Original Zin and Original Sin:
The Implausible Story of SLO County’s First Private Winemaker
The Mission San Luis Obispo had a large wine vineyard of Mission grapes—the Spanish varietal Listán Prieto—possibly from the 1780s and certainly by 1800. Its forty acres produced wine not just for the sacrament but for trade. After the mission lands were secularized in 1834, the vineyard declined, but the visiting French diplomat Eugène Duflot de Mofras observed on an 1841 visit that it was still bearing fruit.
Then a more dirty-hands visitor from France—by way of Tahiti and Hangtown—showed up on the scene: Pierre Hypolite Dallidet. He seems to have revived the Mission Vineyard’s vines in the late 1850s and then to have planted new varietals on the land of his young wife’s family directly to the east. Dallidet’s vineyard thrived as the Mission Vineyard was sold off to real estate speculators as the Vineyard Tract.
Dallidet was born in 1823 in Paizay-le-Tort near Melle, about fifty miles from the west coast of France, an area whose primary industry in the nineteenth century was winegrowing. In Hypolite’s birth record, his father Pierre is described as a carpenter, but his parents’ 1798 marriage record describes his father and both grandfathers as farmers. A 1937 Telegram-Tribune article, likely sourced from his last surviving daughter, Rose, says, “His people in France were leading grape growers, and he had received training in that line.” More likely his people were peasants, and Hypolite was ready to try something new.
He joined the French army at 20. At 23 he was sent to Polynesia, where he served till he was 27. He arrived in San Francisco in 1851 at the height of the gold rush and spent the next two years prospecting at Hangtown (now Placerville), where he either “made a clean-up” and came south “looking for a good vineyard location” (the 1937 Telegram-Tribune) or became “disgusted” and set off for Mexico (the 1948 Telegram-Tribune, with last surviving child Paul as its source). In either case, Hypolite Dallidet was in San Luis Obispo in 1853—the year after a cholera epidemic had wiped out the town’s hundreds of Chumash and other Indian inhabitants and spared the tiny number of Californios, Yankees, and Europeans.
Two years later, Hypolite, in his earlier thirties, wed seventeen-year-old Asencion Zalazar, through whom he got access to land. Asencion’s father had in turn got land through his wife, Dolores Marques, whose father Miguel had received a Mexican land grant in 1845. This grant appears to have formed the eventual Dallidet vineyard, which was assembled through Asencion’s inheritance, as well as gradual purchase from the other inheritors.
At the northern end of the land, in 1860, Hypolite and Asencion built an adobe house consisting(not unusually) of one large room. Then they had nine children over eighteen years, Asenciondying with the birth of the last. She was eulogized by the Tribune as “a most amiable and estimable lady” (obituaries were shorter then). Seven of the children, with a mix of Spanish, French, and English names, lived to adulthood: Pierre Hypolite, Junior; Louis Pasqual; Maria Asencion; Dolores Eliza; Rose; John Bautista; and Paul. The adobe room was subdivided, and a redwood extension was added to the house sometime after 1876 to make it less unimaginably crowded.
The first hint of Hypolite Dallidet’s winemaking points to the late 1850s, before he built the adobe or acquired Zalazar land. In 1868 San Francisco’s Daily Alta California, in a “Letter from San Luis Obispo,” said of the mission’s olives, “Some ten years ago, a vandalic Frenchman who had the place leased, or squatted upon, cut down a large number of these trees because they shaded the grape vines.” From contemporary records, it’s not clear who the vandalic Frenchman could be but Dallidet, but it’s possible it was someone else.
Extremely rare for a California adobe, Dallidet’s 1860 house was built above a granite and adobe cellar tall enough to stand in, which suggests an intention to make wine, and a 1949 LA Times sourced from Paul refers to its past use as a wine cellar. A January 1887 article in San Luis Obispo’s Daily Republic refers to sampling Dallidet’s eighteen-year-old vintage made from Mission grapes, which means an 1867 or ’68 bottling. In the 1868 voter roll Hypolite is listed as a carpenter, in 1871 as a winemaker. He’s the first documented winemaker in the county after the missionaries, and now he has about three hundred wineries as descendants.
