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The Great Vina Ranch – California History in the Making

The site of the monastery was once part of a 16 million acre Mexican Land Grant given to Dutch immigrant Peter Lassen in 1844.  Lassen used this portion of the grant to grow Mission grapes and produce wine until his suspicious murder in 1859.  From Lassen the land passed to San Francisco businessman, Henry Gerke in 1860, who increased the vineyards to 40 acres and, in addition to wine, began the estate’s production of brandy.

Clairvaux Wine CellarIn 1881 railroad magnate and past California governor, Leland Stanford purchased the property where he built his ‘Great Vina Ranch’, his country estate.  Stanford had a passion for great wines and his intent was to make this the greatest winery in the world.  His idea was that with enough money he could buy the expertise and artistry that would make his wines rival the best Europe had to offer.  What followed was the creation of what can only be called a monument to the early history of California winery architecture.  The winery building was designed by engineer Hamden McIntyre, who used this as a fitting end to his illustrious career creating some of the finest wineries in the Napa Valley.  Included in his portfolio were the incredibly beautiful and opulent, castle like wineries of Greystone, Inglenook, Far Niente, Chateau Clairvaux WineryMontelena and Trefethen; considered to be some of the finest examples of winery architecture of the time.  Some consider the facility at Vina to be the most incredible of the six. 

The Great Vina Ranch winery has 2 full acres under beautiful arched brick and beam ceilings.  The massive walls are 2 feet thick consisting of two parallel rows of brick, with a six-inch airspace between, that, along with the massive brick ceilings, can maintain a constant temperature and humidity on the hottest valley days, a must for storing wine.  There was originally an earthen sod roof as well; however, the building did not need that additional insulation and it was recently removed. 

Tasting RoomStanford brought in enology and viticulture consultants from France to create his wine empire and eventually planted roughly 4000 acres of grapes, making this the largest winery and vineyard in the world in 1889.  Alas, grapes from northern France cannot thrive in temperatures that can hit 115 degrees and Stanford never achieved his goal of mastery of the wine world.  This just goes to prove that no amount of money and expertise can help you produce good wine from the wrong grapes married to the wrong terroir.  To realize any financial success he had to result to making brandy instead and the row of beautiful brick Brandy sheds that are still standing were built.  After Leland’s death, and prior to the onset of prohibition, the winery ceased operation and the estate fell into disarray, finally being split up and sold off in pieces by the Trustees of Stanford University.

This beautiful, incredibly well built winery building was the perfect spot to once again produce California wines, if someone could just find the right grapes for the climate and soils, unlike the Leland Stanford approach.  Continued ...