Portrait of Jacob Beringer

Portrait of Jacob Beringer

Jacob Beringer


Jacob Beringer, along with his older sibling Frederick, founded Beringer Brothers Winery in St. Helena, California (Napa County) in 1875.


Jacob Beringer (born May 4, 1845 in Mainz, Germany; died October 23, 1915 in St. Helena, California), along with his older sibling Frederick, founded Beringer Brothers Winery in St. Helena, California (Napa County) in 1875. By Jacob’s death in 1915 the Beringer name had become one of the most recognizable alcoholic beverage brands in the United States. Beringer Brothers wines earned medals of distinction at international competitions in San Francisco (1887), Dublin (1892), Paris (1889, 1900), and Chicago (1893). In addition to the successful operation of his own business, Jacob was instrumental in the formative years of the Napa County wine trade because of his employment of new technologies in the field and cellar, and his utilization of German-American connections in educating consumers about the region’s wines in important markets such as New York City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

The vineyards of California’s Napa County, as in most of the United States, were planted, cultivated, and harvested by European immigrants. Largely forgotten (or maybe intentionally neglected), the largest group of immigrants to Napa County in the second half of the nineteenth century came from the territories of the German Confederation. Impoverished winegrowers and wine merchants from the Prussian Rhineland, Württemberg, Baden, the Bavarian Palatinate, and the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt were well represented among the about 1.8 million Germans who entered the United States between 1850 and 1869. In fact, in the years 1845-1859, among the twenty six Prussian districts, the greatest number of emigrants left from the vine-laden landscape of Trier, the center of Prussian wine production.[1] For many of these migrants, the rumors of land and riches along the American Pacific coast offered a glimmer of hope.[2] As one book for German immigrant children pointed out in 1860, “in New York—as in most other giant trading centers of the old and new worlds—there was one subject which dwarfed all other interests–California.”[3] Jacob Beringer (1845-1915) would follow this very path from Germany to New York to Napa County on his way to establishing Beringer Brothers Winery. Jacob’s story, though certainly unique in a number of ways, also fits comfortably into a broader narrative of German immigration and settlement in Napa. In fact, the networks of kinship, friendship, and occupational comradeship already in place between Germany and Northern California, and the continual transfer of knowledge, people, capital and goods between them are what enabled Jacob Beringer to thrive in an otherwise risky undertaking.

Family and Ethnic Background

Factors such as poverty, destitution, political upheaval, and land scarcity catalyzing much of the emigration from the southwesterly territories of the German Confederation only tangentially played a role in the decision of Jacob to leave Mainz and set sail for the United States. Jacob’s father Louis was relatively wealthy and the family did not appear to be under any serious hardship at the time of Jacob’s departure. However, the German wine trade in which Jacob was trained became increasingly unstable as poor vintages, intensified land parcelization, and a worsening of the reputation of German wine due to a very public battle over artificial winemaking techniques made cultivation of the vine along the Rhine more problematic. In contrast, California offered the winegrower a more favorable climate and less restrictions on inheritance, although accusations of adulteration—from which the Beringer brothers would not remain immune—later plagued the American trade as well.

An array of relationships already connected Jacob in Mainz to the German immigrant community in northern California. Some of Napa’s earliest German arrivals, including Jacob Schram (of later Schramsberg Winery fame) helped draw Beringer to California by the promise of boundless vineyards and the extension of communal support thousands of miles away.[4] Of greater importance, however, was the earlier emigration of Jacob’s older brother Frederick (1840-1901), and his success as a malt dealer in Buffalo and New York City. Only by contextualizing and combining the many reasons for Jacob’s decision to leave Germany can we understand how a single immigrant entrepreneur to the then-rugged Napa Valley could achieve such an astonishing level of business success during his “life course.”[5]

California was hardly the first place in the United States where grapevines had been planted. Early colonists had attempted to produce wines in the European style along the Atlantic seaboard; even William Penn carried European vines to the new world, though these were unsuccessfully planted in what is today Philadelphia. Attempts to grow grapes for wine spread westward along with the nation. Pockets of success were overshadowed by devastating failures. One such case of moderate success was the German-settled Missouri Valley. Here, along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, German immigrants were able to achieve more than modest plantings of native rootstocks. As the westward advance of viticulture reached California, German immigrants again played a crucial role. Although wine had been made along the Pacific coast for at least a century by Spanish and Mexican missionaries, it was not until the successful Los Angeles enterprise of Kohler & Frohling, established in the 1850s, that real commerce in California wine began. A pair of former musicians who helped to found the Germania Concert Society of California, Kohler and Frohling’s entrance into the wine business was buttressed by friends from their winegrowing Heimat, Baden.[6] In 1859, considered a relatively small vintage in Los Angeles, Kohler & Frohling produced more than one-hundred thousand gallons of varietal wines, a considerable amount at the time. These abundant yields prompted Kohler to claim to a Los Angeles correspondent that “in the long run we will beat Europe.”[7] Yet production in Southern California would soon be dwarfed by the much more fertile land of California’s Bay Area, including Napa County.

Although Germans would soon lead the trade, it was a Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy, who would later be recognized as Northern California’s first “celebrity” winemaker. Arriving in California in 1849, Haraszthy became a powerful booster for Sonoma and Napa Counties, and served as the first President of the California State Viticultural Commission. Haraszthy’s enthusiasm for the Bay Area’s potential was boundless, as he expressed in 1870:

Of all the vine growing countries in Europe, not one possesses the advantages of California; and I am satisfied that even if the separate advantages of these countries could be combined in one, it would still be surpassed by California when her resources shall be fully developed. Nowhere in France, the Netherlands, Holland, Rhenish Prussia, Bavaria, Nassau, Baden, Switzerland, Spain, Italy or any other country, can be found wines more noble and generous than this young State on the Pacific is capable of producing. Nor has she ever been anywhere equaled in the amount of her vintage per acre, or the annual certainty of her crop.[8]

Although romanticized and exaggerated, Haraszthy’s words spoke to the potential of winegrowing in Northern California for the countless European immigrants who sought to earn a living from the vine. The entrepreneurial spirit etched into Haraszthy’s language circulated among contemporaries, a point made clear by the dramatic shift from Southern to Northern California as the focal point for winegrowing in the state. In 1860, Los Angeles County (South) had produced approximately 162,980 gallons of wine compared to the Bay Area’s (North) 28,168 gallons. By 1890 these figures leaped enormously for Los Angeles County to 1,342,800 gallons, but significantly more so for the Bay Area, to 8,381,500 gallons.[9] 1898 marked the state’s highest output of the century, with an astounding 33 million gallons. The lion’s share of this growth occurred in the San Francisco Bay area, including Napa County. In Napa County alone, the number of registered wineries rose from 49 in 1880 to 166 in 1891.[10] Many of the most famous names in the wine trade today, including Beringer Brothers, were part of this dynamic growth.

