Jean-Louis Vignes (pronounced "vines") was born in Béguey, France (in Bordeaux's wine country) in 1780. In 1827, at the age of 47, he traveled to Marseilles and boarded the Jeannette, leaving his wife and five children behind.
French king Charles X (the monarchy was briefly restored), an ultra-royalist who believed government positions should be held by nobles, did not take kindly to people like Vignes, who had managed the census in Cadillac and was often a witness to marriages and contracts. To make matters worse, Vignes was having financial problems. A letter written by Father Alexis Bachelot, Vignes' priest in Los Angeles (more on him in the future) seems to support this reason for departure: "Vignes was driven to leave his country after troubles caused by his loyalty, misunderstood considerateness, and too much facility to be of help." (In layman's terms, no good deed goes unpunished.)
The Jeannette was bound for the Society Islands via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), but made a stop at the port of San Pedro (Joseph Mascarel, a young cadet on the same ship at the same time, will make a major appearance in a later entry). Vignes did some trading while in port, but continued on to Hawaii.
In Hawaii, Vignes managed a rum distillery (he had been a cooper in France), grew sugar cane, and raised livestock. When the distillery closed, he left for California, arriving in Los Angeles via Monterey in 1831. He was 52 years old.
Realizing grapevines could thrive in Southern California's mild climate, Vignes used the money he had earned in Hawaii to buy 104 acres on the west bank of the Los Angeles River.
Vignes' new property included an ancient and very famous local landmark: a giant sycamore tree more than sixty feet high and 200 feet in diameter. The tree can be seen in the background image for this blog (which just so happens to be the earliest known photograph of Los Angeles).
Vignes quickly established one of California's first commercial vineyards (since Louis Bauchet also established his vineyard in 1831, no one knows who was first), calling it El Aliso ("sycamore" in Spanish). He built his wine cellar in the shade of the massive tree, aged his wine in oak casks he'd made himself, and was dubbed "Don Luis del Aliso" by his Spanish-speaking neighbors. An article in The Upland News (October 9, 1968) calls him "Southern California's first truly expert winemaster".
Vignes was entertaining fellow Angelenos before long, throwing parties and hosting meals at his home on the vineyard's grounds. He also became godfather to Francisco "Pancho" Ramirez, the son of a neighbor. Vignes taught the boy to speak French (formal schooling did not yet exist in the area). At the tender age of sixteen, Pancho was hired as editor for the Spanish-language pages of the town's first newspaper, the Los Angeles Star.
Vignes didn't just plant 35 acres of grapes along the river - he planted the city's first orange grove (and also grew lemons, pomegranates, peaches, apples, pears, apricots, figs, and walnuts). Further, he held two Spanish land grants - one in San Bernardino and one on Santa Catalina Island. In 1839, his family sent a nephew, twenty-year-old Pierre Sainsevain, to California to check on Uncle Jean-Louis. With 40,000 vines in production and a reputation for making the finest wine in Southern California, it's safe to say he was doing well enough.
In fact, Vignes wrote to his family in France and urged them to join him in California. Three of his five children (and their families), one brother, four nephews, and several family friends settled in LA. Pierre worked on his uncle's vineyard, later joined by his brother Jean-Louis Sainsevain (the Sainsevain brothers merit their own entry; more on them down the road). By the 1850s, Vignes' estate and the surrounding neighborhood - filled with French settlers - were known as "French Town".
Since he now had some extra help, Vignes decided to distribute his wine outside of Los Angeles. Within a year of his arrival, Pierre traveled to Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, successfully making the first wholesale wine transaction in the state. (Sorry, NorCal. A 21-year-old French kid living in Los Angeles did it first.) Vignes also owned a sawmill near San Bernardino, and soon put Pierre, who had worked as a carpenter, in charge.
In 1842, Vignes entrusted a French sea captain with a barrel of wine, asking that it be delivered to Louis Philippe of France ("King of the French" under the July Monarchy). Unfortunately, Vignes' hopes of showing what a Bordeaux native could do with California grapes were dashed when the barrel was destroyed in a fire on the way to France. (I should note that Vignes also imported French vines to improve his wine's quality: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc.)
In addition to being California's first commercial vineyard, El Aliso was California's largest vineyard by 1849, with 150,000 bottles produced each year.
Vignes was liked and trusted by his Californio neighbors, and he is credited with helping to foster cooperation between Californios and Yankees when the Mexican-American War ended. In fact, when Don José Maria Abila's widow and daughters fled their home on Olvera Street (they didn't trust Americans), they sought refuge at Vignes' home. The diary of one Lt. Emory indicates that Vignes even supplied the Yankee troops with some of his own wine.
In 1855, at the age of 75, Vignes sold El Aliso to Pierre and Jean-Louis Sainsevain for $40,000 (about $1.06 million in 2016 dollars) - the largest amount of money ever paid for real estate in California at the time. (Try buying 104 acres of Los Angeles real estate for a million dollars now!) Ironically, Vignes' children later sued their own cousins, accusing them of underpaying for the vineyard. (Only in LA...)
In 1856, Vignes made a donation to the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul to fund St. Vincent's Hospital - the first hospital in the city - which opened in 1858. Vignes also donated funds to establish LA's first public school.
Vignes passed away in 1862. He was 82 years old.
There is an undated gravestone reading "Jean Louis Vignes" at Evergreen Cemetery. However, Evergreen opened in 1877. His body could have been moved (the city's first cemetery is long gone), or the stone could have belonged to a relative (cemetery records give a burial date from 1892, but this could be a typo).
El Aliso changed hands again after Vignes' death. For a time, it was the Philadelphia Lager brewery, owned by German immigrants. The site is gone, long ago subdivided, and for many years was believed to be where Union Station now stands (it wasn’t).
The giant sycamore itself died in 1891, unable to survive in a growing city. It was felled for firewood in 1895. According to landscape architect John Crandell, the tree would have stood on what is now a raised island separating the 101 freeway from an on-ramp. (Beret-tip to Gizmodo.)
Vignes' vineyard, orchards, and groves are long gone. Most Californians have no idea he was our state's first commercial vintner. But he does live on...via Aliso Street and Vignes Street, both near Union Station.
Vignes Street intersects with Bauchet Street in the shadow of the Men's Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Although Vignes Street was originally much shorter (it was extended in 1897 and again in 1936), LA's first two Frenchmen may very well have been next-door neighbors.