If asked to name the king of California wine, I would likely name the late Robert Mondavi — not Kanaye Nagasawa, who was known as the King of California Wine until his death in 1934.
I stumbled upon this interesting tidbit of wine history in an article by Melissa Hung for NBC Asian America while following coverage from various news outlets regarding the aftermath of the devastating 2017 California wine country fires.
Paradise Ridge Winery, situated on part of what was once the old Fountaingrove Winery in Sonoma, was completely destroyed — including a small museum housing mementos of Kanaye Nagasawa, a prominent California winemaker and onetime owner of Fountaingrove. Nagasawa was one of the first Japanese nationals to have permanent residence in America.
Nagasawa, née Isonaga Hikosuke, was born in 1852 to a Japanese samurai, the elite military caste of medieval and early-modern Japan.
When just 13, Nagasawa was among 14 young men sent to Great Britain to be Westernized. The boy’s names were changed to protect their families at home, because foreign travel by Japanese was strictly forbidden.
Nagasawa, who was too young to go to university, was sent to Aberdeen, Scotland, to live with a Scottish family, where he became acquainted with an English nobleman, Laurence Oliphant, who was a disciple and recruiter for Thomas Lake Harris, who was founder of The Brotherhood of the New Life and Fountaingrove Winery.
Young Nagasawa was recruited into the Brotherhood by Oliphant and followed Harris first to New York, where he spent time at Cornell University, and later to California.
A published entry from Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library describes the charismatic Harris calling himself the “primate” or “pivotal man” chosen by God in whom the forces of good and evil fought on earth and from whom the announcement of Christ’s Second Coming would emerge.
Harris, a British national, established communes in Great Britain and three colonies in New York before turning to California and Fountaingrove.
Followers turned over all their worldly goods. The Oliphants contributed some $90,000 to Harris, a veritable fortune at the time, equivalent to about $3 million by today’s standards. The Oliphants would later become disenchanted and sue for restoration of their funds.
Harris preached celibacy, although he was married three times. His followers were housed in gender-specific dormitories. Ironically, Harris’ downfall was due to a lack of celibacy in the form of one Alzire Chevaillier.
Alzire, along with her mother, spent six months at Fountaingrove before becoming disillusioned and taking her disillusionment to the stage, calling Harris a vampire and a lecherous fiend among other things. (Sound familiar?)
Harris fled to New York to get away from the scandal, but not before marrying Jane Waring, his third wife, referred to by Miss Chevaillier as his amanuensis, a fancy word for “secretary.”
By this time, Nagasawa had established a very successful winery, and Harris wisely left Nagasawa in charge. Fountaingrove became California’s largest winery at the time, producing some 200,000 gallons of wine per annum.
At Harris’ death, Fountaingrove went to the few remaining Harris followers at Fountaingrove. Ultimately, Nagasawa was the sole survivor of this group.
Nagasawa traveled back numerous times to his native Japan, where he became known as the Wine King of California. Nagasawa never married, but he was not without family. He brought nephews from Japan to live with him in hopes they would marry and have children born on American soil who would inherit Fountaingrove, but this was not to be.
The legality of Nagasawa’s ownership of Fountaingrove was nebulous. This, coupled with the fact that at the time it was illegal for foreign nationals to inherit land, resulted in Nagasawa’s beloved Fountaingrove being seized three years after his death. His relatives were given 24 hours to vacate the premises.
The Nagasawa heirs challenged this action in court but were not upheld. The Nagasawa heirs would later be detained in internment camps during World War II.
These descendants donated the few Nagasawa artifacts to the museum at Paradise Ridge Winery.
Although the museum was destroyed by the 2017 fire, Nagasawa’s name lives on. The city of Santa Rosa named a community park for him, and the History Museum of Sonoma County holds events honoring the King of Wine.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.