In spite of the enormous attraction of Northern California for emigrating German wine families, we cannot necessarily point to this as the single most important reason for the Beringers’ decision to emigrate, nor can we assume that the same factors played into the separate decisions of both Jacob and Frederick.[11] Following the implementation of the Napoleonic Civil Code during the French occupation of the Rhineland in the early nineteenth century, most German vineyards came to be held under tenures of partible inheritance. In this system, land was continually splintered until, in many cases, holdings became too small to be economically viable. This type of inheritance structure put considerable strain on vintner families whose livelihood depended on cultivation of a substantial amount of planted acreage. However, in spite of the predominance of partible inheritance in Germany’s Western wine regions, sources for the Beringer family indicate a system of primogeniture in which all inheritable property would have passed on to the eldest son, Frederick.[12] This system of inheritance in which the eldest son became the sole beneficiary may have helped persuade the younger Jacob to risk financial independence away from home. In addition, in spite of the multitude of sources which claim that the Beringers were large winegrowers in Mainz, the evidence here casts doubt on the assumption that winegrowing (as opposed to winemaking or wine selling) was the family’s primary occupation.

Detailed information about the Beringer family prior to their arrival in the United States is scarce, and what is “known” has never been put to serious scrutiny.[13] Although Jacob’s father, Louis, is said to have been a winegrower in Mainz, this is disputable, or a half-truth at best, based on the following: A vintner would not have been able to send his first son (Frederick) to Paris for schooling, nor would his other son (Jacob) have been able to leave home to take an apprenticeship as a cellar master in Berlin, as the agricultural tasks at home would have been too demanding. It is more probable, although hardly definitive, that Louis operated a family wine & spirits merchant house or even tavern, and only engaged in viticulture as a side occupation (Nebenberuf). It was very common for Rhine wine merchants to buy grape juice from farmers in order to ferment, blend, and cellar the wine themselves; one did not have to be a vintner or significant landowner to do this. The boys’ mother, Marie Gruber, also came from a Rhine family, but was likely of French descent.[14] Nevertheless, Jacob’s experience as cellar master at Tim & Floske in Berlin (1865-67) and then at the more prominent J.A. Harth & Co. in Mainz (1867-68) provided the young and ambitious student of viticulture, cooperage, and winemaking with an abundance of experience and ideas to take to the new world.

Napa historian William F. Heintz describes Jacob’s decision to leave Germany for the United States as compatible with those famous propagandistic words of Horace Greeley: “If you have no family or friends to aid you, and no prospect opened to you there, turn your face to the great West, and there build up a home and fortune.”[15] This popular “Go West Young Man” narrative of immigrant entrepreneurialism, although uniquely successful in its contribution towards the idea of American individualism, does not, however, accurately describe Jacob’s immigration and settlement in Napa County. Rather, as Charles Tilly points out, “by and large, the effective units of migration were (and are) neither individual nor households but sets of people linked by acquaintance, kinship and work experience.”[16] The point here is that Jacob followed a well-trodden path (including that of his brother Frederick) by the time of his arrival in the United States in 1868, at the age of twenty-three.[17] The promise of existing support networks, whether through business, kinship, or otherwise, served as important factors in his decision-making process.

Immigrant Entrepreneurship

Frederick, five years Jacob’s senior, landed in New York in 1862[18] after some traveling in Mexico. Frederick quickly developed a financially and socially profitable malting business which brought him into contact with many of New York’s elites, including future president Grover Cleveland. Frederick’s effusive letters back home to Jacob were instrumental in convincing his younger sibling to make the journey across the Atlantic. Having been secured a job at the cellar of the wine merchant house Truche & Winkenbach by his older brother, Jacob arrived in New York City in 1868. He only to returned to Germany once more during his “life course,” in 1909, by which point he was one of the world’s most successful wine entrepreneurs.

Jacob’s stay in New York was short lived. His entrepreneurial spirit got the best of him, and once he had learned passable English, he opened his own wine and seltzer shop on Tenth Street.[19] Like many others, Jacob’s dreams were occupied with the opportunities to purchase land in California. Leaving his brother in New York, Jacob boarded the transcontinental railroad for San Francisco in 1870. Jacob was now entering a world in which Germans were already well established, particularly as winegrowers and wine merchants. This is important, as “the propensity to migrate was as strongly influenced by flows of information and familial networks as it was by particular political or economic conditions.”[20] In the past, as at present, immigrants chose their destinations based on the presence or absence of kin or other individuals from their community of origin.

