Hannah Weinberger / Photo from the St. Helena Public Library
The Wine Enthusiast tells us that Napa’s modern wine industry began in the 1960s, but viticulture and winemaking were integral to the US economy before Prohibition. Women had worked growing grapes and making wine for centuries before Hannah Weinberger earned the distinction of becoming California’s first female winemaker during the 1880s.
Her husband John C. Weinberger was born in Weissenburg, Bavaria on July 13, 1830. He came to New York in 1848 and subsequently lived in Cincinnati and Indianapolis, becoming involved in farming. In 1870 he came to California and established a winery in the Napa Valley.
Weinberger was murdered in 1882, after which operation of the winery continued under his second wife, Hannah. John, was shot dead in March 1882. As a result, she assumed control of his winery and filled his role as director of the local Bank of St. Helena. In 1889, she crossed the Atlantic to appear at the World’s Fair in Paris as the only California female vintner to win a silver medal in the wine competitions.
Hannah Elizabeth Rabbe was born on October 7, 1840 in New Albany, Indiana. She later lived in nearby Ohio where she was listed as Hannah Rabbe from Cincinnati, and where she married John Christian Weinberger in 1871. John, who was usually called J.C., had immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria when he was 18 years old. Just before their marriage, JC had purchased the property in California.
JC and Hannah settled in the Napa Valley in what would become the town of St. Helena. On their 240-acre estate, they 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, John was “murdered by a disgruntled fired employee who had been making unwanted advances to daughter Minnie,” 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. Weinberger was one of the first to experiment with converting grape juice to syrup.
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. At that time, land and business ownership were seen as almost exclusively male roles. Women still weren’t allowed to vote nationally and were discouraged from holding professional responsibilities, let alone running or owning businesses.
Nonetheless, Hannah took over the business and the winery flourished under her management. 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. An 1889 ledger from Wines and Vines of California, noted Hannah Weinberger, along with 17 other women, on their list of cellar masters and vineyardists.
Hannah continued to run her winery, until she was forced to shut down the business in 1920 at the dawn of Prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. constitution prevented the sale of alcohol, making the wine business somewhat obsolete. But the 19th Amendment gave women in the United States the right to vote nationally. 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.