by Fred McMillin
for March 9, 1998

Born March 9,1824—Leland Stanford
Governor, Senator and Vintner


Written in 1889: The largest vineyard in the world is in California--that of Senator Leland Stanford, in Tehama county--3,825 acres, or about 3,060,000 vines.

...by Eunice Wait, "Wines and Vines of California"

The Rest of the Story  

In 1880 Leland Stanford, with his family, visited some of the great chateaux of Bordeaux. He returned and announced that he was going to plant vines and make wine that would rival the best of France. with his track record, which included a major role in establishing the first transcontinental railroad (1869), establishing Stanford University (1885), etc., success seemed assured. He hired one of the state's best winemakers, Inglenook's Captain H. W. McIntyre, and built storage for two million gallons of wine. Imagine the excitement when the first vintage of several thousand tons was harvested in 1887. How did it turn out?

It bombed! In fact, the wines were so poor that the entire fourth vintage was distilled to make brandy. The world's largest winery had become the world's largest brandy producer. Here's the reason it failed.

Danish pioneer Peter Lassen (for whom Mt. Lassen is named) planted vines near the town of Vina, 20 miles north of Chico in the scorching northern Central Valley. This is where Stanford located his huge Vina Vineyard in Tehama County. As author James Halliday puts it, "The wine was appalling...today nothing remains; Tehama has a token 140 acres of grapes." The area is simply too warm to produce good table wines.

There is a brighter side. The brandy went down the Sacramento River in barrels, that then went on to the New York market. Some felt it was America's best and not too far below Cognac. So, my birthday toast to California Governor-Senator Leland Stanford will be made with a northern California brandy that IS NOT below Cognac according to a number of critics. The brilliant brandies are made by Germain-Robin in Ukiah. Two years ago my panel selected as the best thing they tasted all year was not a wine, but Germain-Robin Select Barrel XO. For more information phone co-founder and former U. Of Cal. classics professor Dr. Ansley Coale at (707) 462-0314.


We mentioned Leland Stanford going to Bordeaux with his family, wife Jane and their only son, Leland Junior, both of whom had shocking fates. At age 16, Leland Jr. died in Italy. Later, his mother, by then a widow, was mysteriously murdered by poisoning. Note—for more about Germain-Robin, see the March 28, 1997 WineDay article titled "The Hitchiker."


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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