An account of Santa Clara Valley's slow waltz with John Barleycorn
By Traci Hukill
Late afternoon shadows were lengthening over the Santa Clara Valley when young Doña Maria Aguilar and her servant Lucia emerged from an adobe courtyard, water jars in hand, and made their way down to the Guadalupe River. The year was 1799, Santa Clara Mission was 22 years old and not 200 yards upstream Juan Vasquez was hauling a bloated hog carcass into the river.
A pleasant if not very discerning man, he waved cheerily when he was finished. Doña Maria returned the neighborly gesture, but as the fetid mess floated past she wrinkled her petite nose. She suddenly reconsidered the prospect of drinking deeply from a cup full of river water and shuddered. "I was just thinking," she told Lucia lightly, "that perhaps we'll have wine with dinner tonight."
People didn't trust water much back then, says San Jose historian Leonard McKay, and with good reason: The three watercourses along which Santa Clara Valley settlers built their adobes each provided drinking water, bathwater and a sewage system in one stream. Water-related diseases like cholera ran rampant through communities, and 50 years later picked off one in 10 eager gold seekers on their way out West. It was as good an excuse as any for the good folks of the valley to turn water into wine—or peach brandy or aguardiente or mescal or any number of variations on the theme of firewater—and it set the tone for a long time to come: San Jose would earn a reputation as a hard-drinking town.
The Mission fathers blazed the trail trodden by pink elephants when they planted the first vines of the hardy (and aptly named) Mission grape soon after founding the Mission in 1777. Lay growers soon followed suit, bottling up a concoction that did the job by local standards but which more discriminating palates found sadly lacking.
It wasn't long before all hell started breaking loose in the town on the three rivers. According to late San Jose historian Clyde Arbuckle, "in 1800 San Jose moved into the first of what have been described as 'two decades of rather uneasy sloth.' " In 1802 one Jose Martinez won a permit to make mescal and sell it commercially. Soon after, the Mission fathers asked the drunks of San Jose kindly to stay away from their impressionable Ohlone charges, who apparently preferred drowning their understandable sorrows in moonshine to muttering their matins and vespers.
So zealously did San Jose embrace its newfound swashbuckling identity that in 1815 a distraught acting governor, Jose Dario Arguello, formally denounced the intemperate use of liquor and issued an order fixing liquor prices, restricting public consumption of alcohol to 25 centavos' worth a day and forbidding the purchase of liquor on credit.
The measures seem to have done little except foster more furtive ways of getting blasted: Imagine entrepreneur Pio Pico's disappointment when no one came to his brand-new hide-covered cantina—the first bar in San Jose—because they all made their own wine and brandy. It was 1821, just a year before Mexico wrested control of California from the Spanish, and Pico would wind up the last Mexican governor of San Jose some 25 years later. But for now he was packing up his tent in a huff and heading south, neglecting to mention in his complaint against home distillers his own habit of cheating customers by serving them wine in short-bottomed cowhorn cups.
The 1830s saw the first trickle of Anglo Americans into California as well as a prohibition against the manufacture of certain types of alcohol. An unfortunate Kentuckian by the name of Graham (after whom Felton's Graham Hill Road was later named) decided to make his own white lightning and wound up spending two years in a Baja jail for his trouble.
The purchase of wine and brandy was still permitted, however, and San Joseans applied themselves to the task of tossing back all available inventory with remarkable enthusiasm. Arbuckle's History of San Jose suggests that during the years from 1838 to 1846, the liquor tax on brandy and wine constituted a formidable 58 percent of the town's total revenue.
In the 1840s the trickle of gringos into the region that had begun a decade earlier quickened to a steady stream and then a torrent, and in September 1849 California held its Constitutional Convention in Monterey and petitioned for statehood. The attendees decided on none other than San Jose as their capital, and on Dec. 15 of that year, district representatives from San Diego to Sacramento straggled into town through sloppy mud and rain to find the capitol building in an embarrassingly rustic state, the Assembly Hall in same, and little available in the way of affordable lodging except for a collection of sadly inadequate tents huddled at First and Market streets. Some senators wound up offering dishwashing and water-carrying services to their hosts just to be able to meet their hotel charges. Thus began the state's first legislative session.
