The Forgotten History of Chinese Immigrants’ Contribution to the Sonoma Wine Industry

The Chinese immigrants are rarely spoken of in the American wine industry; this oversees their contributions to building the industry, especially in Sonoma. Many people may not be aware of Chinese immigrants. The Chinese had great contributions, albeit through unfortunate labor. The Chinese underwent traumatizing experiences under white settlers through hiring schemes, working conditions, and even terrorism.

The earliest record of Chinese workers in Sonoma vineyards and wineries is in 1863 in the Buena Vista winery. They were involved in the filling, corking, and wiring of bottles and other activities in the winery. By 1870, Chinese immigrants working in Sonoma made up 10 percent of the population. Despite their small number, they were making a valuable contribution to establishing the county’s wine industry; besides agriculture, they also formed part of the region’s cultural fabric, introducing diversity.

Early records also indicate Chinese immigrants’ contribution to viticulture in most of Sonoma. Most Californians are unaware of the significant contributions of Chinese immigrants in setting up the California viticulture foundation. Their sorry state has seen their work forgotten, only remembered by a few Chinese residents today.

Arrival in California

The Chinese immigrants arrived in California in the 1850s through the San Fransisco port. They adopted a new life in America while also maintaining their culture. The Chinese participated in the events such as President Zachary Taylor’s procession and the state’s accession into the union.

They also carried out their traditions. As part of their culture, they started publishing Chinese-language newspapers in the mid-1850s; most Chinese immigrants’ problems started with the existing laws of the land. In the 1850s, the United States Constitution recognized only two skin colors, white and black. In addition, the constitution only allowed citizenship through naturalization, which was limited to whites.

Therefore, the Chinese had a challenge gaining citizenship since they were not whites or blacks. Few obtained citizenships, while most could not. Therefore, they could not hold office, vote, or have a channel for voicing their grievances. Chinese immigrants, therefore, had no voice to fight injustices in workplaces.

The Chinese immigrants were involved in the backbreaking efforts of planting the first vineyards in Sonoma in the 1850s. However, despite their involvement, they faced challenges that faced them outside of the industry and in town. Racism was rife in the 19th century, contributing to the difficulties the Chinese faced in Sonoma.

For instance, Chinese immigrants were prevented by law from filing cases or testifying cases in court. Therefore, they could not afford a confrontation with the whites. As a result, they were limited in expanding their operation as they did not intend to engage in direct confrontation with whites and avoid racial violence. The chine immigrants were now reduced to working in white settler farms in conditions that amounted to slavery.

Champagne Corking by Marion Doss

Viticulture Contribution

Most Chinese immigrants had arrived in the Sierra Nevada due to the gold rush where they came from, taking up viticulture. Most of these immigrants were looking for work, and viticulture was a suitable industry. Besides, their efforts came when Agoston Haraszthy, a wealthy Hungarian man, established the Buena Vista Winery and sought labor. Haraszthy turned to Ho Po, a Chinese labor subcontractor, who sent 150 Chinese laborers to the winery.

These form the first reported cases of Chinese involvement in viticulture in Sonoma. They were involved in vineyard management and winemaking activities such as grape sorting, pressing, corking, and bottling. In the preceding years, Chinese immigrants were involved in constructing Sonoma wineries and in winemaking activities in Sonoma. [4]

The Chinese immigrants were involved in all fields of agriculture in California. There are records indicating Chinese involvement in early agricultural developments in Sonoma; this includes clearing fields, tending to machinery, irrigation pitches, and other manual works. Due to racial dynamics, they were desperate for work and could even settle for promissory notes for work. Besides railway construction, they had been hardened in agricultural work in China and wheat farming in the United States; despite viticultural work is hard, the Chinese fared well, becoming any farmer’s dream.[5] By 1870, Chinese immigrants had replaced most native workers on farms, especially in viticulture.

Buena Vista Winery

The Buena Vista Winery forms a large part of the Chinese Immigrants’ history in the Sonoma wine business. The first Chinese immigrants were involved in viticulture here; “much of what the Chinese did at Buena Vista necessarily centered on planting grapevines; 16,850 in February and March 1857; forty thousand in 1858; thirty thou¬ sand in 1859; seventy thousand in 1860; 135,000 in 1861.”

They made hand-carved caves imprinting their markings. These markings are still accessible today in the winery, and one can visit and behold the origins of Sonoma commercial winemaking. One can also see pictures of Chinese immigrants working in the winery, preserving their history and contributions to Sonoma winemaking.

According to Cecilia Tsu, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, “Chinese immigrants were indispensable on multiple levels. They built roads, cleared land for farming, and planted, pruned, and harvested grapes. They did backbreaking, physical labor, as well as horticultural work that required significant knowledge and skill. [6]

Rising Racism

The Chinese immigrants took over most of the work in vineyards as Sonoma was setting up its viticulture industry. They were involved in planting most of the first vineyards. However, as the vineyards grew, they faced a different challenge. The whites in the labor industry escalated racial violence; they accused Chinese immigrants of flooding the labor market and lowering wages. Whites could be paid up to 50 dollars monthly, while the Chinese were paid 30 dollars monthly. Farmers thus preferred Chinese immigrant workers to whites.

