Charles Wetmore: Father of the California Wine Industry

Over the last forty years, California has become known for making premium wine that can compete with the best wines in the world.  The current popularity of California wines can be traced back to the success of the California wineries in the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976.  From that competition,  the Napa Valley wine region emerged as one of the most well known wine making regions in California and the world.  There is no doubt that Napa has made a name for itself in recent years, but the true rise of the California wine industry dates back to 1878 and a man named Charles (Chas) A. Wetmore, who has been called the founder of the California Wine Industry.

Charles A. Wetmore was born in Portland, Maine in 1847 and he came to California with his parents at the age of nine years old.  He went to school in Oakland and at the age of twelve he produced and published The Young Californian, which was the first juvenile newspaper on the west coast.  In his college years, Charles spent his time exploring California and he became interested in doing public works.  At graduation he was the valedictorian of the first graduating class of the College of California, which was later to become the University of California Berkeley.

Charles was involved in many different ventures after his college years, but his wine journey began around 1878 when he rejoined the staff of the newspaper, Alta California.  He was asked by the publishers to create a report on the California Wine Industry, which at the time was in decline.  During Charles’ investigation, he found that California vineyards were being pulled up and replaced with hops, fruit, and grain.  Of those vineyards remaining, hundreds of acres were not being picked.  Winemakers were favoring the Mission and Malvoisie grapes that produced a higher yield instead of the higher quality grapes that produced less fruit.  Charles determined that the winemaker’s desire for quantity over quality as well as the rampage of the phylloxera disease were the primary causes of the depressed California wine economy.

Charles decided to go to France to study the grapes and methods of winemaking of the different wine districts.  During this time he gained a great deal of knowledge concerning best practices for both vineyard management and winemaking.  He documented his new found knowledge in a series of letters, which were published in The Alta California.  It is said that these writings brought new life to the California Wine Industry.

Upon his return to California, Charles put into act his plan to stimulate the California Wine Industry.  He continued to write wine related articles and was instrumental in blocking legislation that would have given French wine a secure foothold in the United States.  Charles promoted California wine by getting restaurant owners to start serving California wine and by getting investors interested in backing the industry.  In 1880, Charles succeeded in getting the state legislature to establish a state viticultural commission whose purpose it was to disseminate information about improving the wine production process and fighting against phylloxera.

Charles was not interested in simply telling others about the processes he had learned about.  He wanted to put those ideas into practice.  In 1882 he purchased a 221 acre lot, which was part of the old Rancho El Valle de San Jose in Livermore.  In 1883 he built the Cresta Blanca winery, which was named after the limestone ridge that looked over the vineyards.  It was with Cresta Blanca that Charles would change the world’s perception of California wine.

Charles made a second trip to France in order to obtain some high quality cuttings with which to start his vineyard.  With some help from the wife of Livermore winemaker Louis Mel, Charles was able to obtain Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat de Bordelais cuttings from one of the most prestigious vineyards in France, Chateau Yquem, which is located in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, France.  With these cuttings and cuttings from Chateau Margaux in Medoc, Charles planted his Cresta Blanca vineyard.  He also shared these cuttings with other growers including Wente who used the Chateau Yquem cuttings to produce their Chateau Wente.

Cresta Blanca’s first vintage was pressed in 1884 and in 1889 Charles entered his wine in the Paris Exposition.  It was at this wine competition that Charles’ wine won the grand prize, which was the highest award given at the competition.  This prize was won over the Chateau Yquem, which was also entered in the competition.  It is said that after winning the grand prize, Charles was told by the owner of Chateau Yquen, “The daughter has excelled the mother!”  With the win at the Paris Exhibition, Charles put California and Livermore on the map as a premier wine growing region.

The following is a “stop-press” bulletin published in the Pacific Rural Press:

“October 3, 1889

THE AWARDS AT PARIS. The Paris Exposition has advanced to the prize-awarding state, and the United States exhibitors seem to have received due recognition…The chief awards won for the State were in viticultural products…The successful exhibitors were Chas. A. Wetmore, President of the State Viticultural Commission, whose ‘Cresta Blance’ vineyard is at Livermore; A.G. Chauche of the ‘Mont Rogue’ vineyard of Livermore; G. Megliavecchi, a winemaker in Napa; and the State Viticultural Commission, which makes a small amount of wine each year for experimental purposes. The grand prize went to Mr. Wetmore and gold medals to the other three.

Their Grand Prize, thus should be noted, in judging this honor to California, is the highest award given at the Exposition…Naturally it is considered that an award for wines from a jury of French experts is a greater honor than any award for any other product could be.”

Charles retired from winemaking and sold Cresta Blanca to his brother Clarence in 1893.  Clarence operated the vineyard until 1920 when it was sold to L.B. Johnson during prohibition.  Even after the sale of Cresta Blanca, Charles continued to work toward the elevation of the California Wine Industry.  Unfortunately, prohibition had a huge negative impact on the Livermore Valley and California wine industry as a whole.  Charles died in 1927 and would never see the end of prohibition or the peaks to which the California wine industry would climbed.  Much is owed to this wine pioneer who paved the way for California winemakers with his endless hours of promotion of the industry.  Todays winemakers have not let him down.  They continue to use the practices Charles brought back with him from his research in France and fortunately we are the ones who benefit.

Wente now owns the old Cresta Blanca property at the south end of Arroyo Rd.  They have done a phenomenal job restoring the wine caves, and the vineyards that brought would acclaims.  The property now boasts, in addition to its beautiful grounds and tasting room, a championship golf course created by Greg Norman and an award winning restaurant that will not leave you disappointed.

As a memeber of the Bryersantís Wine Consortium it is my goal to promote Livermore wine and the men and women who work so hard to produce it.  It was Charles Wetmore’s dream to share with the world the premier wines that could be produced in the Livermore valley and it is my honor to walk in his footsteps.  He showed us that the best wine in the world could be made in the Livermore Valley.  It is our job to prove to the world once again that Livermore is California’s wine country.

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