Tastemakers: Hannah Weinberger

Episode Summary

Hannah Weinberger (1840-1931) was one of California's first female vintners.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today we’re heading back to the late 19th century to meet one of California’s first female winemakers. Let’s talk about Hannah Weinberger. 

Hannah Elizabeth Rabbe was born on October 7, 1840 in New Albany, Indiana. Not much is known about her early life.

Hannah married a man named John C. Weinberger in 1871. John, who was generally called J.C., had immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria when he was 18 years old. Just before their marriage, JC had moved to California.

JC and Hannah lived in the Napa Valley in what would become the town of  St. Helena. They bought a 240-acre estate and built the J.C. Weinberger Winery in 1876. The town had recently grown significantly and that same year it was incorporated. In the 1870s hundreds of people settled in the area and started vineyards, having identified the fact that the area was well conditioned for grape growing. 

Though there was a global financial recession in the late 1870s, meaning wine prices were down, the following decade saw a recovery and with it unprecedented growth in Napa’s economy. This era was the beginning of Napa Valley’s famous wine industry. 

The J.C. Weinberger Winery was said to have the first stone wine cellar in the area. The winery was capable of producing about 70,000 gallons of wine and it also produced grape syrup. 

Tragedy struck when on March 21, 1882, J.C. Weinberger was shot and killed. He was lured to his death by a trick telegram sent by a disgruntled former employee named William J. Gau. Gau had made advances on J.C. and Hannah’s daughter and J.C. had subsequently fired him. Gau then sent a telegram to J.C. pretending to be a friend, asking J.C. to meet at the train station. When J.C. arrived on the platform, Gau shot him twice in the head. Gau then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. The event became infamous in St. Helena and across Napa Valley. It’s remembered as the first recorded homicide in the town, and was on the front page of the The Napa County Recorder.

After her husband’s death, Hannah took over leadership of the J.C. Weinberger Winery and also assumed her husband’s former role as director of the Bank of St. Helena. It’s worth noting that at that point in time, land and business ownership were seen as almost exclusively male roles. Women still weren’t allowed to vote and were discouraged from holding professional responsibilities, let alone running their own businesses.

Nonetheless, Hannah took over the business and the winery flourished under her guidance. In 1889, production expanded to 100,000 gallons of wine and  5,000 gallons of brandy. That same year, Hannah traveled across the Atlantic to Paris for the 1889 Paris Exposition. There she entered a prestigious wine competition featuring competitors from many of the best French and other European vineyards. Hannah won a silver medal for her wine, making her the only California woman to do so. This award and the publicity that went with it helped to change minds within the world of wine regarding the value and quality of the burgeoning California wine industry.

Hannah continued to run her winery until she was forced to shut down the business in 1920 at the dawn of Prohibition. As we’ve previously discussed this month, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. constitution prevented the sale of alcohol, making the wine business somewhat obsolete. 

Hannah died on May 5, 1931. She was 90 years old. Hannah left an incredible legacy as someone who shaped Napa’s early wine industry. She took over her family’s business, pushed it to further excellence, and became a pillar of her community. It would be 50 years before California saw another prominent female vintner. 

In case you want to go check it out, today the Weinberger property is part of William Cole Vineyards, north of St. Helena. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another tastemaker. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.