Agoston Haraszthy was the main employer of Chinese immigrants in Sonoma, and the growing political opposition to Chinese immigrants’ labor placed him in a hot spot. As the opposition got stronger, he started carrying a gun to protect himself; this was, however, a temporary fix as he finally fled to Nicaragua in 1868.

Anti-Chinese movements and waves increased and were supported by congress legislation in 1882 banning Chinese immigration into the United States. As the conditions worsened, Chinese immigrants were forced to move out of Sonoma to find better living conditions.

“There was a movement to forcibly remove all the Chinese from Sonoma by starving them out — don’t hire, don’t patronize any shops that hire Chinese. During that period, a lot of Chinese left Sonoma. They were chewing on weeds down by the riverbanks, things got so bad.” These conditions were also experienced in Napa Valley, and despite efforts to lift them, they endured. Most Chinese immigrants, therefore, moved out of Sonoma and Napa Valley.

Today is disheartening, especially for the Chinese Americans in Sonoma when they realize the history of the country’s prosperous industry has been forgotten. Most Sonoma residents also are surprised when they realize the county’s wine industry was built on the backs of Chinese immigrants.

In the contemporary world, there are efforts to recognize this vital history in Sonoma wine history. “An ambitious campaign is underway to finance a Chinese-style pavilion in Sonoma’s Depot Park, not far from the vineyards where skilled laborers tended grapes, grafted vines, dug wine caves, and dedicated long hours as cellar workers, all reportedly for payment of $1 a day.” Despite challenges such as funding sources, these plans indicate Sonoma County is on the path to recognizing the hard Chinese immigrants’ labor in setting up the foundation for its wine industry. [7]

Also read: The History of Chinese Wine

This Day in Wine History

28 April 1862 – On this day, Agoston Haraszthy was elected California State Agricultural Society president. The Hungarian-born Haraszthy significantly contributed to the California wine industry in various capacities. He was the first to establish a commercial winery, Buena Vista Winery, in Sonoma. Besides, he employed Chinese immigrants in droves in the winery, introducing most of them to viticulture in Sonoma. As the president, he expanded his Sonoma vineyards, producing a lot of wine sold into far places in America. According to Street, “Between 1856 and 1869, they planted most, if not all, of the county’s 3.2 million grapevines, thus allowing Sonoma to increase wine production from a few hundred gallons of wine to nearly three hundred thousand gallons.” His preference for Chinese immigrant labor placed him in the crosshairs of political movements, especially political labor movements. Haraszthy was concerned about his security and fled the country in 1868.

13 February 1880 – On this day, the California congress passed a law to ban the employment of any man of Chinese origin; this came after the whites accused the Chinese of destroying the wage market by accepting lower pay. Whites’ views also fueled this as they considered the Chinese immigrants unable to adapt to the American culture. The law and Chinese agitation led to a massive exodus of Chinese immigrants from Sonoma and Napa Valley, key winemaking regions in California.

6 May 1882 – On this day, the United States president, Chester A. Arthur, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, banning Chinese immigration into the United States. The political wave leading to this Act attributed the Chinese immigrants to falling labor wages and economic ills despite their insignificant population. Besides, the whites wanted to maintain racial purity and Chinese immigration threatened this objective. The Act seriously impacted the Sonoma wine region, which heavily depended on Chinese labor. The Chinese immigrants planted some of the region’s first vines and constructed the first wineries. Despite their small population, they performed their duties accordingly compared to whites. They could also earn lower wages compared to whites. However, the Act, coupled with anti-Chinese sentiments, saw their population in Sonoma decline significantly. According to the United States Census data, the Chinese immigrant population declined to less than 200 in 1930 from 1145 in 1890. The population decline led contributed to the erasure of their history. The Act was repealed on 17 December 1943.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Sonoma County Wineries (CA) (Postcard History Series) Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista Book


[1] Michelle Locke, “California Wine Industry Started with Chinese Workers,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, May 22, 2009,

[2] ParkNet, “Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California (Chinese Americans),”, November 17, 2004,

[3] Grace Hwang Lynch, “E-Immigrate – the Untold Story of Chinese Laborers in Sonoma Valley,” E-Immigrate, February 12, 2019,

[4] Elizabeth Lee, “Uncovering the Forgotten History of Chinese Laborers in California Wine Country,” VOA, May 19, 2017,

[5] Street, “Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farm Workers, 1769-1913,” 264

[6] Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farm Workers, 1769-1913 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[7] Grace Hwang Lynch, “Chinese Laborers Built Sonoma’s Wineries. Racist Neighbors Drove Them Out,” NPR, July 13, 2017, sec. Food for Thought,

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!