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New exhibit on first privately-owned vineyard in Sonoma Valley

Local historian Peter Meyerhof has worked for decades doing research to form a more accurate and comprehensive narrative of Sonoma’s past. A dentist by trade, Meyerhof began to delve into Sonoma’s history when he moved here in 1992.

“I found that the Bear Flagger Robert Semple had also been a dentist and I thought, ‘Oh, this is great, I should find out more about him,’” said Meyerhof about one of the notable participants of the 1846 Bear Flag revolt, which brought an end to Mexican rule of California.

He found that Semple, whose formal profession was a printer, was not only the first dentist in Sonoma, but the founder of Benicia and, eventually, became the president of the state Constitutional Convention.

“He did a ton of stuff and, yet, frankly, he’s forgotten,” said Meyerhof. “It’s through Semple that I became interested in a whole variety of other topics surrounding Sonoma’s early history.”

A new exhibit at the Depot Park Museum displays one of Meyerhof’s more recent discoveries, what he believes is another “first”: the first privately-owned vineyard in Sonoma Valley.

Meyerhof explained that while the first vineyard in Valley – near Fourth Street East and Spain Street – belonged to the renowned Mission San Francisco Solano, the 175-acre plot that he uncovered was located about two miles away and was the first documented vineyard to be owned and operated by an individual.

“I’d always been curious about this piece of land,” said Meyerhof, “and I happened to come across an old registry of grants which mentioned that it was granted to a Native American.”

The lot was given a Mexican name, which may have been why no one “picked up on” the fact that it was granted to an American Indian, added Meyerhof.

As he progressed with his research, Meyerhof found that the owner of the land was, in fact, a Native American who he eventually identified by the name Viviano.

Meyerhof explained that business transactions involving Viviano were mentioned in account books from Jacob Leese, a local store owner at the time.

“Grants were not usually given to Native Americans,” said Meyerhof. “But the size of this grant suggested to me that it might have been from the Mission itself, because I soon came across other instances where Missions had given out small parcels of land to Native Americans who had done particularly good work for them.”

The granted land was located on what today are parts of Bartholomew and Buena Vista wineries, with the vineyard itself just to the right of Castle Road after one enters the Bartholomew Park gate. The land was later owned by Agoston Haraszthy, often called the “Father of California Viniculture.” Haraszthy came to Sonoma in 1857, said Meyerhof, and in his writings he refers to older vines that he estimated had been planted about 25 years before he arrived.

“Haraszthy could date vines fairly accurately,” said Meyerhof.

Haraszthy eventually determined that the vineyard was planted around 1832, which was during the so-called Mission period, before the arrival of Vallejo and the founding of the Puebla de Sonoma in 1835. “It certainly predated anything in Sonoma other than the Mission vineyard,” Meyerhof said. “The next privately-owned vineyard was likely Vallejo’s own, planted from cuttings of the Mission’s vines in 1836.”

In its documentation, Viviano’s property was often referred to as “LAC” vineyard. Meyerhof hypothesizes that the name may have been derived from “Leka,” the Miwok word for Oregon White Oak, a species that inhabits the property.

Meyerhof’s exhibit on “LAC” vineyard – which features detailed descriptions, excerpts from journals, illustrated timelines, maps and more – is currently on display at the Depot Park Museum at 270 First St. W. Admission is free; the museum is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.

Recently, Meyerhof has also determined that California’s first theater, which was likely already in use by around 1847, was located in Sonoma, predating Monterey’s “First Theater” by several years. On July 28, as part of Wine History Weekend, from 1 to 1:45 p.m. Meyerhof will be giving an illustrated lecture on the theater at the Depot Park Museum at 270 First St. W.

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