In fact, early Napa was German to its core.[21] According to one wine historian, “the county (Napa) itself was quite Germanic […] the county was home to two German brass bands, picnics at the Habermehl Union Gardens, and high school dramatic productions in the mother tongue—including Schiller’s Die Räuber, quite a feat, since the play is difficult even for Germans to understand.”[22] Another historian of Napa claims that the town of St. Helena (where Jacob would ultimately settle) “was so Germanic that it needed a brewery more than savings institutions.”[23] Most poignantly, George Cornwell, Napa businessman and delegate to the 1876 Democratic National Convention, remarked that “wherever he saw a sign of California wine for sale […] he was sure to find Germans.”[24] The German influence in this period of Napa’s history is backed up by statistical evidence. Napa County’s total population in 1880 was 9,027, 46.6% of which were foreign born. Germans accounted for 15.1% of this foreign-born population. Thus, Germans constituted 7% of Napa County’s total population in 1880.[25] By 1890, the total foreign-born population of Napa County had reached 5,441, and Germans now made up the single largest foreign-born group in Napa with 20.2% of the population. Interestingly, during the same period, the German population in neighboring Sonoma County grew only a mere 1%. Of California’s fifty-five counties in 1890, only nine had a higher percentage of Germans than Napa (but only one of these nine, San Francisco, had a larger total population than Napa).[26] Anecdotally and statistically, Napa County had become a favored destination for German immigrants.[27]

Jacob’s first job upon arriving in St. Helena in 1870 was as cellar superintendant at the almost twenty-year old winery of another German immigrant, Charles Krug. Both Jacob’s training as a cellar master in Germany and his connections in the American liquor trade through his brother Frederick in New York had qualified him for this position with Krug, one of the pioneers of the Napa wine industry. Born in Trendelburg (near Göttingen) in 1825, Krug received two years of education at the University in Marburg. His republican ideology and his political activity around the time of the 1848 uprisings made emigration a safer option than staying in Germany, and he ultimately sailed for Philadelphia, and then in 1851 to San Francisco, where he helped to found an important California German-language newspaper, the Staats Zeitung.[28] Following his marriage into the family of one of Napa County’s largest landowners, the Bale family, Krug acquired his own land to cultivate. Krug later founded and served on the board of three early and vital California wine associations: The Grape Growers Association of Sonoma, Napa, and Solano Counties, the St. Helena Viticultural Association, and most importantly, the California Board of State Viticultural Commissioners.[29] Each of these groups sought to organize communication between California winegrowers and worldwide sellers and buyers. It was through Charles Krug and his established Napa network that Jacob Beringer would begin weaving his own web of connections, in which his brother in New York would play a vital role.

Social Status and Personality

Jacob and the Austrian-born Agnes Tscheinig (1853-1923), married in 1879, suffered the loss of their first child in its infancy. Six other children (Jacob, Jr., Charles, Otto, Berta, Martha, and Agnes) would survive well into adulthood, two of whom, Charles and Bertha, would oversee operation of the business following Jacob’s death in 1915. Frederick and his wife Bertha (1849-1941) raised three children to adulthood (Frederick Jr., Eda, and Anita). Family was a vital component of daily life at Los Hermanos (as the brothers’ winery was affectionately called by locals). Many of the surviving photographs—telling in their middle-class dress and fixed poses—reveal a tight-knit bond between siblings and cousins. All of the children worked in the business in some capacity while some of the children including the never married Martha and Bertha, lived their whole lives on the property in St. Helena. The children also played an important part in creating an aura of cheeriness for visitors to the winery, often accompanying guests on tours of the cellars, walks in the gardens, and an occasional game of whist on the veranda.[30]

Although sources are virtually silent as to Jacob’s early experience in Napa, we can extract from peripheral remarks that he made friends among influential neighbors. In 1876, Jacob presented the vintage report for Krug’s estate to the local paper, the St. Helena Star:

Charles Krug, the great establishment of all the upper valley, and one of the most perfect in all its appointments of any in the world. Mr K. was in the city, but his ever faithful representative, and most courteous gentleman, Mr. J. Beringer, gave us the sum total.[31]

While this excerpt does not offer much, it is likely that Jacob was winning friends through an agreeable personality and industrious work ethic. Working with Charles Krug for at least four years would have enabled Beringer to come into contact with many influential wine industry men, German and otherwise. More information about others’ impressions of Jacob can be gleaned from another article mentioning property purchased in 1875, adjacent to Krug’s land:

Mr. J. Berenger (sic) is at present general superintendent for Charles Krug Esq; is well and favorably […] and we are glad that he is going to settle down and become one of us.[32]

To “become one of us” meant more than simply settling in St. Helena.[33] Implications of ethnicity, or a shift from being German to becoming a German-American, among other interpretations, can be inferred. Jacob soon became involved in the town’s day-to-day activities. He became active in the St. Helena Viticultural Club in 1876, sat on the board of the St. Helena Water Company as of 1877, and even became a town trustee in the late 1870s. Napa historian Lin Weber attributes some of Jacob’s early success to, besides friendliness and confidence, his good looks. Nothing may have been more important in securing Jacob’s reputation, however, than the well-circulated story of his heroism in the fire that threatened to destroy Krug’s winery in 1874. According to Weber, Beringer risked his own life in rushing up to the winery’s roof in an attempt to douse the flames. While the flames were contained, the heroic reputation of Jacob Beringer spread like wildfire.[34]

Business Development

The predominance of Germans in Napa and the assistance of Charles Krug in particular made Jacob’s transition to California a smooth one, but another important connection—his brother in New York—made Jacob’s foray into viticulture more assured. Jacob’s purchase (with financial backing from Frederick) of dozens of acres in St. Helena, beginning in 1875, became the physical foundation for the brothers’ vineyards and winery. The purchase price of $14,500 was considerably less than the price paid by William Daegener only two years earlier.[35] The plot included a two-story farmhouse and a small vineyard, with many more acres of arable land.[36] Jacob and Frederick continuously exchanged letters about the acquisition. Three months after Jacob’s official purchase of the property in September 1875, Frederick sent Jacob money accounting for half the sum total of the property, and the property was recorded in both brothers’ names. This joint purchase indicates an extraordinarily high level of trust between them, particularly because Frederick had not even seen the property. Frederick’s wife Bertha saw the property first in the spring of 1879, which was also the first time that Bertha had met Jacob’s wife, Agnes Tscheinig, a St. Helena woman of Austrian birth.[37] With the financial assistance of his brother, Jacob continued to make improvements to the property and even turned out his first vintage a year after the purchase, in 1876.

