The present day Appellation St. Helena modeled itself after the first local trade organization called the St. Helena Viticultural Club. The original was established 130 years ago, in 1875. The following traces the circumstances surrounding the formation of the original Club.
Situated just north of the town of St. Helena was Charles Krug‘s winery, and barely south of town was Henry Pellet’s (later Pellet and Carver) operation. Both were near the center of Napa Valley on what arguably was considered by some historians as one of most suitable vineyard locations found anywhere in the world. In 1873 Krug and Pellet combined their wine lots in carloads to ship to such eastern cities as Detroit, Michigan. Krug pondered over the conundrum of how everything could be so perfect in the production only to face hesitations by eastern buyers in the acceptance of Napa wine shipments. Apparently, these buyers were dubious of Napa wine, their having formed the impression too many Mission grapes were finding their way into the mix.
By 1874, other dynamics were thwarting what should have been an easy time for the St. Helena vintners. Only sixteen years had passed since Dr. Crane first produced his own commercial wine, a mere 2 pipes (approximately 300 gallons). Now the town was teaming with knowledgeable winemakers using sophisticated equipment capable of producing quality wines. However, the country was in the middle of an economic depression, and the market was flooded with wines produced by the French who faced little trade opposition given the relatively low tariffs on shipments to America. In addition, railroad fees were too high, Phylloxera had begun to surface in California, and a glut of wine was beginning to accumulate in Napa Valley.
In the spring of 1875, Krug traveled to the east trying to sell more wine only to return discouraged. Eastern buyer impressions were unchanged. The Grape Growers Association of Sonoma, Napa and Solano Counties were meeting too infrequently to field his concerns. A report presented the year before by R. S. Carey, the president of the State Agricultural Society, further confirmed what Krug had learned first hand, namely, that the perceived quality of wines would not improve unless Mission grapes were removed from the fermentation process. Clearly, something had to be done to erase the image besetting the Napa Valley producers.
Seneca Ewer joined Krug and Pellet in the final weeks of 1875 to develop a strategy to face their problems. On December 18th the three met and discussed the idea of forming a local association to disseminate needed information to and foster cooperation among its viticulture members in the promotion of Napa wine. They decided to begin asking others to join them at a meeting to be held at the Baptist church at the corner of Church and Hunt on December 22nd. There they would take in members, determine association officers and name the organization.
The St. Helena Star reported in the December 23, 1875 issue that a wine growers meeting called by Pellet, Krug and Ewer took place (the previous day) with a second meeting planned for the next day at 2:00pm. At these meetings the organization was named the St. Helena Viticultural Club, and the first officers were: Charles Krug, President; H. W. Crabb, Connely Conn and Seneca Ewer, Vice-Presidents; H. A. Pellet, Secretary; and J. C. Weinberger, Treasurer. Others in attendance were Charles Wheeler, R. A. Hasken, C. Heymann, J. H. McCord, Dr. G. B. Crane, John Thomman, John Lewelling, Oscar Schultz, John York, and D. O. Hunt. The list of names in attendance was literally a “Who’s Who” among Napa Valley vintners, businessmen and pioneers of the time. The organization took on the name St. Helena Viticultural Club, and meetings were to be held twice a month.
The first meeting in which there was a formal agenda of viticulture topics took place on January 29, 1876. A report on Phylloxera was given with someone bringing a sample of the infected roots for all to see before it was to be handed over for examination by Dr. Nichell. Both Pellet and Dr. Crane reported that independently both had contacted Representative Luttrell about the formation of the Club and the need of the Congressman’s support on this, a most important wine producing region in the Union.
By the end of March several others had learned of the club and came to the meetings. Joining the membership were Heath, Grigsby, Sheehan, Lynn, Scheffler, Locker, Shulce, Lazarus, Sayward, Davis, Gibbs, Hopper and H. Lewelling. Continued and new discussions ensued. March topics included Phylloxera, the need to incorporate, changes in Revenue law and the formation of a viticultural statistical report. Within two short months of its formation, the organization began to take on significant projects well beyond that of simply sharing information. Grigsby proposed that the organization consider building a large wine cellar in or around St. Helena for the disposition of grape crops for this and future years as well. The group was beginning to understand that local vintners were falling under the mercy of San Francisco warehousemen and ever increasing costs for storage. Finally, discussions turned to Krug’s pet topic — the value of planting foreign varieties over that of Mission grapes. The group would eventually expand to a membership of over 100.
Club accomplishments followed to close out the decade. By 1876 vintners began to see increased interest in Napa Valley wines. Another goal realized, according to historian William Heintz, was the “collecting and publishing of valuable statistics showing the superiority of our climate and the great fertility of our soil.” Also, the club constructed two buildings. One, a 40 ft. by 135 ft. bonded warehouse, was completed in 1878. The other, a two-story Vintners Hall for offices and meetings was finished in 1880. As described by historian Charles Sullivan, “at one of the  club meetings there was a lusty debate” between Krug and Scheffler over signing a pledge to eliminate chaptalization (the use of sugar in fermentation). The spirit of community won out over self-interest as opponents including Scheffler signed the pledge.
Krug was asked to summarize some of the accomplishments at the State Viticultural Association meeting in 1881.
“The vast amount of good the St. Helena Viticultural Association [has] done during the few years of its existence cannot be doubted. It has by publication of its minutes and deliberations spread a great amount of information among the grape-growers and wine men of this county and State. It has drawn the attention of many persons looking for vineyard land to this section, caused them to buy and settle among us, and to assist the building up of our county? It has started an organization to keep the pernicious Phylloxera from our beautiful vineyards, and you are well aware one man alone can do nothing in the line – only united action by all can ward off the dreaded calamity.”
A motion was approved at the April 30, 1880 meeting to incorporate the society and change the name to the St. Helena Viticultural Association. Along with this motion came the decision to structure the association into districts (appellations) whose names were to correspond to the nearest townships: Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville and Napa.
Fulton I. Mather
ASH History Committee
May 15, 2005