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Twisted City of Vines: The Forgotten Role of Native Americans in LA Wine History

In researching Los Angeles's wine history, journalist Frances Dinkelspiel discovered LA's former status as "The City Of Vines" was due in large part to the exploitation of the Native American population.

Photo of the Mission San Gabriel, taken in 2014. (photo credit Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0)

When pondering about California wines, one automatically thinks about Northern California, specifically Napa Valley. This variegated valley is home to 475 wineries and boosts approximately $50 billion in annual revenue. The reputation and popularity of Napa’s wines is so strong that most have no idea that, in the 19th century, the center of the California wine industry was actually located in Los Angeles. LA was known as “The City of Vines.” Even lesser known is the exploitative nature of the winemaking process on the Native American population. 

A well-known sentiment is summed up by Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Before sipping that California chardonnay, take a moment to ponder its existence. How did this sunshine in a glass come to be one of California’s most loved exports? 

An Arson Prompts a Journalist’s Curiosity

Journalist and author Frances Dinkelspiel encountered LA’s horrible winemaking history when researching for her novel, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California. Her family was in the possession of 175 bottles of Port and Angelica made by her great-great-grandfather Isaias Hellman in 1875. When an arsonist destroyed these bottles in a fire at a wine warehouse, she began her research into her family’s history to understand the impact of this loss. 

When interviewed for this piece she stated the most surprising things she encountered in her research were that Los Angeles had any wine history at all, and that so much of it was done at the expense of the Native American population.   

An Exploitative System from The Start

Wine first arrived in California through the Spanish Mission system in the late 18th century. Important in the Catholic faith because of its role as a sacrament, wine was grown at the missions themselves, including the three in the Los Angeles area: San Fernando, San Buenaventura, and San Gabriel. Wine grapes did exceptionally well at Mission San Gabriel, which became known as “La Vina Madre” because of its 170 acres of vineyards. The Native Americans living at the missions toiled to plant and maintain these vineyards. This was not voluntary labor.  

Native Americans were first drawn to missions out of curiosity, a need to survive, and big promises. Once baptized, Native Americans were entered into a bidding contract that they could not get out of. They were forced to perform hard labor including winemaking, and to renounce their native ways — and were not permitted to leave. The padres looked down on them as neophytes, inferior creatures with the mental capacity of children. They were ruled by a series of bells telling them when to pray, work, and eat and severely punished for even minor infractions. They were housed in filthy dormitories where they contracted European diseases. A clerk with the Jedediah Smith fur trapping party observed that the Native Americans at Mission San Gabriel were “complete slaves in every sense of the word.” 

There are those organizations and individuals who do not believe the mission system was all bad. When interviewed for this article, David Bolton, the executive director of the California Missions Foundation, stated, “Life was not any worse at the missions 250 years than it was in society 250 years ago.” He acknowledges the hardships, but also states there was “harmony” and there were “positive moments” such as “growing new crops” like wine. He also claimed the mission system taught the Native Americans “to read and sing.”  

Many other dissenting opinions, and an attempted uprising, tell a different story about the mission system. 

Exposing a Darker Narrative

In her research, author Frances Dinkelspiel found that the Spanish padres first coerced the Native Americans to the missions and entrapped them. 

“From the very beginning of winemaking in California the Native Americans were involved and they were essentially enslaved and forced to perform.”  

Toypurina, a Tongva medicine woman, and Nicolás José, a baptized indigenous man living at the mission San Gabriel, attempted to rally local villages to revolt against the Spanish. The Spanish discovered their plans and ambushed and arrested the leaders of the rebellion before they could succeed. This attempt shows the tension and unhappiness of the Native Americans in the mission system. Additionally Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal band, had this to say about the mission system: 

All 21 missions are places of suffering, of death, and of domination. Domination is the main thing that happened at the missions, and it’s a shame that the state tries to build pride, honor, and respect. They should be places like Auschwitz where they have memorials to the atrocities that happened. 

In 1833, Mexico secularized the mission system, but the damage was already done to the Native American population. Many factors, including European diseases, caused the Native American population to decline from 65,000 in the mission zone in 1770 to only 17,000 by 1830. The new Mexican government controlled some of the mission lands, which were supposed to be turned back over to the Native American populations. That land was instead given to white Californians or influential Mexican immigrants. 

