When the Great Raisin Chase Began

When the Great Raisin Chase Began

I have read about the history of water wars and land grabs in California. I recently read about the beginning of the raisin industry here.

A doctor named John Stentzel, farming in the Alhambra Valley (not far from where we used to live), was one of the fathers of California pomology. He planted plums and pears, as well as famous muscular grapes. Growing up in Budapest, Dr. Stentzel learns how to ferment and dry wine. Soon, he made some of the best grapes and of course the first raisins in California. He won the Blue Ribbon at the 1861 California State Fair with wine.

Interestingly, the Alhambra Valley is now filled with a revival of grapevines, mostly Zins in their hilly huts. One of our friends (a friend of a good friend) is now in the business of making wine in Martinez and the Alhambra Valley. We call him Big Al, because, he, Big, and Al.

But the story gets better. Back around this time, Dr. Stentzel’s son-in-law, John Muir took over the farm. The farm prospered with thirty-six apple varieties, thirty-five pear varieties, four quince varieties, five plum varieties, along with lemons, cherries, pomegranates, pecans, and walnuts. Muir made a number of changes with greater plant spacing between trees, and covered the ground with nuts, before his employer, Sierra, took over his life.

This is an “official” story, but you receive a REAL story here!

18th Century – Birth of the California Raisin State

The Queen of Spain Isabella sent missionaries to Mexico to teach natives about religion. While they preached and taught, the missionaries also conveyed their knowledge of viticulture. They use grapes for sacramental wine and also grow Muscat grapes for raisins.

By the 18th century, Franciscan fathers had settled north of Sonoma, California. However, when Spain handed over power to the Mexican colonial government in 1834, the mission system began to decline. Viticulture – and its strong influence on California agriculture – is one of the mission’s enduring legacies.

1851 – Muscat that can be sold for raisins, Muscat Egypt, is planted near San Diego. Because the area did not have an adequate water supply, the farmers moved to the San Joaquin Valley which has a mild climate and extensive irrigation system that is perfect for the art of viticulture.

1873 – Legend says California’s first raisin crop is planted naturally, not farmers. A big heat wave hit the valley before harvest, and most of the grapes dried in the vine before the farmers could pick it.

1876 ​​- British immigrant William Thompson plants a seedless grape variety that is thin-skinned, seedless, sweet and delicious.

Late 1800s – Armenians descending from the first founders of vineyards in Persia began settling in the San Joaquin Valley. The area now supplies raisins for almost half the world, making it the largest producer anywhere.

I thank Mark Arax for his many great insights in his book, The Dreamed Land, where I learned a lot about California, its history, its people, and its water.

Somewhere around 1941, my family bought their first farm, on Bethel Avenue in Kingsburg. After being incarcerated at the “War Relocation Authority” after Pearl Harbor, my family returned to raisin farming and fruit trees once more. How ironic that we are the last to stand on Bethel Avenue, everyone is lost, dead or sold out !!!

PS: If you are in the vicinity, on Highway 99, south of Fresno, stop by the Sun Help Factory shop. You will find gifts that you cannot refuse, and gift items for everyone at home !!!