Given the dismal combination of bad weather, poor accommodations and the fit of low morale brought on by the unsophisticated state of their new capital, the legislators consoled themselves in nearby saloons. Good-timing senator Thomas Jefferson Green of Sacramento, rumored to keep a barrel of whiskey handy at all times, would end each session with the injunction, "Let's have a drink! Let's have a thousand drinks!" Another tale has it that a Frenchman who owned a saloon on Market Street would find his tavern so full of legislators in the evenings that he couldn't collect their tabs until the end of the night—when he would charge the group for a total of 1,000 drinks. For whatever reason, that first legislative session came to be known as "The Legislature of 1,000 Drinks"—a moniker San Joseans are proud of in the same way people are proud of their worst night drinking.
Not everyone thinks the name is so funny.
"It's a misused, misunderstood term," growls Leonard McKay. "They accomplished more in that session than in any other." Indeed, the legislators drew county lines, set up the judicial system and began work on the skeleton of state government in the five months of their first session. Still, it's fun to speculate on why capitalhood was snatched from San Jose after that single year and bestowed on Sacramento in 1851. Was the hangover too severe? Did the state fathers determine that San Jose's penchant for bending an elbow just wasn't conducive to the pomp and circumstance befitting a new state legislature? Or was everyone just fed up with the drafty Assembly Hall and their leaky tent-motels?
Regardless of the answer, The Legislature of 1,000 Drinks was consistent with San Jose's character until 1850. By then the Gold Rush was in full swing, California was filling up with thirsty single men and trouble was already brewing in the form of the Great Western Saloon.
THE FIRST GERMANS to cross the Diablo Range and descend into the ale-deprived valley below must have been horrified. Was? Keine biere? In no time they set about rectifying the situation, and in 1853 the Eagle Brewery, home of Old Joe's Steam Ale, alighted on the spot that is now the Convention Center. Krumb's Brewery followed soon after, built over an artesian well at Market and Santa Clara. A number of other breweries sprang up in their wake: The Vogt Brewery, The Santa Clara Brewery, and the mighty Fredericksburg Brewery, whose foundations are at this moment being dug up to make way for a lovely new condominium development at Cinnabar and The Alameda. The largest of San Jose's breweries, the Fredericksburg squatted over not one but two artesian wells, hogged two acres and by 1880 was producing over 10,000 barrels of beer each year.
Little boys of the day took their first jobs as neighborhood beer distributors, carrying yokes across their shoulders from which sloshed jugs of ale. That was a fine system for servicing neighborhood bars, but the saloon ghettos required horses who could pull massive cartloads of beer barrels. The hotspots of the day were El Dorado Street (later changed to the more stately "Post Street" in an effort to clean the place up) and the area along Market and Bassett known as The Waterfront. Both sported a clutch of roughneck, fight-a-minute saloons specializing in upstairs romantic interludes. At the height of the Gold Rush some 50 saloons peppered the valley, catering to lonely would-be prospectors and sometimes even offering them a free lunch.
Hard to believe, but some saloons even had a civilizing effect on the valley, or at least on its infrastructure. Case in point: Thanks to the dozen or so taverns in Saratoga (then called McCartysville) and the teetotalling Methodism of Los Gatos logging entrepreneur Zachariah Jones, Jones' thirsty loggers made their own damn road to the beer joints on Saturday nights where none had existed before. (After a few months of stepping over snoring loggers on their way to Sunday morning worship, the ladies of McCartysville in 1855 formed the Women's Christian Temperance Union and set about plaguing the saloons. The rest of the story is a testament to what sober minds can accomplish.)
The Germans weren't the only ones to stamp their bootprints on the history of drinking in the valley. The Italians poured in, took one collective sip of the homemade wine the region offered and determined that emergency action was necessary. The Cribari clan was the best-known Italian winemaking family, and numerous smaller vintners helped fill the many wine shops on Market Street, where customers could fill a bottle of Dago Red (yep, that's what they called it) for cheap.
Of course the French were in on the act, too. In the 1850s Louis Pellier, prunologist extraordinaire, set his brother Pierre up with a vineyard that eventually wound up in the hands of the Mirassou family. A certain Charles LeFranc brought select cuttings from France and started what ultimately became Almaden Winery. His son-in-law, Paul Masson, carried on LeFranc's work at Almaden until his own interest in champagne-making took him to Saratoga.