Jacob soon found balancing the operation of his own winery with the tasks as superintendent at Krug’s estate too burdensome. In 1878 Jacob made the decision to devote his efforts entirely to the family winery. According to the St. Helena Star:

Mr. Beringer, long the popular foreman of Krug’s great cellar and vineyards here, has at last resigned that position to attend to the growing interests of himself and brother in the magnificent property of the “Beringer Bros.,” whose growth it has so often been our pleasure to notice. We wish him all prosperity in the conduct of the business, and enjoyment of the home his enterprise has so auspiciously started. He is succeeded at Krug’s by a Mr. Memminger […] for whom no better wish can be expressed than that he may become as popular as his predecessor.[38]

Again, this passage shows the popularity of Jacob, but more importantly, it raises the question why Jacob felt secure enough in his enterprise at this point to risk foregoing his steady source of income. Besides Jacob’s popularity within the community and his training in winegrowing, Jacob was able to do what most other vintners, no matter how skilled, were unable to do: to successfully distribute and sell the finished wine in large markets, namely the East Coast of the United States where no more than three or four California wine firms had solidified any serious presence prior to the 1880s.[39] In addition to the production of still, sparkling, and fortified wines, the brothers established a distilling side of the business, transporting thousands of tons of grapes to existing structures for manufacture, including to the Sacramento-based Johnston Distillery.[40] But the real struggle was to match this explosive growth in production, especially in still wines, with an adequate level of marketing.

Per capita wine consumption in the United States floundered somewhere between 0.2 and 0.6 gallons per person in the years between 1870 and 1900, with 1880 marking the period’s high point.[41] Although the stagnation indicated in these statistics might be less a referendum on the quality of American wines and more a result of population growth, the fact was that finding buyers for American wines was difficult. California winegrowers complained perpetually of the snobbishness and foolhardiness of East Coast consumers and their obdurate preference for European wines. Napa vintners, including those serving on the State Viticultural Commission, constantly stressed the importance of educating the American consumer:

The greatest obstacle to our success in this direction is, that the average American is a whiskey drinking, water drinking, coffee drinking, tea drinking, and consequently a dyspepsia inviting subject, who does not know the use or value of pure light wine taken at the proper time and in moderate quantities. The task before us, therefore, lies in teaching our people how to drink wine, when to drink it, and how much of it to drink.[42]

Blame for the difficulties of popularizing California wine was often pinned on those responsible for selling it to the consumer:

I find that of all the inquiring world, those who take least interest in discovering and making known the excellencies of our best vintages, are American hotel-keepers, restaurateurs and other retailers of fine wines and liquors.[43]

The problem of introducing California wine to the uninitiated was dealt with through a number of avenues including favorable tax legislation, aggressive marketing, and participation in world’s fairs. Yet, what was really needed was someone in the important consumer markets who had the desire, knowledge, and vested interest in selling the California product. The importance of having the ability to sell on the East Coast was explained by Frona Eunice Wait, the first female reporter for the San Francisco Examiner:

There is a necessity of introducing our fine wines in the East. This must be done by influential people; people of high place must go there with it, go into clubrooms, hotels and homes, and teach the inmates to drink it in moderation.[44]

Jacob Beringer’s source of sales to the “inmates” was his brother and business partner Frederick. In 1880, Frederick, who was already well connected among the socialite scene in New York State, opened a merchant house and cellar at 180 Fulton Street in New York City to sell Jacob’s “choicest vintages.”[45] Frederick’s influence is discernable in an 1880 story run by the New York Retailer about Napa wine and how “the Beringer Brothers rank first among the vintners in very many respects…Our readers, whether retailers or others…should satisfy themselves of the merits of the claim that is made for them, that they closely resemble the European standard brands.”[46] Here, distribution networks operated along kinship lines, and the Beringers managed to become one of the largest purveyors of California wine (145,000 gallons in 1880) despite their virtual absence in the cutthroat San Francisco market, already saturated with California wine.[47] Jacob’s decision to quit his position at Krug no doubt rested on the assumption that Frederick would become a viable means of distribution and sales. Reciprocally, Frederick’s decision to purchase the store and cellar in New York was connected with Jacob’s promise to devote his full effort to producing wine under the family label.

To meet the surging demand of East Coast consumers, Jacob employed the latest winemaking technologies, including steam crushers and a mechanized track system to facilitate the movement of grape tonnage in the cellar. Tens of thousands of gallons of wine were being sent eastward annually on increasingly frequent cross-country and cross-sectional rail and steamer trips.[48] These moves coincided with other crucial decisions by the brothers, including purchasing an additional seventy acres of prime vineyards and sending the winery’s bookkeeper, Albert Schantzen, to New York, where financial matters would now be handled. The Beringers soon led the way in wine shipments to crucial eastern markets.[49]

It should be stressed that winegrowing, historically, was not the kind of trade in which a single practitioner could make or break a market. The grower and merchant, for all of their social and ideological differences, were inexorably linked. In this sense, Beringer Brothers—no matter how independently successful—was in reality just one firm among many in the development of Napa viticulture. Centralized organizations such as the California Board of State Viticultural Commissioners, founded in 1880, as well as the University of California at Berkeley’s College of Agriculture, operated by German immigrant Eugene Hilgard (1833-1916) in the 1890s, were instrumental in advancing the science of enology as well as teaching production, cellaring, and sales methods to individual vintners. Beringer and its competitors, including Jacob Gundlach’s Rhinefarm and the Italian Swiss Colony in Sonoma County, as well as the Schram, Niebaum, and the Krug estates in Napa (in addition to the literally hundreds of others whose names were wiped away by Prohibition) required some level of cooperation in order for the trade to suceed. Because of the enormous complexities in conveying product knowledge about wine to consumers, potential competitors were often better served playing the role of friendly siblings rather than bitter rivals. What gave the Beringer operation an edge over their neighbors was the exceptional dynamic between Jacob and Frederick, both of whom brought uniquely different talents to the business.

