John Drummond, “Wine Hero”
One of Sonoma Valley’s first winemakers, John Drummond, has been called “one of the heroes of 19th-century viticulture.” His life has a number of parallels with author Jack London’s. Both men had adventurous spirits and a passion for agriculture. Both arrived in Glen Ellen in their late twenties, bought bankrupt ranches, poured their energies into the land, conducted agricultural experiments, lost their homes to fire, and died suddenly by the age of forty. Both were “comets rather than dust,” packing remarkable accomplishments into brief lives.
Born in Ireland in 1851, John was the son of David Drummond, a well-known banker, merchant and philanthropist. After attending college, he served in the British Army in India. Afterwards, he came to California and settled in Glen Ellen with his wife, Francis, and baby daughter, Elizabeth. After buying the 317-acre Clark Ranch, Drummond quickly added other properties, much of it on what are now the Beltane and Kunde ranches.
The California wine industry was young and Drummond proved to be the right man in the right place. In his first year at the ranch, he produced 14,000 gallons of wine, with grapes probably harvested from established vineyards. Over the next 10 years, Drummond contributed much to the quality of California wines. He was one of the first growers to graft imported French varieties onto old Mission vines. He planted the North Coast’s first Bordeaux vineyard, importing Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings from well-known wineries like Château Lafite Rothschild. His Dunfillan Winery, named for his ancestral home in Ireland, produced California’s first commercially bottled Cabernet Sauvignon. Introduced in 1884, it was the “most admired wine” at that year’s California Viticultural Convention.
Drummond planted over 150 grape varieties. Working closely with the University of California’s Experimental Agricultural Station at Davis, he took a great interest in testing which varieties were best suited to different soils. Drummond was one of the first grape growers to show an interest in Chardonnay and the first California winemaker to commercially bottle Merlot. He imported several varieties of Pinot Noir and used them to make a blush wine called Oeil de Perdrix, or “Eye of the Partridge.” The Drummond Ranch also raised dairy and beef cattle, chickens, hogs, hay, and fruit trees. Drummond and his family are said to have lived in one of the most beautiful homes in Sonoma Valley, a two-story square house near the winery.
In her 1889 book, Wines and Vines of California, Frona Eunice Wait called Dunfillan “one of the finest vineyards in America.” Drummond’s wines won numerous awards at viticultural conventions and agricultural fairs. The ruins of the stone winery he built in 1885 still stand on the Kunde Ranch. In its heyday, its walls were described as being “covered with wine honors.” Drummond also introduced the first frost alarm to California. Active in the community, he served as director for several agricultural fairs and on the state Viticultural Commission, and was also an elected trustee of Dunbar School.
The arrival of the Glen Ellen’s first railroad in 1882 greatly aided the shipment of wine. When a second railway came through in 1887 and continued on to Santa Rosa, a depot was built on the ranch and named Drummond Station. It was about this time that Drummond’s fortunes began to turn. Despite his success as a vintner, his ranch had financial problems. In November of 1887, Drummond’s house burned down. Luckily, no one was injured or killed. The following year he traveled to England. On his return, he found his wife Francis mentally ill and confined to an asylum in Stockton. Eventually returning to the ranch, he did not rebuild his home on its former location, but either constructed a new dwelling or moved into an existing bunkhouse.
A few days before Christmas in 1889, Drummond made the trip into Glen Ellen, apparently in good health. By the time he returned a few hours later, he was complaining of feeling sick. As reported in the newspaper, “shortly afterward he started to walk across the room and he fell dead.” Drummond was only 39 years old. As with London, Drummond’s youth, financial difficulties, and the suddenness of his death made it difficult for some to accept that he died from natural causes. Though the examining doctor determined “heart disease” as the cause of death, some believed that this was a cover up to protect Drummond’s family from the stigma of suicide.
Drummond had named Kate Warfield, another well-known vintner who lived nearby, as the executor of his estate. Unhappy with the disposition of the will, John’s father had Kate removed through litigation. Drummond had a stepson, Frederic Bioletti, whom he disliked intensely. His will stated that Frederic was not to share the same house with Drummond’s daughters. In a strange twist, Frederic eventually married one of them. Drummond’s feelings about his stepson may not have been mutual—surprisingly Bioletti followed closely in Drummond’s footsteps, working as a wine researcher at the University of California. Much of what is known about Drummond comes to us through the writings of Bioletti, who, in spite of everything, greatly admired his stepfather’s work in viticulture.