Sonoma's Vintage Festival
The Sonoma Valley grape crop of 1896 was the best since the dreaded phylloxera louse had decimated the vineyards beginning in the mid-1870s.
The Sonoma Valley grape crop of 1896 was the best since the dreaded phylloxera louse had decimated the vineyards beginning in the mid-1870s. The victory over the insects that had gnawed their way through the roots of so many grape vines had been achieved through the tireless investigation by Valley grape growers Horatio Appleton and Oliver W. Craig, who isolated the bug, along with the studies of biologists at the University of California and the persistent experimentation by several vine growers who grafted resistant rootstock.
The younger generation of the inter-related pioneer families of Valley vineyardists and winemakers - Jacob Gundlach, Charles Bundschu and Emil and Gustav Dresel - decided it was time for a community celebration of this triumph. What better location than their "Rhinefarm" (named for the German river that flowed past their ancestral vineyards) two miles east of the Sonoma pueblo boundary.
To organize the celebration they created what they called The Bacchus Club of Rhinefarm, in honor of the Greek god of wine. Imaginative, witty and fun-loving clans (as their descendants still are), they wrote skits, composed humorous songs, designed costumes and practiced lively dances in preparation for the festival which was scheduled for Oct. 16, 1896.
The entire population of the Valley was invited to participate in the pageant by the organizing families who were not only clever but generous, for the wine was poured free to all comers. Highlights included a melodrama titled "The Vintage Festival," in which Bacchus blessed a mock wedding conducted in "The Vale of the Pansies," a natural amphitheater on the winery property. Choruses in Greek costumes sang original drinking songs, like the "Rhine Farm Song" penned by Ben Weed, a popular dramatist married to young Eva Gundlach. Much of the music was composed by Dorothea Duhring, music teacher wife of prominent merchant Frederick Duhring. Dancing in the decorated wine cellar lasted well into the night.
The following year the festival returned to Rhinefarm with new songs and events. For the Oct. 9, 1897, version invitations and press publicity were extended to the entire Bay Area, drawing dozens of visitors who came by ferryboat followed by rides to the Rhinefarm in wagons, surreys and open carriages.
Winding up the festival day was a new Ben Weed faux Greek drama. He and his wife, Eva, played the lovers and San Francisco opera star Robert Bien was imported to sing the lead as Bacchus. In the cast were a half dozen Bundschus as goatherds and grape crushers, and five-year-old Otto Dresel as "Baby Bacchus." Julie Granice, daughter of the publishers of the Index-Tribune, cavorted as a nymph. In a front-page story the San Francisco Call praised "The Outdoor Revel at the Rhine Farm." Weed, for whom the original UC Berkeley Greek theater was named, liked the Valley so much he had stayed on to spend five years as the principal of Sonoma Valley High School.
The third and final of the original Vintage Festivals was held in late September 1898, again at the Rhinefarm and, much like its predecessors, featured singing, picnics, dancing and a new Ben Weed opus, "Victory," again with Ben and Eva being saved by Bien as Bacchus.
Apparently the Bacchus clubbers were too busy gaining national and international attention for their wines to spend time on fun and theatrics. Gundlach-Bundschu won gold at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and Dresel captured a first at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Those early Vintage Festivals faded into a charming memory. So reports that the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival is more than a hundred years old are somewhat misleading. Some still call it the "second oldest festival in California," following the Pasadena Rose Festival which was inaugurated in 1890.
With America at peace, civic activists in 1947 thought that Sonoma Valley should enjoy a celebration of itself. This time the natural site was the eight-acre Plaza. At the turn of the old century it had been a dusty, mis-used square, lacking grass, facilities, trees and adequate foliage. Starting in 1900 it had been refurbished, planted, planned and tended to. There was a City Hall, a Carnegie Library, lawns, trees and fountains. Each facing street was lined with a backdrop of historic buildings.
Urged on by Index-Tribune editor Celeste Murphy, and sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Wine Institute, and the Sonoma County Wine Growers' Association, the new Valley of the Moon Festival was held in the first weekend of October 1947. It was a modest affair with folk dancing, band music and a dedication of a plaque installed at Buena Vista Winery commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the commercial wine industry by Agoston Haraszthy. Overseeing the musical events was Dan Ruggles, music store owner and later mayor, who would be involved in the festival for the next 40 years. Dinners were held in various locations.
