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The Chinese in Wine Country

Chinese New Year begins next week, so we wanted to share some of the little-known contributions that the Chinese made to the early California wine industry. It is not a story that makes the industry proud. With the Gold Rush of 1849, Chinese immigrants began to come to California in large numbers. Many were poor laborers and farmers who, after working in the mines, and helping to build the transcontinental railroad, went to work for the new winery owners in Sonoma and Napa. From the 1860s to the 1880s, Chinese vineyard workers cleared fields, planted vineyards, built wineries, harvested grapes, and dug by-hand many of northern California’s most impressive underground cellars, including parts of the cellars at Schramsberg and Buena Vista.

A section of Napa Valley’s prestigious Meadowood resort was once a Chinese camp where several hundred Chinese vineyard workers lived. These workers were treated poorly and paid terribly. A few miles away, at the grand, historic winery Inglenook, handwritten payroll ledgers from the 1870s show Chinese winery workers were paid considerably less per hour than their fellow workers. According to the historian Jack Chen, an economic crisis in the late 1870s resulted in agitation against Chinese labor, and ultimately in the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882. By 1890, in search of better, safer conditions, most of the Chinese in wine California country had fled.

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