The Native Americans of the mission system became a displaced people, generations removed from their ancestral lifestyles so they could not return. They no longer had the harsh security of the missions to provide for them either. Many moved to the pueblo of Los Angeles to find new homes and work opportunities.

Winemaking Prospers in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, many Native Americans struggled to cope with their newfound freedom and lack of ancestral heritage. As a result, addiction to aguardiente — an 18–20% alcohol type of brandy that was made from mission grapes — became common among the Native population. Native Americans were not permitted to drink at the missions, so they would hang out on the infamous Calle de los Negros, a rough street filled with brothels, saloons, and gambling parlors. This, plus a labor shortage brought on by the California Gold Rush in 1848, would become a recipe for more even exploitation of the Native American population in the wine industry.

When the Gold Rush occurred in 1848, many forward-thinking businessmen decided to get into the wine business to make money off the newly booming population. Los Angeles was the center of this enterprise. There were at least 100 vineyards in the greater LA area. The route from the port of San Pedro to LA became known as “Vineyard Lane” and Los Angeles itself was known as “The City of Vines.” 

In order to produce all this wine, workers were needed, and the vulnerable Native American population of Los Angeles would be ripe for exploitation. Harris Newmark, a Jewish immigrant to Los Angeles in 1853, observed, “Much of the work connected with the grape industry was done by Indians.”

California became a state in 1850 and quickly passed the Indian Indentured Act, which created a labor loophole that was essentially slavery. This law stripped away the majority of the Native Americans’ rights and allowed any white man to claim a Native American was a vagrant and arrest them. Most Native Americans could not afford to pay the fine associated with vagrancy, so they would pay through their labor, which was auctioned off to the highest bidder.  

Los Angeles adopted an even stricter bill in response to this that paid the marshal $1 for every eight Native Americans he rounded up. The Native Americans drinking on Calle de los Negros were sitting ducks for the marshals. They would round them up on Sundays and sell them on Mondays. Vineyardists took full advantage of this cheap labor source and would even pay the Native Americans in alcohol to perpetuate the cycle. According to Dinkelspiel, Horace Bell, a Los Angeles ranger, observed in the 1850s that “Los Angeles has a slave mart as well as New Orleans and Constantinople — only the slave at Los Angeles was sold 52 times a year as long as he lived, which generally did not exceed one, two or three years under the new dispensation. Thousands of honest, useful people were absolutely destroyed in this way.”

Attempts at Repair

The Indian Indenture Act was repealed by the California Legislature on April 27, 1862. Much like the mission system, the damage was already done. The Native population in California went from 100,000 in 1850, when California became a state, to only 30,000 by 1870. Only 219 Native Americans remained in Los Angeles. 

On June 18, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom on behalf of the state of California issued a formal apology executive order to the California Native American Peoples “for the many instances of violence, mistreatment and neglect inflicted upon California Native Americans throughout the state’s history.” 

Dinkelspiel rightfully believes the city of Los Angeles also owes Native Americans an apology. She states: “No other city in the state went further in the 1850s to strip away the rights of Indians, make their labor available to whites, and hasten the devastation of the Native American community in the city.” On Indigenous Peoples Day October 11, 2021, Mayor Eric Garcetti concurred and issued an apology on the behalf of the city of Los Angeles: 

The buildings that are here were built on the slave labor of native inhabitants. And we’re sorry. We’re sorry as a city for all the things that were done as a Spanish city, a Mexico city, an American city to erase the peoples whose land this is and always will be. 

Let one now return to the glass of California chardonnay. Inside a high-quality glass of wine there is an element of complexity, and Los Angeles’ shameful wine history expands this concept outside of the glass. In order to still enjoy California wines and reconcile the past, a good step toward healing is first acknowledging its existence. 

The greater Los Angeles area sits on occupied land of the Chumash, Tongva, and Tataviam tribes. This land was stolen from the indigenous people who lived here not by ambiguous actors but by Spanish, Mexican, and white settlers with the support of their governments. This land has been cultivated and worked by unpaid labor in the form of slaves. This slavery was not done by ambiguous actors but by Spanish, Mexican, American, and white settlers with the support of their governments. While one sips chardonnay, let us make an effort to learn from our past in order to move forward toward a better and more equitable tomorrow.