Assessing the actual contact between the Beringer brothers and their family members is difficult. The most frequent form of communication between the brothers was through letters, which remain privately held, but the timely decisions they made are certainly evidence that they acted in tandem. Starting in the early 1880s, Frederick began traveling back and forth between New York, Napa Valley and Europe. An 1883 visit by Frederick to St. Helena was cause for a large celebration that included Charles Krug and the prominent winegrower William Scheffler. Frederick brought with him some samples from a recent trip to Europe to compare against some of Napa’s best growths.[50] Jacob also found time to make trips to New York to visit Frederick. The St. Helena Star wrote in 1882 “Our eyes were gladdened last Saturday by the sight of our valued friend J.L. Beringer, who arrived the evening before from his Eastern trip, having been gone about six weeks.” In addition to visiting Frederick in New York, Jacob also visited friends in Philadelphia and St. Louis, two cities with large German-immigrant populations where Jacob reported that the California wine trade was flourishing.[51]

The dominance of Germans in Napa County influenced the area’s winegrowing and winemaking techniques. Although Napa today is known internationally for its French (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay) and “native” varietals (Zinfandel), its early days were, in fact, far more German than that. The 1884 report of the State Viticultural Commission lists among the major grape varieties in use throughout Napa County White Riesling, Gray Riesling, Franken Riesling, Gros Riesling, Moselle Riesling, Affenthaler (a popular Baden grape), Blue Elbling, and Grossblauer, among other German varieties. While it should hardly be surprising that German immigrants would plant these grape varieties, the esteem with which Napa Riesling was held, at least for a short while, may be more surprising. According to Frederico Pohndorff at the 1884 Viticultural Convention:

In this regard, allow me to remark that the cultivation of the Riesling—the only, the true white Riesling—should be the particular object of those growers who are so fortunate as to obtain from it successfully those wines, which are so scarce and so abundantly in demand. That excellent grape yields us a wine which probably in years back upheld our reputation, or made it, when the copious supply from the coarse Mission grape did its best to ruin the California produce down in the eyes and palates of patriotic Americans. There is no reason to doubt the development into a truly high-class wine of a wine from the white Riesling-grape by keeping and nursing it for years.[52]

Pohndorff and others saw German winegrowing culture as the savior for a trade that had been ruined by its earlier purveyors. Even the above-mentioned Frona Eunice Wait, a great celebrator of American and French traditions, declared her favorite Napa growths to be of the “queen grape of the Rhine.”[53] Nevertheless, the sheer size of the Beringer estate as well as Jacob’s penchant for experimentation allowed the brothers to make a multitude of different kinds of wines, including versions of sherry and port which sat among their most desired offerings. The first Beringer plantings, however, were the more familiar Gutedel (a Swiss-German variety) and Riesling grapes, making wines that achieved fame at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris, and subsequently leading to orders from as far away as Japan, England, and Germany.[54]

The impulse to create a German-styled operation was hardly confined to grape plantings. Jacob immediately acted on his idea to create a “Rhine” winery on his property. Plans were drawn to build a two-story building that would utilize the gravitational fermentation method popular in Germany. With this method, grapes were loaded into a crusher on the roof, where the juice would flow, with the help of gravity, into the fermenting tanks below on the ground floor. This work was undertaken with an infusion of capital from Frederick in New York.[55] In addition to the winery itself, construction began on limestone cellaring tunnels beneath the hillside which the winery sat upon. Building a wine cellar was an enormous endeavor that few had attempted before in California, and none to the scale that Jacob had envisioned. Chinese laborers were used to follow through on this dangerous process, taking years to complete. The cornerstone for the tunnel was laid in March of 1877, an event that the local press was eager to describe:

Tuesday witnessed an important event in the history of St. Helena, the inauguration of one more of those great enterprises which make us strong and prosperous, the commencement of another of those great factories which turn the wealth of nature into the wealth of artifice and spread the fame of St. Helena, of Napa and of California […] We noticed some weeks since the improvements of the Beringer Brothers on their fine place near town, and the cellar they were just beginning.[56]

Many of Jacob’s friends and business associates attended the dedication. Jacob expressed gratitude on behalf of himself and his absent brother. The center of attraction, according to the St. Helena Star, was the inscription “B.B., 1877” on the cornerstone. Dr. Nichell concluded the event with a “baptism” of the cornerstone in sparkling wine.

The success of the winery in the 1880s can be measured, in part, by the continuous expansion of the cellar network, the purchase of additional vineyards, and the construction of above-ground storage and service facilities. Jacob made the decision to “drift” from the original tunnel, cutting additional storage chambers on both sides of the original walls. The brothers purchased an additional 70 acres of land in 1880, 16 of which were cleared and planted with vines by the end of the year. A third story was added onto the initial winery building in the 1880s along with the acquisition of 32 thousand-gallon redwood casks for fermentation and aging, all of which helped the brothers raise the level of production to 175,000 gallons by 1886.[57] These and other improvements to the property prompted the local paper to praise Beringer Brothers as winning “the admiration of the visitor and a model of neat and tasteful arrangement. Their handsome buildings present an inspiring appearance to the passerby and their steam machinery—is a model of rapid work.”[58] Technological innovation and implementation was an important ingredient in the success of Beringer wines.

The brothers took a crucial step in the development of their business in 1883 when Frederick made the decision to permanently settle in Napa, alongside his brother Jacob (operations in New York were still booming, but were now in the hands of salaried employees). A statement prepared by Dr. J.A. Bauer, a personal friend of Frederick’s living in San Francisco, told the community of St. Helena just how significant the decision of one of the “most esteemed representatives of civilization” to settle in town was:

Why, when Mrs. Beringer left New York several months ago with her son for Germany, the spacious saloon of the Hamburg steamer was actually filled with flowers, bouquets and souvenios (sic), sent and brought by loving and admiring friends of the gifted lady, the happy wife of Arion’s President. When Mr. Beringer himself returned to New York from here last May, the members of his Arion Society and other friends prepared themselves for weeks to welcome back their president with an ovation and serenade such as seldom given even to a King.[59]

In addition, plans were announced for Frederick’s new mansion, a “building to be finished with stained glass windows and Rhenish castle-like towers.” Frederick and his family did not arrive in St. Helena until December of 1884. Frederick’s new “California villa would be reminiscent of the family’s impressive old German home at Mainz-on-the-Rhine where the Beringer brothers grew up.”[60] The finished timber-framed house was a jeweled spectacle, with stained glass purchased from the New York artist, Lambert. At an estimated total cost of almost $50,000, the seventeen-bedroom mansion was an exhibition in ostentatious wealth. According to the local newspaper, “this addition to St. Helena’s long list of attractive homes is worthy of more than passing notice, as it perhaps eclipses all others in the county.” The building, according to the paper, is “of the old German style of the middle ages; is two full stories in height, besides a third garret story of considerable dimensions.” Two stained glass Swiss Knights, representing Frederick and Jacob, enclosed the front door to the mansion and spoke to their Roman Catholicism.

