Kanaye Nagasawa and the other Asian Americans who built California Wine Country

Kanaye Nagasawa

Asian Americans are generally not associated with California Wine Country, but they were key players in getting it established.  Chinese laborers built and worked in Sonoma’s oldest winery, Buena Vista Winery, as well as planting millions of grapevines between 1856 and 1869.  Japanese American Kanaye Nagasawa ran one of the biggest wineries during the early 1900s and became known as the “Wine King of California.” Amazingly enough, a relative of his is making wine there today!

Kanaye Nagasawa was born in 1852 in Japan to a samurai family and later smuggled out of the Japan to learn Western systems and technology. He eventually made his way to California and became the manager of the Fountaingrove estate. The winery there became extremely successful. Nagasawa set a foundation for the California wine industry by introducing California wines to world markets and having them win several medals.

Buena Vista Winery was established by Agoston Haraszthy a Hungarian immigrant who advocated for the use of Chinese workers. The caves they built are still in use by the winery today.  Many of the workers in the winery in its early years were also Chinese. Their names are forgotten today, as Census records would show their names recorded only as “John Chinaman”.

Kanaye Nagasawa’s family and the Chinese workers of wine country would eventually suffer from anti-Asian sentiment.  Many of  the Chinese workers in Wine Country and throughout the US could not become citizens because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. They were eventually driven out of wine country. Nagasawa tried to pass on his estate to his grand-nephew and grand-niece, the estate was seized by a local government though the California Alien Land Law of 1913. Haraszthy made enemies by employing Chinese, so he wore a gun to protect himself and eventually left the US.

Kanaye Nagasawa led an incredible life. I only cover the highlights and  – I encourage you to explore some of the links I have provided in this post. Paradise Ridge Winery, which bought land next to the old Fountain Grove estate, has a small exhibit dedicated to him and has a vineyard named after him.  In Japan, the Satsuma Students Museum has a collection about him. His family legacy lives on, as Nagasawa’s great great grandnephew, Eiji Akaboshi, makes wine in California today.

Buena Vista Winery has pictures showing the Chinese workers in its early years. There are efforts today to raise money to put up a traditional Chinese Pavilion in the Depot Park Museum in Sonoma.



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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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