"The harvest was a form of boot camp for me.”
I just finished rereading “The Mad Crush” by Christopher Weir. It’s a wondrously written account of the author’s experiences in viticulture in remote Saucelito Canyon east of Arroyo Grande in 1995.
Weir shares the pressure of the seasonal rush to harvest, crush and convert the grapes to wine. He reminds me of why my youthful enthusiasm for a career in viticulture, inspired by UC Davis’ famed Maynard Amerine, literally “died on the vine.” Living on the edge of the Napa Valley over a four-year period had given me an up-close and personal view of the hard labor and emotional and financial risks involved in winemaking.
Even today, I don’t find much reassurance in recent headlines noting that with the record drought “fewer grapes mean better wine” for San Luis Obispo County’s 2015 harvest. Of course, water shortages aside, I might have a different view had I not stopped drinking in 1983.
Saucelito Canyon, Spanish for the “little willows” that once flourished in the district, was first planted with grapes 135 years ago. The risk of investing money and labor in a canyon nearly a day’s ride from San Luis Obispo was overwhelming. It wasn’t until I encountered Margaret Ditmas Coyner, the descendant of the family that took such chances, that I began to understand the character of pioneer vintners.
During the early 1980s, I had the great pleasure of working at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County and the Dallidet Adobe with Coyner, the granddaughter of Henry Ditmas. An English expatriate and civil engineer, he first planted zinfandel and muscat grapes in Saucelito Canyon in 1880. Ditmas worked closely with Aram B. Hasbrouck, who owned the neighboring 30-acre vineyard and St. Remy Winery.
After Ditmas and his wife, Rosa, divorced, she married Hasbrouck. The couple raised her son, Cecil, who was Coyner’s father. Madge Ditmas, Margaret’s mother, was a pioneer historian of the Arroyo Grande Valley, writing numerous columns for the Arroyo Grande Herald-Recorder.
Coyner explained that her grandfather and Hasbrouck understood that a very hardy rootstock would be necessary for the vines to survive. She said they purchased rootstocks from Pierre Hypolite Dallidet, a French immigrant to San Luis Obispo. Dallidet, at the encouragement of his fellow French emigre, San Luis Obispo Postmaster J.J. Simmler, had acquired the 150 acres that made up the former vineyards of Mission San Luis Obispo.
By the 1870s, the mission era vines had been neglected for more than four decades, but they were still living and producing bunches of minuscule grapes. Dallidet grafted onto the mission rootstock cuttings of the zinfandel and muscat grapes advocated by Agoston Haraszthy, “the father of California winemaking.”
In 1861, Gov. John G. Downey appointed Haraszthy as special commissioner to determine the “ways and means best adapted to promote the improvement and growth of the grapevine in California.” Haraszthy, a native of Hungary, had traveled throughout Europe and did indeed bring many cuttings. His son, Arpad, later claimed that zinfandel was one of these.
In 2003, Charles L. Sullivan’s “Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine” noted that the zinfandel grape may have arrived in North America as early as the 1820s. But there is little doubt that Haraszthy’s report influenced Ditmas and Hasbrouck’s decision to graft zinfandel and muscat on mission rootstock vines in Saucelito Canyon.
The history of viticulture in Saucelito Canyon links grapevines planted more than 200 years ago in San Luis Obispo to two great “rebirths” of winemaking. The first began in the 1870s. The second started a century later and continues to flourish in the 21st century.