I have been reading about the history of California water wars and land grabs. I recently read about the beginning of the raisin industry here.
A physician named John Stentzel, farming in the Alhambra Valley (not far from where we once lived), was one of the fathers of California pomology. He planted plum and pear trees, as well as the infamous muscat grape. Growing up in Budapest, Dr. Stentzel learned how to ferment and dry grapes. Soon, he was making some of the best wines and certainly the first raisins in California. He won Blue Ribbons at the 1861 California State Fair with is wines.
Interestingly, the Alhambra Valley is now dotted with a resurgence of grape vines, mostly Zins on its hilly scapes. One of our friends (a friend of a dear friend) is now in the wine making business in Martinez and the Alhambra Valley. We call him Big Al, because, he is, after all, Big, and Al.
But the story gets even better. Back around this time, Dr. Stentzel’s son in law, John Muir took over the ranch. The farm was prospering with thirty six varieties of apples, thirty five varieties of pears, four varieties of quinces, five varieties of plums, along with lemons, cherries, pomegranates figs, pecans and walnuts. Muir made some changes with greater spacing between trees, and covering the ground with legumes, before his mistress, the Sierras, took over his life.
Here is the “official” story, but you received the REAL story here!
18th Century –The Birth of California Raisin Country
Spain’s Queen Isabella sent missionaries to Mexico to teach natives about religion. While they were preaching and teaching, missionaries also passed on their knowledge of viticulture. They used grapes for sacramental wines and also grew Muscat grapes for raisins.
By the 18th century, the Franciscan fathers had settled as far north as present-day Sonoma, California. But, when Spain turned power over to the colonial government of Mexico in 1834, the mission system began its decline. Viticulture – and its strong influence on California agriculture – was one of the mission’s enduring legacies.
1851 – A marketable muscat for raisins, the Egyptian Muscat, was grown near San Diego. Since the area didn’t have sufficient water supply, farmers moved to the San Joaquin Valley which has a mild climate and extensive irrigation system perfect for the art of viticulture.
1873 – Legend says California’s first raisin crop was grown by nature, not farmers. A massive heat wave hit the valley before harvest, and most of the grapes dried on the vine before farmers could pick them.
1876 – English immigrant William Thompson grew a seedless grape variety that was thin-skinned, seedless, sweet and tasty.
Late 1800s – Armenians descended from the first founders of vineyards in Persia began settling in the San Joaquin Valley. The area now supplies raisins for nearly half the world, making it the largest producer anywhere.
I thank Mark Arax for his many great insights in his book, The Dreamt Land, where I am learning so much about California, its history, people, and water.
Somewhere around 1941, my family purchased their first farm, out on Bethel Avenue in Kingsburg. After being incarcerated in a “War Relocation Authority” after Pearl Harbor, my family returned to farm raisins and tree fruit once again. It is rather ironic that we are the last ones standing on Bethel Avenue, everyone else is gone, passed on, or sold out!!!