Those three vineyards—Mirassou, Almaden and Paul Masson—grew by leaps and bounds from the 1850s to the 1880s, gobbling up acreage everywhere. All the smaller vintners are too numerous to mention, but among their illustrious ranks is Henry Naglee, the cantankerous Union general who found his calling in making wine, champagne and brandy in Santa Clara Valley and who took his greatest delight in inviting White Ribboners to his parties and spiking the punch.
The Jesuit-run Novitiate of the Sacred Heart was another longtime producer of the fruit of the vine, planting its first grapes on the hills above Los Gatos in 1888 and making sweet sacramental and dessert wines under the Novitiate label until 1985, when church law regarding altar wine relaxed. Until then, says archivist Brother Thomas Marshall, the Novitiate supplied much of the western United States with proper altar wine. One of the Novitiate's most famous grape pickers—all young seminarians had to tend the grapes—is Jerry Brown, who attended the Novitiate in 1956.
Although novelist Jack London lived in the East Bay, he made an occasional junket down to Santa Clara around the turn of the century to visit the Judge Marshall Bond family. In fact, in The Call of the Wild, the dog Buck boards the train to his northern adventures at College Station near Santa Clara University. We can only guess where the tempestuous writer and his buddies went for beer and whiskey in Santa Clara, but it's fairly certain they went somewhere; London died young from complications arising from a lifelong struggle with alcoholism.
As San Jose steamed into the 20th century its bar scene continued to explode. Eugene Votzenlogel's Saloon & Bath House opened in 1881 on El Dorado Street (where Waves Smokehouse stands today) and passed through several incarnations before becoming Billy Finley's. Waves offers history buffs a chance to view authentic fossilized spit through a plexiglass-covered segment of the bar's original spittoon.
The Palace Saloon opened up around the turn of the century on the site where Diridon Station now rests. Good old George's Place on North First Street swung its doors open to the hungry, thirsty and lonely, too, joining scores of saloons with nudie paintings downstairs and solace for working stiffs upstairs. For the moment San Jose was a city with a mission, a burg on a binge, and it looked like nothing could stop it.
AH, BUT THE FUN wouldn't last long. First came the crackdown on prostitution in 1902, the year rootin'-tootin' El Dorado Street put on a tie and became Post Street. And before San Jose knew it, its politicians had inexplicably jumped the gun by two years on national Prohibition and padlocked all 78 of the city's saloons.
That move knocked the breweries right out of business. Most saloons turned into ice cream or candy parlors, at least by day, and a few like Joe Locuto's Place on San Carlos and Henry's on North First became acknowledged speakeasies. The winemakers were able to hang on because of a provision allowing the production of 200 gallons each year for personal and medicinal use. Along those lines, family doctors would sometimes write a new mother a prescription for whiskey—with a wink at the proud father.
For the most part, a jug of fruit wine or white lightning could easily be had from an enterprising neighbor. Emerson Shaw, curator of the Forbes Mill Historical Museum in Los Gatos, recalls stopping by a chicken farmer's place for some eggs and idly stirring around the grain in the top of a nearby barrel while he waited for his order. What did his unsuspecting fingers encounter but bottles and corks among the grain—the chicken farmer was bootleggin'.
No, San Jose didn't go thirsty during Prohibition. According to historian Bill Wulf, the Peninsular Railway, which ran from Palo Alto to San Jose, would drop off cans of booze marked "battery acid" at key points—most of which, we can assume, were downtown. In 1929 an exasperated E.R. Bohm, Prohibition administrator for Northern California, registered the complaint that "there have been more stills in operation in Santa Clara County than in any other county in the state."
So it didn't take the valley any time at all to get back into the swing of things once Prohibition ended in 1933. The Cribari family of winemaking fame started up a liquor distribution business that eventually grew into Frank-Lin Distillers Products, a sizable bottling and distribution operation run by the Maestri family. One of Frank-Lin's most notable products is San Francisco's Skyy Vodka, whose trademark deep blue bottle is without question one of the coolest alcohol delivery systems around.
Bars began springing up everywhere in those first years after Prohibition, wineries ramped up production and the Fredericksburg Brewery arose from its watered-down grave and became Johnny Wieland's Brewery. It remained so until the '50s, when the Falstaff Brewery took over. John Steinbeck lived in the Monte Sereno mountains for 18 months in the latter part of the decade, writing The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men and—who knows?—maybe taking a break and trekking down the hill now and then for a pint of Johnny Wieland's in one of the many bars that popped up on the road from Los Gatos to Holy City.