For the 1880 harvest the Tribune reports Dallidet making 3,000 gallons of wine from 6 acres. His son Louis Pasqual’s diary records construction of a wine house (with an additional cellar) in 1883. The 1891 Directory of Grape Growers lists Dallidet père as having 11 acres of wine and 3 of table grapes.
Dallidet’s documented grapes are almost exclusively Vitis vinifera—that is, European—varietals. They include the Mission grape, Rose of Peru (the Peruvian line of the Mission grape), the Swiss varietal Chasselas, Balzac (probably a white grape originating in the regions near Hypolite’s birthplace), the ancient white Muscat of Alexandria, Black Hamburg (either Trollinger/Schiava Grossa or an 1850 cross between that and Muscat of Alexandria), Black Malaga, and Black Morocco.
As well, Dallidet planted two wine grapes that had some persistence in California, Charbono and Black Malvoisie (AKA Cinsaut, a Mediterranean varietal that does well in hot weather). He also planted a grape that has been extremely persistent: Zinfandel.
There was a mild controversy in California in the 1870s and ’80s as to whether to plant new varietals from Europe or stick with the Mission grape, but France’s epidemic of phylloxera louses, which at the time was decimating its wine industry and gave an opening for California exports—plus the fairly feeble attractions of Mission wine—settled the issue.
A varietal named Kentucky may have been Dallidet’s only Vitis labrusca or native American grape or cross. The Kentucky General Assembly had mandated commercial viticulture in 1799.
In San Luis Obispo, Hypolite Dallidet was much better known as a property developer than winemaker. In the mid-1870s the Tribune described his vineyard as “the largest and best in the county” but gave more press to his sales of neighboring lots—the scrag end of the Vineyard Tract—as Dallidet’s Addition.
Dallidet’s sons, despite their modest quarters (apparently in the attic) acquired all the attributes of gentlemen, excelling from the hunting field to the literary society. His daughters were beautiful, well dressed, and won numerous prizes at the Academy of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. His eldest son, Pierre Hypolite, Junior, became a bigger promoter than his father, partnering in 1882 with Chauncey Phillips, the leading property man in the county.
But Junior ran into trouble, leaving Phillips & Co. in 1886 with nothing, opening his own real estate office, running up against the 1890s depression. His father advanced him his inheritance but refused to give him more. Junior made threats. One spring afternoon in 1897, when he applied to his younger brother John Bautista “some abusive language … in the French tongue,” (as the San Francisco Call recounted), John preemptively shot him twice in the back with shotgun from the family’s porch.
The jury acquitted John’s action as self-defense, whereupon he moved to Mexico, becoming one of only two Dallidet children—the other his victim—to marry and the only one to have children. Eliza had died three years before the murder and Louis Pasqual had gone to the gold fields. Maria Ascension, Rose, Paul, and their father lived on in the adobe till their deaths.
Pierre Hypolite Senior had been mortgaging heavily since the late 1880s. He was subdividing and selling off his vineyard by 1900; by 1905 the Commercial Bank owned it and sold it as La Viña Tract to Mark Elberg, a director of the Union National Bank. The German Jewish Goldtree brothers, who planted fifty acres of Zinfandel and Riesling in 1883, had already subdivided it as the Goldtree Vineyard Tract in 1893. Housing was king. The handwriting was on the wall for the town’s vineyards.
Pierre Hypolite Dallidet died in the spring of 1909. The following month, Grizzly Bear, the journal of the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, featured photographs of the Dallidet garden on its cover, with a nostalgic poem by San Luis Obispo poet Frances Margaret Milne consigning the overgrown space, once a bustling winery, to
the realm of old Romance,
Of sunny Spain, and of chivalric France.”
Maria Ascencion, who had trained in San Francisco as an artist, survived her father by four years. Rose, whose projects included photographing other adobes of the county before they melted away or were demolished, lived till 1943. Paul died 1958, the year the Madonna Inn opened on the other side of town. He left the Dallidet Adobe, its contents, and garden to the county’s historical society. Sixty years later, you can still visit this acre oasis in the middle of town, open on weekends, a garden of sin and Zin.