was producing large quantities of wine and brandy.

He was one of the first California vintners to employ the French practice of blending wines from his stock of European varietals. Dallidet sent cuttings from grafted vines to France for replanting once the epidemic was over.

Dallidet both helped save the French wine industry and, in a farsighted way, anticipated the potential of viticulture in our region.

On Aug. 8, the San Luis Obispo County Band and the History Center of San Luis Obispo County are teaming up to present a historical concert and soiree in the style of Dallidet’s in the 1880s.

This free event will begin at 1 p.m. with a performance by the Coastal Brass Quintet. This relatively new ensemble was formed primarily from SLO Wind Orchestra members.

Exhibitions will feature special displays of historical sheet music, vintage band uniforms and local wine history, as well as the permanent exhibits within the Dallidet Abode.

The musical performances will be interspersed with historical facts and stories, which pertain to the music and artifacts on display that day.

Wine, beer, soft drinks and snacks will be available for purchase.

This event is partially sponsored by Saucelito Canyon Winery, which still grows grapes on rootstock from the Dallidet Vineyards.

The adobe is located at 1185 Pacific St. near Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kundert Medical Building and the Chinese Garden in San Luis Obispo.

Come and enjoy this free event at one of San Luis Obispo’s hidden treasures.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.