Monday, June 27, 2016

The Incredible Sainsevain Brothers

(Image courtesy of the California State Archives. View more here.)

There were four Sainsevain brothers in all, but two of them - Pierre and Jean-Louis - had a strong impact upon Los Angeles and other areas of California.

Their mother, Marie Vignes Sainsevain, was the sister of Jean-Louis Vignes. In 1838, thirteen years after her brother was compelled to leave France, she sent twenty-year-old Pierre, a carpenter, to California to see if his uncle was even still alive. Eight months after the ship left France, Pierre landed in Santa Barbara and continued on to Los Angeles.

Jean-Louis Vignes was doing quite well, in fact - so much so that much of the extended Vignes/Sainsevain family relocated to Los Angeles.

Within a year of arriving at the El Aliso vineyard, Pierre was traveling to Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco by ship, seeking new buyers for Uncle Jean-Louis' popular wine and brandy. He succeeded in making the very first wholesale wine transactions in the history of California. The following year, he was running Uncle Jean-Louis' sawmill near San Bernardino.

Bigger things were in store for Pierre: in 1843, Governor Manuel Micheltorena granted him Rancho Cañada del Rincon en el Rio San Lorenzo - nearly 6,000 acres in what is now Santa Cruz County. California was still part of Mexico, and normally land grants were only given to Mexican citizens. Pierre did become a naturalized Mexican citizen in 1844 (he is sometimes referred to as "Pedro Sainsevain"), and Governor Pio Pico confirmed the grant in 1846.

In 1843, Pierre built a sawmill near the rancho with another French carpenter, Charles Roussillon, as a business partner. In 1844, he opened a flour mill. In 1845, he married Paula Suñol, daughter of Antonio Maria Suñol (owner of Rancho Los Coches in modern-day Santa Clara County). In 1846, Pierre and Roussillon built a schooner, the Antonita, on the beach at Santa Cruz (and sailed her to Hawaii to have a copper bottom installed). Pierre and Paula's son Jose Miguel was also born that year.

Every schoolkid in California knows that gold was discovered near Coloma in 1848. Pierre went to the mines with his father-in-law and Roussillon. Although the mining town of Don Pedro Bar was named for Pierre (he was nicknamed "Don Pedro" as a mark of respect by Spanish-speaking friends), the party soon tired of mining, and moved to Stockton to sell supplies to Gold Rush miners.

The town of Don Pedro Bar no longer exists, but the Don Pedro Dam and Don Pedro Reservoir still bear Pierre's name.

In 1849, Pierre and Roussillon went to San Jose, the original state capital of California, and built a large two-story adobe on Market Square. They intended to run a hotel, but instead, the building became California's first State House. Ever the achiever, Pierre also served as a delegate to the California Constitutional Convention that year.

In 1855, Jean-Louis, an engineer, joined his brother and uncle in Los Angeles, and the family expanded production at El Aliso. The brothers had their own storefront selling Sainsevain Brothers wine in San Francisco by 1857, with a wine cellar producing Champagne (well, California's first sparkling wine, anyway). Pierre even hired Monsieur Debanne, a former Champagne maker for Veuve Clicquot, to make Sainsevain Brothers Champagne. The following year, El Aliso was leading the state in wine production, turning out 125,000 gallons of wine and brandy.

Jean-Louis also had a personal accomplishment in 1855. He went to France to visit his two sons, who he had not seen for nearly seven years (remember, international travel was significantly harder, longer, and more expensive then than it is now). During this trip, he met and married the widow of a sea captain (I can only assume Jean-Louis' first wife had died at some point). Jean-Louis left his younger son, Paul, and his stepson, Charles Lepaon, in France to complete their schooling (many of LA's earlier French families sent their sons to school in France, so this was hardly unusual), but returned to Los Angeles with his older son, Michel, his new wife, and his stepdaughter, Honorine.

Meanwhile, on the business front, Champagne/sparkling wine production is always risky. It's often more cost-intensive than still wine, San Francisco does not get as cold in the winter as the Champagne region does (Champagne's cold winters create a dual fermentation process, which means more bubbles), and in those days it was MUCH more common for Champagne bottles to break or explode.

To make matters worse, the Sainsevains used Mission grapes (which weren't quite acidic enough to get the desired result), the Champagne was only aged for one year (five or six years is customary), and during the first year of production, one out of every five bottles exploded. While it's true that Champagne bottles have always had some risk of exploding, this level of loss is extremely high, and Sainsevain Brothers' employees had to wear protective gear in the wine cellars to avoid being badly injured by flying shards of glass. The Champagne experiment, while seemingly successful at first, ended up costing the brothers $50,000 (about $1.4 million today) and had to be shut down by 1862.

It wasn't all bad news while the experiment lasted - the brothers sold 300 cases a month, shipping some of them to New York and Philadelphia. They sent Champagne to President James Buchanan, who praised its taste and thanked them generously for it in a letter. When the French government opened its Los Angeles consulate in 1860, Sainsevain Brothers Champagne was served.

In 1859, Pierre sold his rancho. Uncle Jean-Louis sold his nephews the El Aliso vineyard for $42,000 - about $1.06 million in 2016 dollars - by far the highest price ever paid for a single property in California at the time. In 1861, with California wines being sold on the East Coast for the first time, another Sainsevain Brothers shop opened - this one on Broadway in New York.

