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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Shorb Cal. & The San Garbriel Wine Co. 1882 - 1899

Tombstone Arizona Territory - 1879.

Doc Holliday to Johnny Ringo; " "In vino veritas"

Translated, "In wine there is truth." A common enough Latin aphorism, meaning that alcohol consumption is like a truth serum.


Southern California - same time frame -
"Howdy", said the Marshall to the stranger as he hitched his horse in front of the saloon. "Howdy", replied the stranger. New around these parts? Yep, replied the stranger. What's the name? Shorb. Where ya from? Shorb. Hmmph; Shorb from Shorb, eh? Yep. Never heard of it.

Oh, you will. I own the San Gabriel Wine Company and were' set to be big, real big. The Biggest! Wine and Brandy. Why, sir, you won't be able to go into any saloon on the west coast and not see our brand on the shelf. Well why didn't ya say so, said the Marshall. Let's have a drink!


James De Barth Shorb, a native of Maryland, came to California in 1863 looking for oil in Ventura County. He was 18 years old at the time. Benjamin Wilson, owner of Lake Vineyard, Pasadena, was tiring of the business end of wine production when he suddenly inherited Shorb as his son-in-law, who married his daughter Sue in 1867. Shorb was by that time 22 years old, dynamic, enterprising and full of ambition. In 1870 Wilsons only son, John, committed suicide, paving the way for Shorb to attain full control of Wilsons holdings.

At first, the wines and brandies were marketed under the B. D. Wilson Co. label. By 1875 Shorb was boasting that "we are the largest wine manufacturers on the Pacific Coast": average production of the Lake Vineyard was 150,000 gallons of wine annually, and 116,000 gallons of brandy.


Benjamin Wilson died early in 1878, and though he had long before ceased to have any active part in the wine firm bearing his name, his death seems to have been a signal for it to go dormant for a time. The winery and vineyards remained, of course, but the wine company withdrew from the public marketplace. Instead, Shorb sold his production in bulk to the San Francisco firm of Lachman & Jacobi for a couple of years.

The second phase of Shorb's winegrowing career, which saw the Lake Vineyard transformed into something very different, opened in 1882 with the formation of the San Gabriel Wine Company, capitalized at $500,000, and financed, in large part, by English investors. The small settlement that was sited adjacent to the vineyard on the hillside property was named Shorb. Grand plans for the future loomed ahead. Prominent and moneyed Californians were also in on it. San Gabriel Wine Company was launched on Shorb's land at the same time that the town of Alhambra, in which it stood, was being invented and promoted by Shorb. Stockholders had shares in land as well as in the company, and dividends could be provided by land sales if, by any unlikely chance, the wine trade should prove insufficient to provide them.
Shorbs business and family grew by leaps and bounds. A fine new home was constructed at Shorb for the family, which now included nine children.
The San Gabriel Wine Company itself owned 1,500 acres; 200 of these were planted to vines in 1883, a further 400 in 1884—or that, at least, was what one prospectus stated. A further 400 were planned for 1885. As for the winery itself, that was planned on an unprecedented scale. The buildings, costing $125,000, were to provide a winery meant to be, quite simply, "the largest in the world." The fermenting capacity was a million gallons, the storage, a million and a quarter.

Some of the stockholders expressed doubts about beginning on so grand a scale, but Shorb was confident and swept aside such timid hesitations. The winery, brick-built and steam-powered, duly arose in the new town of Alhambra according to the original plan.
What can have attracted this kind of interest in the provincial winegrowing industry of a country that did not yet drink wine? The answer lies in the scourge of phylloxera, which was then at the very highest pitch of its destruction of the vineyards of Europe. It did not, at that time, seem an alarmist notion, but rather the sober judgment of informed observers, that Europe would soon be unable to supply its own demand for wine. If wine was going to be produced, it would have to come from unspoiled new sources—California prominent among them.

However, the San Gabriel Wine Company did not prosper. Much to the contrary~ Instead, it faced one business failure and financial setback after another. From the outset the San Gabriel Wine Company. had never had quite enough money to operate easily, for the capital stock was never fully subscribed, and in order to meet its needs it had to depend more and more upon the sale of its lands. Shorb and the San Gabriel Wine Company were in dire straits. By 1890 he was on the verge of losing his entire investment and had only his wife's estate (itself heavily mortgaged) between him and destitution. The possibility of selling the company now became the main hope of its stockholders, but the chances of doing so diminished as the company's troubles grew. In the next year, we hear of Shorb busily planting citrus orchards on the company's land—an activity that angered the powerful Isaias Hellman, whose bank held the mortgage on Shorb's own estate and who was one of the company's stockholders. But Shorb went out of business only on his death, which occurred just a few years later, in 1896, at the rather early age of fifty-four; it is easy to imagine that the scrambling required by his many enterprises, not least among them the San Gabriel Wine Company, had worn him out.


The San Gabriel Wine Company struggled on until around the end of the century and then, at last, windows were shuttered and the doors slammed shut for the last time.



Note; WWB 4th edition states that the bottle dates ca. early 1900's. Bob missed it by a little on this one; but not by much. Best guess is mid 1890's. Regardless, the embossed bottles are flat rare, (the bulge neck being the rarest), and are at the top of many collectors small town must have list.
Credit; Much of the material was gleaned from an article by a Thos. Pinney dated 1989.

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