In the meantime, the hotels Sainte Claire and De Anza opened sumptuous bars that would become destinations for soldiers stationed at Moffett Field during the war. During the '30s they occupied the upper rungs of a bar class system that served the wealthy and the poor, since America's answer to the middle-class pub didn't exist yet. So while the working classes swilled beer and whiskey in renovated saloons, the well-to-do sipped Manhattans in the hotel bars, listened to big bands and speculated on the turmoil in Europe.
In the Swing
THE WAR YEARS ushered in a new breed of bar—one "decent" folks could go to. Where the Fairmont stands today was a place called The Office, later a haven for newspaper types. Lou's Village opened in 1946 and served as No. 1 nightclub for a while, hosting such luminaries as Scatman Crothers, Lucille Ball and Lenny Bruce. The Hawaiian Gardens, now the Italian Gardens, opened the gates to their lavish, tropical-themed restaurant and lounge on Almaden Road and specialized in fruity rum drinks like Zombies—the new poison of choice since whiskey was scarce.
The De Anza Hotel opened the Danzabar on its second floor, a cozy little place with an aquarium, a bamboo wall and a talented young photographer named Shirlie Montgomery, who was ready at all times with her 4X5 camera to capture a soldier's loopiest R&R moment for a dollar or two. As Montgomery remembers it, the Sainte Claire was elegant and all, but the De Anza was where the real party happened. Manager Tom Fisher, an avid horseman, was once moved to ride his horse into the lobby in honor of a rodeo happening in town. That stunt would have gone over like a load of bricks at the Sainte Claire, but the De Anza crowd loved it.
The '50s saw little change in San Jose's club scene. One country & western bar on North First Street called the Sequoia Club had live karaoke, which consisted of wannabe country stars bawling out Hank Williams or Patsy Cline tunes to a live accompaniment. Another development that took place in the '50s was the introduction of nice gay bars downtown. One of these, The Crystal Bar, was anything but a discreet affair, rich in mahogany wood paneling and lit by a dazzling combination of gold-painted ceiling panels and a multitude of light bulbs.
Beat generation icon Neal Cassady, immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, set up house in Monte Sereno in the '50s and often played host to Ken Kesey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Cassady's wife Carolyn recalls pizza and beer with the crew at Mountain Mike's in Los Gatos, a place that can still make upset people smile. And the last but not least of the '50s' contributions to valley culture was the birth in 1959 of the Black Watch, a Los Gatos institution beloved by many, reviled by some and known to all.
In the '60s Manny's Cellar came on the scene. For years it was a lawyer magnet and a favorite lunch spot for locals. It's since been purchased by the city, renamed The Fallon House and restored to its original splendor. Manny, it's said, pours beer at the Heineken stand at Spartan Stadium now.
In 1960 the Torino Hotel on St. John Street behind the Arena got a new name and a new lease on the good life. Henry's Hi-Life now serves cold ones and tasty barbecue to Sharks and Shark fans alike.
A '60s joint that didn't fare so well was the Paul Masson champagne factory, once located at Saratoga and Santa Clara streets. A mod new structure that was surely one of the inspirations for "The Jetsons" cartoon space stations, the Paul Masson building made such an impression that the Pacific Railway changed the station name there from "Congress Springs Junction" to "Champagne Fountain"—a switch one local found so irritating that he replaced the new sign with one that read "Hiccup Gulch." Alas, the architectural pariah was later torn down to make room for Interstate 85.
Attack of the Fern Bars
WHEN THE '70s came for San Jose in glittery makeup and platform soles, the city responded with dark fern bars. Hipsters got down to Sly and the Family Stone in Rueben's Plankhouse, gay men flocked to A Tinker's Damn and rock lovers waited in line at the Tower Saloon for young Tom McEnery to pour them a drink. The Irish history buff's bartending experience proved all he needed to launch a meteoric political career, culminating in two terms as the city's mayor.
Everyone was partying in the '70s and into the 1980s, nowhere more evident than in the nightclub and bar scenes emerging in Campbell and Los Gatos. A series of bars punctuated Campbell's Watertower Plaza / Pruneyard neighborhood, such as the Bodega, the Lariat, Smokey Mountain, Kixx, Pumas, Gilbert Zapp's ... the list goes on. Disco club, fern bar, or unapologetic meat market (with the exception of Zapp's, which was a testosterone-laden video arcade), few of these clubs outlasted a decade, as clientele and management either outgrew the biz or bit the dust. Cocaine, too much Sex on the Beach and an epidemic of Saturday night fever brought many down like flies.