By the start of construction on the home in 1883, both brothers had been in the United States for more than fifteen years. Each brother’s German identity had rapidly morphed into a German-American identity. The German language had gradually given way to English. German networks, once vital, were being replaced by American business and political networks. In this context, the Rhine-style house was a way for Frederick, and even Jacob, to celebrate their German heritage.[61] Along with the “Rhine House,” the brothers engendered various other ways of preserving a link with their childhood and adolescence.

A vital part of Frederick’s connection with his German past was his thirteen-year presidency of the New York Arion Society, whose membership consisted largely of New York elites of German birth, and whose emblem adorned one of the bedroom gables of the Rhine House. Frederick’s charm—a personal trait of significant renown—was made evident by the ten-thousand revelers who came to celebrate his Arion Society presidency on Coney Island.[62] Frederick was made a guest of honor when thousands of New York Arion members visited San Francisco in 1899. In fact, he was barely able to get through his speech—delivered in German—due to the continuous eruptions of cheers and ovations.[63] Frederick also sent his son, Frederick, Jr., to school in Germany (Mainz) and France, emulating his own European education.

Both Jacob and Frederick became involved in the German-American community of St. Helena and the entire Napa County. Jacob was elected a member of the Board of Town Trustees in 1878 and served another short term in the 1880s. In addition, he was frequently a delegate to the county conventions of the Republican Party.[64] Curiously, Frederick was sent as a Napa County delegate to state Democratic conventions, as in 1888, and—owing to his friendship with Grover Cleveland, even ran as a Democratic state elector in the same year.[65] In 1890, Frederick was invited to deliver a speech to the Democratic State Central Club of German-Americans in San Francisco’s Metropolitan Hall.[66] The brothers were extremely active in the St. Helena Turnverein, a club dedicated to the social and physical enhancement of the German-American community. Jacob was elected President of the club in June 1885.[67] Six months later, Frederick took over the presidency.[68] While certainly riding the coattails of his established younger sibling, the neophyte St. Helenian was able to assume the leadership role of a club that included Napa’s most successful and respected citizens. In February of 1886 the German-American community of St. Helena organized a German Benevolence Society “for the aid of their fellow countrymen, and also to find employment for such as are out of work.”[69] It is likely that Frederick and Jacob were integral to the financial dispensations of the group. In a twist of fate, when long-time friend Charles Krug floundered in bankruptcy towards the end of his life, Jacob stepped in with generous financial support for his old neighbor and mentor. When Krug passed away in 1892, Frederick, the more loquacious of the brothers, delivered the eulogy in German.

Eulogizing in German became something of a habit for Frederick, one prominent example being his speech in San Francisco to mark the passing of Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1888:

We Germans who are adoptive sons of this splendid America, full of admiration for its free institutions, need not blush because of our old homeland and its great prince who we remember today; and who today does not shed a tear on behalf of our great hero-emperor, the founder of the German empire, appears to me dishonorable, like one embarrassed of his mother who has given him birth.[70]

Jacob, like his brother Frederick, never tired from nor did away with love for his native Germany. Stories of Jacob Beringer and his immigrant friends Jacob Schram and Jacob Grimm drinking and singing German songs into the night were legion in St. Helena. But even more ubiquitous were stories of Jacob’s work ethic, friendliness, intelligence, and experience; all important entrepreneurial components in their own right.

In spite of the trend of continued success at Beringer Brothers Winery, there were certainly moments of hardship and even tragedy. In May of 1890, a 24-year old German immigrant worker in the winery, Jacob Grube, shot himself through the head, allegedly because of an inheritance dispute as well as trouble with his employers, the Beringer brothers.[71] Tragedy struck the firm again in 1901 as Frederick, then serving as President of the St. Helena Savings Bank, finally succumbed to Bright’s disease, an antiquated term for a form of kidney failure. Charles Bundschu, an immigrant from Mannheim and prominent San Francisco wine merchant delivered the eulogy for Frederick, by then one of the most respected German-Americans in Napa County. Five years later, in 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake rattled Napa Valley, sending the huge chimney of the Rhine House crashing through the home’s slate roof and damaging some of the expensive stained glass windows. The stone winery and the brick walls of the on-site brandy distillery were also badly damaged.

Another challenge which threatened the continued success of not only the Beringer Brothers winery, but all of winegrowing in Northern California was phylloxera. The sap sucking insect had infested vines in Sonoma County as early as 1873, though its progression into Napa had been deceptively slow at first. Ultimately, thousands of acres of grapevines were destroyed or had to be replanted on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Beringer Brothers winery was in a far better position financially than many of its neighbors who did not survive the period 1887-1891, the most devastating years of infestation. Of Beringer’s competitors and friends, William Scheffler, Gottlieb Groezinger, Alfred Tubbs (Chateau Montelena), H.W. Crabb (To-Kalon Winery), and Charles Krug all entered into serious financial trouble or even bankruptcy during these years. The vine louse did not appear to affect the Beringer estate to the same extent as many of its neighbors. In fact, these very same years marked some of the most important for the Beringers in terms of achieving international recognition at competitive tastings and world’s fairs.[72]


By the start of the First World War, Beringer Brothers Winery had been established as one of the largest in California.[73] In fact, by 1893, the winery’s 155 acres and 690 tons of crop would have ranked as the largest in Germany, save for the Royal Prussian Wine Domain. Although Frederick’s business acumen was missed following his death in 1901, Jacob successfully navigated the operation until his own death in 1915. At that time, under the duress of a worldwide slump in wine sales (not least because of the First World War), and the difficulties of dividing the business between the brothers’ nine children, Beringer Brothers Winery was placed under the control of hand-picked members of the family according to the tenets of its incorporation a few years prior. Frederick’s surviving family, including his widow and three children, moved to San Francisco, selling their shares in the winery to Jacob’s family. Even the Rhine House, falling into a dilapidated state, was sold to an unrelated citrus grower from Fresno in 1914. The faltering business, somewhat ironically, may have been rescued by Prohibition (1920-1933), due to the winery’s right to produce sacramental wine for the Catholic Church and by its then long-established reputation. This, however, is based on an entirely different set of circumstances than those which enabled two German immigrants to become successful wine entrepreneurs in California.