One tradition was established: The Blessing of the Grapes by a priest, usually supported by local actors portraying monks and St. Francis School altar boys playing themselves. One event which was not repeated was a roller-skating exhibition in the two-year-old Rollertorium on First Street East. The following year, late September was set as the annual date and an historic tableau written by Mrs. Murphy began a lengthy annual run.
An integral element of the Festival was the re-enactment of Sonoma's greatest social event, the 1863 double wedding of the Vallejo daughters Natalie and Jovita, to the Haraszthy sons, Arpad and Attila (did Jovita call him Hun?). Each year, dozens of Sonomans dressed in Victorian-era garb, rode up in carriages and participated in the wedding(s) on the steps of the Mission. Spectacular as it is, the event is historically inaccurate, since the actual weddings took place at the Vallejo home, Lachrya Montis. For years, Henri Maysonave served as master of ceremonies, and living descendants of Mariano Vallejo took part into the 1970s.
To provide a governing body to plan ahead for each annual festival, the Vintage Festival Association was founded and in charge by 1954. Harry Phinney, the association's president, said the historic nature of Sonoma made the festival of "statewide significance."
The growth of the Vintage Festival as a significant happening was incremental. As the 1954 program (provided to us by Robert Arnold) indicates, there was only a children's parade, hours of folk dancing, and the major meals served were a chicken loaf lunch at the Congregational Church and ham dinner cooked by indefatigable Jerry Casson at the recently opened Community Center. On Friday night, the weekend was kicked off with the "Grand Ball" at Little Switzerland. The festival was becoming a useful source of fundraising for civic groups, service clubs, churches and other causes by sales of food, and games along a paved path in the Plaza, for a time called the "gay way" (a name which has been abandoned). Nowadays, about a quarter of the Plaza is taken up with booths and games.
Musical presentations included accordion concerts, the Sixth Army Band from the San Francisco Presidio, singing by the Sonoma Chorus (a predecessor to the Chorale), and other aggregations. Some years the festival included a street dance or a teen-age hop. Garden Club flower shows were regularly held at the Community Center.
The first battle of "fire pumpers" by competing companies of firefighters was held on Spain Street in 1963. In years of water shortage this has been curtailed. Displays of art and sometimes crafts were originally conducted at the Community Center and scattered in a few local galleries. For the first time in 1968, the art show was laid out in the Plaza, where it remains a popular walk-around. Competition for the design of an annual festival poster has resulted in some outstanding works produced by local artists.
Special events have enlivened the festival, such as presentations by the French Consul General from Sonoma's sister city, Chambolle-Musigny, or the Hungarian Ambassador visiting the Haraszthy plaque. There have been fly-overs by Air Force pilots or the bi-planes of the Wingo Air Force.
At the dawn of the 1970s, the Sunday morning parade, now a centerpiece of the festival, was inaugurated, marching down First Street East from the Veterans Building parking lot, then around the Plaza. Thousands of spectators line the sidewalks, stand eight-deep in the Plaza or crowd the balconies overlooking the route, to applaud floats, costumes, decorated horses, a high wheel bicycle, classic autos, equestrian riders, jazz ensembles, dog-carts, dancers of all ages, public officials waving, martial arts demonstrations, innovative comedy routines, the Town Band and the "Other Town Band," (which greatly resembles the Town Band except for headwear) and an imaginative assortment of other entries. A jury awards prize ribbons for various categories. Unfortunately the children's parade on Saturday is no longer separate, but they are well represented by the Boys and Girls Club, Scouts, dancers, musicians, drill teams and costumed youngsters.
Recognizing that the original purpose of the Vintage Festival was to celebrate the grape harvest and the quality of Valley wines, in the 1980s the Festival board invited the Valley wineries to set up tasting booths in the Plaza, for which a commemorative wine glass and tickets for samplings could be purchased.
This was a popular addition as was the "grape stomp" in which teams compete to produce the most grape juice by foot power.
Generations of Sonomans cherish the Vintage Festival, which is more than a spectacle, but a participatory event. Helen Fernandez, the former long-time executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, smiles in remembrance of her years as program chair of the festival board. She laughs in delight when recalling that in one festival re-enactment as a Vallejo "bride" she was "married" to a Haraszthy "groom," played by the late Bob Brown, and declares with pride that more recently "I was a grape" in the Gundlach Bundschu "marching vineyard."
Old Bacchus should have had it so good.