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Native Americans gave their blood to make wines in early Los Angeles

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

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Author and historian Frances Dinkelspiel with two 150-year old mission grape vines at Avila Adobe on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. John Rabe

"Los Angeles had its slave mart, as well as New Orleans and Constantinople—only the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty-two times a year as long as he lived, which generally did not exceed one, two, or three years, under the new dispensation."

— Horace Bell, 19th century L.A. newspaper publisher

If we didn't know it already, most of us wouldn't be surprised to discover that Southern California was a major grape-growing center in the 1800s and that the region produced a lot of wine.

(Drawing of Jean Louis Vignes' wine establishment in 1831. Credit LAPL)

There's Vignes Street, after all, and those ancient vines growing at the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street. And, of course, there's San Antonio Winery, although that came along much later.

In fact, that history goes back 175 years, as journalist and amateur historian Frances Dinkelspiel wrote on LA Observed the other day. But then this graph hit me:

"Maybe it's no surprise that Los Angeles is ignoring the 175th anniversary milestone since aspects of the city's early involvement with wine were reprehensible. While many people know that Father Junipero Serra and the Franciscan fathers treated the Native Americans badly during the Mission era, virtually enslaving them to plant vineyards and harvest and press grapes, few realize that the Californios and Americans who flooded the state during the Gold Rush treated them even worse. Los Angeles gets special mention for the harsh and punitive laws it enacted to force Native Americans to make wine."

It's part of the story she tells in her new book "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California," which weaves family and local history to tell a story we should all know better.

(1865: Vignes orchard and vineyard at Downey Ave. and Hansen St. Credit: Frank Schumacher/LAPL/ Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

Listen to our interview to discover how state and local officials collaborated with local businessmen to keep the local natives working for free.

Frances Dinkelspiel will be talking about her book, "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California," at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Nov. 7 at 4 pm.

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