[1] Annette Winter-Tarvainen, Weinbaukrise und Preussisiche Zoll- und Steuerpolitik in ihren Auswirkungen auf die soziale Situation der Moselwinzer im 19. Jahrhundert (Trier: Verlag Trierer Historische Forschungen, 1992), 104.

[2] Certain parts of the “western” United States in the 1830s and 1840s proved attractive to vintners and wine merchants emigrating from the Bavarian Palatinate and Hesse-Darmstadt—where the Beringer brothers originated—but by the 1860s California had become the prized destination for Germany’s wine men. On the emigration of German winegrowers from these regions to Wisconsin, see Helmut Schmahl, “We are Not Strangers in this Land: Rheinhessische Auswanderer in Wisconsin,” Die Auswanderung nach Nordamerika aus den Regionen des heutigen Rheinland-Pfalz, eds. Werner Kremp and Roland Paul (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2002), 74-87.

[3] Richard Baron, Kalifornien in der Heimat: Eine Erzählung für die Jugend und das Volk (Breslau: Verlag von Eduard Trewendt, 1860), 78-79.

[4] “Jacob Schram and the Schramsberg Vineyards,” Memorial & Biographical History of Northern California (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1891). Schram, born in Pfeddersheim, two miles west of Worms, was considerably older than Jacob Beringer. It is unclear where and when the two would have become acquainted, although the story of their erstwhile (pre-immigration) friendship is oft-cited. “Speech by the Chairman of History and Landmarks for La Junta Parlor, Nr. 203, Native Daughters of the Golden West.” Napa County Historical Society, Beringer File (32).

[5] By “life course” I mean that a person’s identity is constantly being formed and reformed by continual interaction over the course of his or her life. The term also implies the existence of cultural and material capital inherent in personal, familial, communal, and commercial relationships. See Tamara K. Hareven, “The History of the Family and the Complexity of Social Change,” The American Historical Review 96 (1991): 95-124, here 107-108.

[6] On John Fröhling, see Leo J. Friis, John Fröhling: Vintner and City Founder (Anaheim, California: Mother Colony Household, Inc., 1976). Fröhling is credited with being a founder of the city of Anaheim, California. A note on spelling: Although “Fröhling” was the actual name, the spelling “Frohling” was used to denote the business.

[7] Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 257.

[8] Report of the Committee on Culture of the Grape, Cultivation of the Grape and the Production of Wines and Brandies in California (Sacramento, California: D.W. Gelwicks, State Printer, 1870), C. Maclay’s opening letter to the senate of California.

[9] Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 313. This represents an 823% increase for Los Angeles County and an astonishing 29,755% increase for the Bay Area. In 1860, the Bay Area constituted 11.4% of California’s total wine production by gallon. In 1890, the Bay Area constituted 57.3% of total production by gallon. The Bay Area is defined as Alameda, Contra Costa, Napa, Santa Clara, Solano, Sonoma, and Yolo Counties. Clearly there had been a shift to Northern California and Napa was at the heart of this transition.

[10] Heintz, Raymonds, 9.

[11] Although conflicting dates are evident in the sources, I trust that the years of emigration were for Frederick, 1862, and for Jacob, 1868. See Lorin Sorensen and Fred Beringer, Beringer: A Napa Valley Legend (St. Helena, California: Silverado Publishing Company, 1989).

[12] William F. Heintz,Napa Valley’s Oldest Wine Making Family, the Raymonds: A Wine Lineage that Dates Back to 1870 and Jacob Beringer (St. Helena, California: Napa Valley Wine Library Association, 1982). Martha Jane (Jacob Beringer’s granddaughter) claims the oldest child got everything, and confirms that, for her grandfather in Germany, it would have been “almost impossible to buy land.” See transcript of interview with Martha Jane Beringer Raymond in Heintz, Raymonds, 5.

[13] For example, while all secondary literature claims that the family emigrated from the city of Mainz, I was unable to locate any birth, death, or address records for the Beringers in the Mainz City Archive. It is more probable that Jacob was born and raised in one of the many winegrowing and wine merchant villages which surrounded Mainz.

[14] Tom Gregory, History of Solano and Napa Counties California (Los Angeles, CA: Historic Record Company, 1912), 285.

[15] Heintz, Raymonds, 3.

[16] Charles Tilly, “Transplanted Networks,” in Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics, ed., Virginia Yans-McLaughlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 79-95.

[17] Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby, eds., Germans to America. Lists of Passengers Arriving at U.S. Ports, Vol. 21, May 1868-September 1868 (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly resources, Inc.), 174.

[18] Glazier and Filby, Vol. 14, January 1831-May 1863, 395.

[19] Sorensen, Beringer, 44.

[20] Caroline Brettell, “Migration,” in The History of the European Family: Family Life in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1913, eds., David I. Kertzer and Mario Barbagli (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2002), 229-250, here 243.

[21] On the early German community in Napa, see Floyd Stone, Napa’s Germans and the Napa Turn-Verein (St. Helena, California, 1998).

[22] Paul Lukacs, American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 68.

[23] Richard H. Dillon,Napa Valley Heyday (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 2004), 217.

[24] Cited in Lin Weber, Old Napa Valley: The History to 1900 (St. Helena, California: Wine Ventures Publishing, 1998), 233.

[25] U.S. Census Bureau; Table XIV, “Native and Foreign-Born Population, By Counties,” 1880.

[26] U.S. Census Bureau; Table 33, “Foreign Born Population, Distributed According to Country of Birth, By Counties,” 1890.