Los Gatos had its share of partygoers too. Mountain Charley's Saloon continued to lure people to town, just as it had in the '70s, Poco Locos rocked Main Street and Carry Nation's, one of the areas most long-lived fern bars, attracted San Joseans enamored with Los Gatos' quaintness. By and large it was a pretty homogenized scene—the only alternative outposts were The Vortex in Palo Alto and Santa Clara's One Step Beyond, where Jane's Addiction, The Replacements and the Red Hot Chili Peppers played.
Los Gatos and Campbell have quieted since those heady days for several reasons. Neighbors near Campbell's Watertower Plaza complained that not only were barhoppers' cars clogging their streets, but the drivers themselves were urinating and hurling in the bushes, not to mention making a lot of noise as they stumbled out to their vehicles. So Campbell stopped issuing live entertainment permits, effectively shutting the bars down. Los Gatos began to restrict conditional-use permits for drinking spots, thus shrinking the town's party quotient.
Then the '90s arrived with their attendant accouterments of safe sex and 12-step consciousness. Santa Clara County started cracking down on drunk drivers with the well-publicized Avoid the Thirteen campaign (designed to reduce traffic fatalities during holidays) and stiffer penalties for driving while intoxicated (fourth-time offenders now go to the big house). The general climate of the decade was more conservative and restrained—the Calistoga flowed and a lot of people swapped shots of tequila for shots of wheat grass. "Designated driver" entered the vernacular, and chemical dependency centers became as common as emergency rooms.
At the same time downtown San Jose woke from a long, dilapidated slumber.
Although D.B. Cooper's had fared well downtown and a handful of places like The Cinebar and the Caravan had survived there in the late '80s, it wasn't until Gordon Biersch moved in at First and San Fernando that the area started attracting young crowds of Silicon Valley workers flush with cash. Katie Bloom's Irish Pub and The Ajax Lounge on South First Street completed a trinity of hip destinations. F/X and the Cactus Club got South First going, building on the legacy of original hangout Marsugi's, a club where Nirvana, Green Day and Faith No More are said to have played.
Today downtown San Jose is a nighttime destination in its own right, serving hordes of students, slackers and professionals from all over the valley.
Throughout the entire valley, clubs increasingly fit into one of three categories: Dive Chic, which includes such holdouts from the past as the Cinebar, the Bamboo Lounge and the Black Watch; Live Chic, edgier spots for younger crowds, such as the Usual, Cactus Club and Agenda; and Exposed Plumbing Moderne, a category that encompasses Stratta, Mission Ale House, Waves, Gordon Biersch, Los Gatos Brewing Company and many more. Light and airy, premium Scotch, wine bar and cigar-friendly, this last variety is sprouting in classic older buildings as far as the eye can see.
Much has changed in Santa Clara Valley since Pio Pico tacked together his cowhide-covered cantina. The orchards have given way to housing developments, adobes have returned to the earth beneath skyscrapers, and a dozen distinct towns have merged into one daunting metropolis. Two of the vineyards that helped put the region on the wine map, Almaden and Paul Masson, were recently bought out by jug-wine giant Canandaigua Corporation, a 50-million-gallon operation comprising Inglenook, Blossom Hill, Deer Valley and a few other labels. Gordon Biersch, one of the area's first microbreweries, is now bottling its German-style lagers—a move sure to put the brewery on the map of America's palate. With the exception of beer and some wine, we don't make much of our own booze anymore. But we remember how to drink it.
The difference between San Joseans of today and the San Joseans who drove their civic leaders to distraction with their epidemic drunkenness is a matter of quantity and quality—less of one and more of the other. Always happy to participate in a trend, we've joined the rest of America in drinking "less but better": instead of cases of Coors and jugs of Gallo we're choosing six-packs of Samuel Smith's and sampling excellent wines at Stratta's wine bar. It's an easy balance we've struck, one that allows for both the good things in life and the health to enjoy them.
We're lucky here. With one of the highest rates of disposable income per capita in the country, we're in a unique position to sample those fine things. So cheers, salud, bottoms up, down the hatch—and be careful out there.