Unfortunately, there were more financial problems: Jean-Louis Vignes' adult children sued their own cousins, accusing Pierre and Jean-Louis of underpaying for their father's vineyard. This may sound hard to believe, considering the brothers paid more for it than anyone else had ever paid for land in California at a time when Los Angeles was still a dusty pueblo, but it did indeed happen, and the brothers lost in court. Pierre and Jean-Louis dissolved their winemaking business and sold El Aliso in 1869. The brothers were so financially devastated by the Champagne failure and the lawsuit that the county sheriff auctioned off their possessions and remaining wine stock to cover their debts. (Trademark documents in the California State Archives suggest that the San Francisco wine store and the rights to the name Sainsevain Brothers were likely sold to another team of vintners, Mercado and Marsh.)

Jean-Louis was a Mason, and according to one source, was the first Grand Master of the city's first Masonic lodge, located in the original pueblo. A different source conflicts with this; the facts may well be lost to history. We do know, however, that he was a major player in Los Angeles' eternal struggle: water.

In 1863, Jean-Louis was awarded a contract to improve the city's primitive water system (and I do mean primitive; zanjas, or open ditches, were still in use). However, it proved so difficult and costly that he quit. Two years later, when another contractor gave up after only eight months, Jean-Louis was offered the contract again.

This time, Jean-Louis called for help: Damien Marchessault, former mayor and Water Overseer, partnered with him. In an area called "The Cornfield", now Los Angeles State Historic Park, Jean-Louis built a dam and water wheel to feed one of the city's first backup supplies of water, the Sainsevain Reservoir (long since replaced by Radio Hill Gardens). He and Marchessault also began replacing the city's first pipes - hollowed-out logs - with iron pipes. Unfortunately, in 1868, severe flooding undid all of their hard work. This final failure would be a factor in Marchessault's tragic death. An improved water system would eventually succeed under Prudent Beaudry, Solomon Lazard (both French), and John S. Griffen (more on that later).

It may be difficult for modern-day Californians to imagine a time when the state didn't have one out of every eight U.S. residents crammed into its boundaries, but in the 1860s, California had a seemingly endless supply of wide open spaces presenting new opportunities. One of them was Rancho Cucamonga.

Pierre bought the Rancho Cucamonga vineyard in 1860, and Jean-Louis began managing it in 1867. The brothers introduced "new and better" varieties of grapes, according to Harris Newmark. However, their vines were destroyed by grasshoppers in 1870 and 1871, causing more financial trouble. Despite several ownership changes, Jean-Louis was kept on as the vineyard's manager. A bottle of his own sweet white wine won first place at the 1877 Southern California Horticultural Fair.

The brothers, undaunted, also built houses in San Bernardino (it isn't clear whether any of these houses still exist; they'd be well over a century old by now).

Pierre moved back to Santa Clara County and produced wine (under the Menlo Park label) successfully. His claret won "Best Wine" at the county fair in 1868. By 1870, he was making 20,000 gallons of wine per year, but he closed the operation in 1874. That year, Pierre and Jean-Louis bought land in Hawker Canyon, building a large stone house and reservoir.

Jean-Louis owned a lumberyard at the corner of Alameda and Jackson Streets, although the dates are unclear (much of Jackson Street is now gone, meaning the corner itself no longer exists). The brothers shipped lumber up and down the California coast via schooner. In 1869, Jean-Louis sold a different property to Eugene Meyer (despite the German-sounding name, Meyer was also French), who built the Aliso Tract on it.

The ever-restless Pierre went to Central America (some sources say Peru) in 1874 or 1875, returning to San Jose in 1880. He began producing wine again, and invented a steam-powered stemmer crusher (a device that de-stems and crushes grapes) in 1882. When Paula died in 1883, Pierre returned to France.

Although I can find no record of Jean-Louis marrying for a third time (hell, I can't even find a record of his first marriage), a court record from 1882 suggests he was married to a Florence Matilda Sainsevain (another source suggests she was Charles Roussillon's sister). The Los Angeles Herald described him as an "old pioneer" in his death notice (2/17/1889).

Jean-Louis died in Pasadena in 1889. Pierre died in France in 1904.

The 1883 Los Angeles City Directory lists an "M. Sainsevain" operating a feed store at the corner of Turner and Alameda Streets. However, there were already so many Sainsevains in Los Angeles by 1883 that it isn't clear who exactly this was. Pierre's son Jose Miguel was sometimes called Michael, and Jean-Louis had a son named Michel (to complicate things further, in French, "M." is an abbreviation of "Monsieur"). I had considerable difficulty fact-checking this entry because there were multiple Jean-Louis Sainsevains in the Sainsevain family, nearly all living in Southern California.

Multiple old maps list Sainsevain family property in Fontana (the city gave it the official address of 14804 E. Summit Ave.). The Sainsevain surname, albeit with a savagely butchered spelling, is sprinkled across the Inland Empire. Etiwanda, Fontana, Jurupa Valley, and Rancho Cucamonga all have places named after the brothers. There was a Sainsevain (spelled correctly) station on the Southern Pacific rail line near Rancho Cucamonga, but I have not yet been able to determine its precise location or its fate.

The Sainsevain brothers led incredible lives - and incredibly, no one remembers them. Case in point: Los Angeles used to have a Sainsevain Street*, but now it's a distant memory just like its namesakes.

*An 1868 map shows Sainsevain Street ran between Aliso and Commercial Streets, with Alameda and Vignes as cross streets. Comparing that map to modern maps, it appears that Sainsevain Street was realigned and incorporated into Commercial Street. As the original location runs very close to what are now freeway ramps, the street was most likely moved/destroyed to make room for Interstate 5.

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