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Charles A. Wetmore and the Cresta blanca Winery

In 1878 the California wine Industry was at a very low ebb. Not a restaurant in San Francisco placed California wines on its tables. Farmers were replacing acres of vines with hops, fruit or grain, and what they left in the ground they didnšt even pick. At a time when sound wines could not even be sold for ten cents, Charles Wetmore, a San Diego lawyer and land rights activist began an investigation that would rouse the California wine industry to new life.

 
Charles A. Wetmore
photograph courtesy of
The Bancroft Library

Wetmore had been hired by the Alta California, the paper with which Mark Twain was associated, to compile a report on the depressed state on the wine industry. What he found was that the value of imported vine cuttings had not been appreciated. The cuttings imported by Agston Hatazthy had been distributed, but most of them had not been propagated. Quantity was being stressed over quality and since the Mission or Malvoisie grapes were found to be more prolific, the imported vines were neglected or removed.

Wetmore's interest was aroused with these findings and he delved further into his investigation. He traveled to Paris, at his own expense, to represent the State Vinicultural Society at the Paris Exposition. While in France he traveled widely through the wine districts, studying their methods and grapes, and wrote what he learned in a series of letters on vinicultural topics to the Alta California.

Upon his return to California, Wetmore's efforts were directed to whatever work needed to be done to foster the interests of the California wine industry. He not only wrote articles but also worked successfully to secure favorable legislation, beginning with the defeat of a one sided reciprocity treaty in favor of French wines. He continued studying the best methods of wine-making and publishing on these topics, as well as traveling and spreading the word on California wines to lawyers, bankers, and investors in general. The result was that California wines began to be used more and more and investors were willing to risk their capital in the development of the industry.

While in Sacramento in 1880, he succeeded in persuading the legislature to establish a State Viticultural Commission, serving at various times as its president, vice-president, commissioner, and chief viticultural officer. The commission worked hard to disseminate information about improving the methods of wine production and in combating the dreaded disease of the vineyards, phylloxera.

Wetmore stressed the necessity of improving the quality of California wines and in establishing standards on which a reputation could be built. To accomplish these goals, he imported cuttings of the finest types of wine grapes. Through the wife of Louis Mel, a man who owned a country estate in the Livermore Valley, Wetmore was introduced to the owner of the Chateau Yquem in Bordeaux, France, and ordered cuttings of the three varieties of grape that are used in making their famous white wine.



Grapes being loaded into a wagon for a trip to the winery.
Cresta Blanca, 1911.

The cuttings were planted in the Mel estate along with many others, where they flourished just as Wetmore knew they would.

In 1882, Wetmore settled in the Livermore Valley, planting cuttings from France in his own vineyard and setting up a winery there. He built a home near the vineyard for his wife and children.


The Wetmore vineyard was named Cresta Blanca because of the high white limestone cliff behind it. The estate is divided by lower rounded hills and into these Wetmore had tunnels excavated where his wines could be aged in an ideal environment.

The Cresta Blanca vineyard prospered. Wetmore had put into practice all he had learned in his studies; using the best varieties in grapes, planting them in a favorable location, and producing and aging the wine under favorable conditions. When its first vintage was pressed in 1884 the result was a dry white wine similar to the ones made in Bordeaux, France. Wetmore decided to enter it in the Paris Exposition of 1889.

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."


It was sensational news. The California wine industry could produce wines of the very highest quality, and its future was assured.

When he returned to Cresta Blanca he organized the C.A. Wetmore Wine Company to handle the products of the estate, including olive oil.Some of the officers of the mew company were Wetmore's brother Clarence, U.S. Senator Charles N. Felton, Mr. C.K. Kirby and Maurice Clark. The business was based on the belief that Americans would pay well for an article of superior quality.

Wetmore retired from the company in 1892 to devote the rest of his life to improving and advertising all California wines. In 1894 it led him to Washington where he was instrumental in procuring the passage of the first Sweet Wine Laws, one of the first attempts at pure food regulation.


Pumping wine from one cask to another;
Cresta Blanca, 1911.

Under his brother Clarence's management the Cresta Blanca Wine Company continued to grow until national prohibition came in 1919.



Packing bottles into crates; Cresta Blanca, 1911

Wine operations were forced to a halt and Wetmore wouldn't live to see them back in operation. He died in San Francisco in 1927.

The Cresta Blanca winery was bought by Schenley Distillers, Inc. during World War II. In 1971, Schenley sold the name Cresta Blanca to the Guild Wine Co. The tanks were leased to other wineries and have been sold.


In an article by Irving McKeee in California-Magazine of the Pacific, Sept 1953, he says "The man responsible more than any other for the outstanding record of California wines, was Charles A. Wetmore. When he died he was revered by his successors on the great industry he had so signally benefited."