From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age
Shafer celebrates several anniversaries including 130 years of grape growing on our Stags Leap District site
This year we’re marking several major milestones at Shafer – including one we only recently learned about.
While we’ve known about these first two anniversaries for some time – and they are detailed in Doug Shafer’s critically acclaimed memoir A Vineyard in Napa (University of California Press, 2012) – we only recently pinned down another fascinating part of the history of this place that stretches back well into the 1800s.
Wilderness to Wine Country
Mark Twain called it The Gilded Age, an era of booming expansion from about 1877 to the turn of the century, in which the United States transformed from Europe’s hick cousin to a major player on the world stage. It was a time when enormous fortunes were made and lost.
Napa Valley was a mirror of these times, moving rapidly from wild west days into a era of fervid growth, mainly centered around the new wine industry.
Napa Valley’s first vintage came in 1841 or 1842, when George Yount (the pioneer for whom Yountville is named) made his first wine with grapes from his small vineyard. By 1880 the Valley was home to 49 wineries and within just six years that number more than tripled to 175.
Recently we’ve done some digging in local archives and have learned more about our hillside estate property and its place in Napa’s history.
What we discovered is that our property has been the site of grape growing for about 130 years, dating back to the early 1880s.
Between 1880 and 1882 a man named John Burkart purchased four pieces of land and combined them into a single property. It is likely that a vineyard was planted here about that time when in 1885 Burkart sold the acreage to a German immigrant named Jacob Ohl for $100 in gold coins.
Tax records at the time indicate that Ohl was growing and selling grapes from the start and it appears that he extended his planted acreage beyond that originally cultivated by Burkart.
The wine boom in the Valley came to a grinding halt in the 1890s with the onslaught of phyloxera, a tiny insect that spreads a vine root disease. The spread of phyloxera in France in the two decades earlier had been so dire, many, including the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, believed they were seeing the end of French wine altogether.
Now phyloxera wreaked havoc in Napa Valley causing vintner after vintner to lose major portions of vineyard acreage. By the mid-1890s local banks were becoming major landholders thanks to defaults on loans.
Jacob Ohl’s property was not immune and by 1898 he sold his property at a huge loss, for just $10, to Security Savings Bank of San Francisco.
The bank owned the land for a few years, selling it to a new owner in 1904. By this point the scourge of phyloxera had passed and it seemed like Napa Valley had another chance to thrive as a wine country.
Those hopes were dashed in 1919 with the passage of the Volstead Act, which ushered the U.S. into the era of Prohibition.
Jazz Age Grapes
The property passed through several hands until it was purchased by an Italian immigrant named Batista Scansi in 1920, during what became called the Jazz Age. Even in the middle of Prohibition this enterprising young man saw the opportunity to make money in wine grapes thanks to a loophole in alcohol laws. A home winemaker could produce up to 200 gallons of wine per year for personal use, and so Scansi and other grape growers throughout California made money by selling grapes for this kind of winemaking – done in basements and bathtubs throughout the country.
Scansi, unfortunately, didn’t live to see the end of Prohibition. He died and the property passed through other hands including Frank Perata, in 1943. His son Frank Perata, Jr. was 10 at the time his family lived here and shared several memories including the story of his father tearing down an old, decrepit barn and under the floorboards finding a secret barrel storage area.
Also, Frank says there’s an old moonshine still buried along the creek, which runs above the winery. It’s possible that Scansi was doing more than simply selling grapes!
In 1961 the property was sold to Al Phillips who continued to grow and sell the grapes that Scansi had planted in 1922. By 1969, Phillips was ready to sell and had his property on the market for three years before a fortuitous visit by John Shafer of Chicago in 1972, who was looking for hillside property suitable for a vineyard.
The Shafer family is proud to be part of the ongoing story of this historic vineyard property and, as this site’s longest owners, look forward to caring for this special place for many years to come.