[27] Although Germans constituted the largest, and arguably the most important immigrant group in Napa, other immigrant groups were also crucial in the development of the wine trade. The Italians in Napa and Sonoma have actually received more scholarly attention, perhaps leading to the belief, not necessarily erroneous, that their contributions were more profound. It must be recognized, however, that although Germans and Italians dominated the early California wine industry, other important contributions were made by the Chinese, Mexicans, Spanish, French, Hungarians, Austrians, Swiss, Portuguese, Danes, and even at least one very important Finn (Captain Niebaum, founder of the Inglenook Winery).

[28] This was not Krug’s first time in Philadelphia. In early 1848, he taught at August Glaser’s Free-Thinkers School, only to return to Germany in the excitement shortly thereafter.

[29] On Krug, see William F. Heintz’s unpublished paper, A History of the Charles Krug Winery: The Early Years from 1861 through Prohibition to 1941 (St. Helena, California, 1980). Heintz cleverly points out that Krug’s Republican beliefs, as well as his time at Glaser’s Free-Thinkers School, may have infused the early Napa wine trade with a sense for the importance of communication, sharing ideas, and competing together rather than against each other. A group such as the Krug-led St. Helena Viticultural Association, meant to facilitate the exchange of winegrowing information between local vintners, could very well be testament to Heintz’s suggestion.

[30] Sorensen, Beringer, 63.

[31] St. Helena Star, November, 24 1876.

[32] St. Helena Star, July 29, 1875.

[33] St. Helena is the actual town in Napa County where the Beringers settled. It remains today an important center of the California wine trade.

[34] Weber, Napa Valley, 230-233.

[35] Sorensen indicates that the price of $14,500 was nearly half of what Daegener had paid. Sorensen, Beringer, 44. This is equal to almost $300,000 in 2010.

[36] Former owner David Hudson, who was a personal friend of the land-owning Bale family, constructed the farmhouse. It was Hudson who sold the house and land to Daegener. The Hudson house still stands on the property today although it retains little of its nineteenth-century form.

[37] I am using information from Sorensen here. However, I have found an article in the St. Helena Star dated August, 3, 1877 mentioning that Mr. F. Beringer of New York City contemplates summering his family in St. Helena the following summer (1878). I am unable to confirm whether this actually happened or not. Jacob and Agnes were married on the 5th of April, 1879.

[38] St. Helena Star, February 8, 1878. Jacob’s relationship with Krug was apparently not strained by his resignation as superintendent as he soon built a sidewalk between the two properties with “characteristic taste and liperality (sic).” St. Helena Star, February 21, 1879.

[39] Heintz, Raymonds, 8.

[40] Sacramento Daily Record-Union, September 28, 1886.

[41] Pinney, 374. Although per capita consumption in America was miniscule compared with Italy, France, Switzerland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the numbers are actually quite similar to England, Sweden and the Netherlands during the same period.

[42] Board of State Viticultural Commissioners, 1887. Report of the President, Arpad Haraszthy, 39.

[43] First Annual Report of the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners, 1881, (San Francisco: Edward Bosqui & Co.). See comments by the Commissioner of the State at Large, Charles Wetmore.

[44] Frona Eunice Wait,Wines and Vines of California, or a Treatise on the Ethics of Wine Drinking (San Francisco: The Bancroft Company, 1889), 122.

[45] St. Helena Star, January 6, 1882.

[46] Heintz, Raymonds, 7-8.

[47] Dillon, Napa Valley, 246-250.

[48] Napa County Historical Society, Beringer (32).

[49] Sorensen, Beringer, 46. In 1875, total vintner shipments of wine made to points outside the State of California totaled 1,031,507 gallons. In 1887, total vintner shipments of wine made to points outside the State of California totaled 6,901,771 gallons. In these twelve years, California vintners became much more successful in finding markets for their wines. By 1887, the Beringers were in competition with Charles Krug for the most shipped gallons of wine from St. Helena. See the Report of the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners, (Sacramento: J.D. Young, Supt. State Printing, 1887), 20.

[50] Sorensen, Beringer, 57.

[51] St. Helena Star, February 17, 1882.

[52] Report of the Third Annual State Viticultural Convention (San Francisco: The San Francisco Merchant, 1884), 95.

[53] Cited in Dillon, Napa Valley, 232.

[54] Napa County Historical Society, Beringer (32).

[55] Sorensen, Beringer, 46.

[56] St. Helena Star, March 30, 1877.

[57] Sorensen, Beringer, 56-58.

[58] St. Helena Star, October 27, 1882. Cited in Sorensen, Beringer, 56.

[59] St. Helena Star, September 11, 1883.

[60] Sorensen, Beringer, 77.

[61] For Jacob there would be a span of forty years before he would return to his hometown of Mainz in 1909. Sorensen, Beringer, 70.

[62] “A Festival by the Sea,” New York Times, July 24, 1880.

[63] The San Francisco Call, August 13, 1899. Also see August 12, 1899.

[64] Heintz, Raymonds, 10.

[65] Sacramento Daily Record-Union, May 7, 1888. On Frederick’s political ambitions and friendship with President Cleveland, see his obituary in The San Francisco Call, July 13, 1901.

[66] The San Francisco Call, October 14, 1890.

[67] St. Helena Star, June 4, 1885.

[68] St. Helena Star, December 11, 1885. Frederick was reelected President six months later. St. Helena Star, June 11, 1886.

[69] St. Helena Star, February 19, 1886.

[70] Zur Erinnerung an die Toten-Feier zu Ehren des Deutschen Kaisers Wilhelm I. Veranstaltet von den Deutschen Californiens. Grand Opera House, San Francisco, 16. März, 1888, 10.

[71] Sacramento Daily Record-Union, May 28, 1890.

[72] Sorensen, Beringer, 58-59.

[73] Directory of the Grape Growers, Wine Makers and Distillers of California, and of the Principal Grape Growers and Wine Makers of the Eastern States. Published by the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners of California (Sacramento: A.J. Johnston, Supt. State Printing, 1891).


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  • Article Title Jacob Beringer
  • Coverage 1845-1915
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018