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The Stanford Label

Leland and his son planned to be big in wine.


By Jim Tankersley

Leland Stanford was never a man to think small, even in retirement planning. So when the millionaire railroad baron and former California governor began to map out life after business and politics in the early 1880s, he bought a modest tract of land in the Sacramento Valley and proclaimed an immodest goal: to produce a wine to rival the great vintages of Europe. But when it came to grapes, the vaunted Stanford touch failed.

Stanford became fascinated with winemaking in 1880, while traveling in France. Thirteen-year-old Leland Jr. shared his interest. “We have just returned from Bordeaux where we have been to see the wine-making,” he wrote from Paris in 1881, adding that the wines there “are, in fact, in a thrifty condition.” By 1888, Stanford owned three vineyards: Warm Springs ranch, near Fremont; Palo Alto vineyard, which blanketed much of today’s west campus; and Vina ranch, his prize vineyard.

Stanford was convinced that the climate at Vina, just north of Sacramento, would yield the finest grapes on earth, and he eventually cultivated a 2,575-acre vineyard, the largest in the world. Stanford dreamed of retiring to those fields where, together, father and son would produce the perfect dry white table wine.

The boy’s death in March 1884 ended that dream but not Stanford’s quest. Sparing no expense, he planted 2.8 million premium vines and brought in 70 French workers to supervise his operation. He poured more than $500,000 into Vina. But Leland had misjudged Vina’s climate–the valley’s rich soil and 105-degree summer afternoons didn’t suit any of the dozens of grape varieties he tried, and the would-be wine king was forced to use much of his crop for brandy.

By his own standards, Stanford died a failed vintner in 1893, never having produced an above-average vintage or a profit at Vina. He left his estate–and the University–with a business losing as much as $500 a day. Jane Stanford vowed to take her husband’s hobby out of the red. She cut salaries, fired half of the ranch’s 300 workers and concentrated on the profitable brandy business. By 1895, Vina was just breaking even.

That didn’t stop temperance groups from questioning the morals of mixing wine with education. Mrs. Stanford, a temperance advocate herself, told critics that all Vina’s brandy–1.7 million gallons in 1890–was sold for “medicinal purposes.” Ads proclaiming “Senator Leland Stanford’s grape brandy–it’s pure, that’s sure!” suggest otherwise. Jane bowed to the pressure in 1902, amending the Founding Grant to sever Vina from the University’s finances. With Prohibition on its way, the vines were uprooted and replaced with alfalfa in 1915.

The campus operation was doomed, too. Located in the old Stanford barn, the red brick winery produced a handful of good vintages before the school converted it to a dormitory in 1909. It had always made a good profit selling wine to locals who, until Jane stopped the practice in 1893, stopped by the building with empty containers for “fill-ups.” On a dry campus in a dry town, it was the only place for miles that students could buy alcohol.

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