As a community known for its produce, it’s no surprise that Winters’ agricultural roots stretch beyond its founding in 1875. Nestled beneath the gap of the Vaca Mountains range, as the town grew — so too did its bustling agriculture industry.
In a wine/history tour at the Berryessa Gap winery off of Highway 128, guide and brand ambassador Woody Fridae broke down the details of how the Winters community came to be. He detailed how the Native Americans who lived in the area prospered from a rich diversity of plant and wildlife and then talked about how William Wolfskill came west in the 1800’s from Kentucky.
“He moved west and eventually made it to Santa Fe where he met and married a Spanish woman. It was a Spanish territory at the time, so he spoke Spanish and continued west and ended up in Rancho Los Angeles where he helped develop the citrus industry in that area,” said Fridae. “He started growing grapes and was selling about 45,000 gallons of wine every year. He was the biggest wine producer in California in the early 1800’s.”
Meanwhile, Wolfskill’s brother John heard about a place in northern California where there was more water. Although he’d helped his brother immensely, John knew he wanted to start his own ranch. He moved up north past the bay area and petitioned General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo for a land grant. However, it was all still Spanish territory and Vallejo refused.
Undeterred, John sent a letter to his big brother for help. William rode on horseback up north, petitioned for the land grant and Vallejo obliged. Later, William was able to transfer the deed to John who became one of the first growers of wine grapes in northern California.
“Then came along a guy named Theodore Winters. He had made his money in the gold rush by running a stagecoach from Sacramento to Reno and Carson City and taking miners up and hauling supplies. It was called the Winters Express,” Fridae explained. “Winters’ real passion was racehorses, though. So, he bought 2,000 acres from John Woflskill to raise his horses. Then, in 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed and a guy named Anders Stevenson wanted to build a spur on that railroad to the area (not yet named Winters).”
Stevenson wanted to connect the railroad because the area was teeming with produce that ripened up to two weeks earlier than anywhere else and the fact that there was no other way to transport all of it in bulk. Stevenson offered to buy the land from Winters who only agreed after Stevenson promised to name the town he was going to build in the area after him.
“Winters’ homestead was on Race Course Lane, but he never actually lived in Winters. After he sold the land, he took his racehorses and went up to live in Carson City,” said Fridae. “The train trestle was established the year the town got started in 1875. It got washed out, I think, three times until they built the big, steal train trestle we have now which was built in 1906. This was a reason for people to live in this area.”
Fridae also talked about how the agriculture in Winters was bolstered by people from around the world. Families from Mexico, Japan and Spain were all integral to not only the agricultural success of Winters, but the town history as well.
Fast forward to 2022, and the fruits of Winters’ forefathers’ labor can be seen with many successful farms, vineyards, orchards and ranches. Although the train that brought the town to life no longer comes through, the railroad tracks, Putah Creek and the Berryessa Gap are prevalent reminders of the strong agricultural roots Winters grew from.
Learn more about the history of Winters by reserving a spot with the Berryessa Gap wine/history tour or by visiting the Winters Museum.