How Chinese laborers played an integral part in building Wine Country

One of the places you can still see direct evidence of the labor of Chinese workers is in the caves at Buena Vista Winery.

BySuzanne Phan KGO logo
Thursday, May 18, 2023
How Chinese laborers played integral part in building Wine Country
A look at how Chinese laborers played an integral part in building Wine Country and Northern California wineries.

NAPA, Calif. (KGO) -- As part of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we're looking at the contributions from this community that continue to make a difference today.

Many people don't realize that Chinese laborers who came to Northern California in the 1800s had a big hand in developing our vineyards and wineries.

In Napa, 85-year-old Paul Gee always wanted to make wine but he never expected to make history.

Gee is the very first Chinese American vintner in Northern California.

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"We grow pinot years. It has been 42 years. The family and friends help me put this all together," said Gee.

It's a labor of love that stretches three generations. Gee and his family started his 17-acre vineyard from scratch.

"My dad drove the tractor. And, there's a container to fill up the water. The two grandkids - my older daughter and my son - each one was on each side with five gallons of water," said Gee.

And while Gee is part of Wine Country history, the story of the Chinese laborers there is even more historical.

"This is the unforgotten history," said Jack Ding who is the former Mayor of Sonoma and a current city council member.

According to Ding, Chinese workers played a huge part in building California's wineries but their accomplishments were largely unrecognized.

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"We never see the name," said Ding. "When they mention about wine workers and laborers; all the Chinese immigrants are listed as John Chinaman, John Chinaman, and John Chinaman. Not even the first name is mentioned. That is sad. That is wrong. That is shameful."

Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma was founded in 1857. It is considered one of the oldest wineries in the Golden State. At Buena Vista, visitors immediately learn about the story of Chinese laborers.

Their story is carefully preserved on the walls inside. Visitors will find several old photographs showing the workers.

"We can see Chinese workers here carrying materials across our creek," said General Manager Tom Blackwood.

"The Chinese played a major role in working in the vineyards, working in the wineries, digging of the caves. Our founder Agoston Haraszthy was a big proponent of those Chinese laborers and workers," said Blackwood. "We've seen anywhere from 200-500 workers. It was considered the largest labor camp north of San Francisco."

A painting by Jake Lee now at the Chinese Historical Society of America captures the role of the workers at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma.

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"Basically, this is a vivid picture that represents a piece of history in Napa, in Sonoma," said Ding.

One of the places you can still see direct evidence of the labor of Chinese workers is in the caves at Buena Vista Winery.

"You can actually see the pick ax marks from the 1860s when these caves were dug and the building was built," said Blackwood.

Like those who worked on the transcontinental railroad, these Chinese workers at many wineries and vineyards faced immense challenges, dangerous and difficult work conditions, and discrimination.

A lot of Chinese workers never became U.S. citizens because of the Chinese Exclusion Act which lasted for 61 years.

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Many say the story of the Chinese worker needs to be recognized and remembered.

There's an effort underway to honor the Chinese laborers who helped develop California's wine industry during the 1800s.

Ding and others are raising money to put up a traditional Chinese pavilion, or "ting," at the Depot Park Museum in Sonoma.

"To honor these forgotten nameless Chinese laborers who made a contribution here 150 years ago," said Ding. "That is extremely important."

As for Gee and his love for grapes. He grows them in Napa and then sells his grapes to Bouchaine Winery right next door. And, like a good neighbor, he often checks in.

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"Dr. Gee is kind of our local celebrity. He comes by all the time," said Erik Goodmanson, Director of Operations for Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa.

Some say diverse backgrounds add a lot to wine.

"It needs to happen that there is more diversity within the wine industry," said Goodmanson. "If we want wine to grow in the U.S. and abroad, we need to understand that it's not just a privileged white person's beverage it's for everyone. It's by everyone. So, understanding the history of it is important."

Understanding the history and remembering those who helped bring California's wine industry to life is a lesson many say is worth sharing.