Captain Joseph Warren Osborn, a native of Salem, Massachusetts, spent his early years as a sea captain, plying the trade routes from the north Atlantic to the South Pacific. This all changed in 1850 when the boom times of the California gold rush lured him to the west coast. He quickly settled on a beautiful plot of land just a few miles south of Yountville, which he would name “Oak Knoll”. The beauty of this historic land is well described by an 1858 California State Senate report, which discussed “the preservation of the magnificent native oaks” at Oak Knoll. The report stated that “these trees, once cut down, cannot be replaced in many generations, while, if saved, they are at once, and perpetually, an ornament and a blessing.”
Being well-versed in agriculture and with a large property at his disposal, Osborn would not waste time creating an award-winning farm. By 1852 he had imported fine Vitis vinifera to the valley from Europe and began to graft these to the Mission grapes then common in California. The imported Vitis vinifera changed the future of Napa Valley forever, as did the years of work he completed on his Oak Knoll farmland. In 1852 he would plant 3,000 vines of the fine European varietals, including Zinfandel, which he is credited with bringing to the Napa Valley. Just four years later, in 1856, Osborn received a prestigious award for the “Best Farm in all of California.” He would go on to win the award in 1860 as well.
JW Osborn had the reputation of being a generous man, often hiring farmhands from his native New England and paying them more than double the typical wage for farm labor in Napa. Therefore, it came as a shock when a former employee of Oak Knoll, Charles Britton, accused Osborn of withholding his final payment of $265 in wages. Britton purchased a six-shooter revolver in San Francisco before taking the steam ferry back up to Napa on April 18, 1863. After an argument quickly escalated on the Oak Knoll property, Britton shot Captain Osborn 3 times in the chest. He died shortly after in his wife’s arms. Britton fled on foot, only to be captured by a group of farmers that had gathered after hearing of the shooting. Charles Britton made history shortly thereafter, becoming the first man in the history of Napa County to be hung under sentence of the law.
An article in the California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences on the 24th of April 1863 succinctly stated the vast loss to the state of California, agriculture, and the wine industry
Mr. Osborn was one of our early pioneers, and his name is widely connected with our mercantile as well as our agricultural interests. His labors – of the head, hands, and heart – have been devoted to the development of the resources of his adopted state… His efforts and writings upon agriculture have been of much importance and benefit to our State.
Captain Osborn’s vision, along with his tireless dedication to making fine wines would later lead historian Charles Sullivan to state that Captain Joseph Osborn would have been known as “The Father of the Napa Valley fine wine industry” had he not met his untimely death in 1863. His beloved Oak Knoll farm grew to as large as 2,000 acres before being subdivided later in the twentieth century.
Owned by only 3 families since Osborn passed, Oak Knoll’s New England roots were carried on by Robert B. Woodward of Providence, Rhode Island. Following the Gold Rush, just as Osborn had done, Woodward would find success as an entrepreneur in San Francisco, eventually passing on the Oak Knoll property in 1879 to his daughter Sarah, who married California Secretary of State Drury Melone. The Melone family would farm the property until Prohibition and the Great Depression forced them to leave. Former silent film star Lenore Stearns (also known as Lenore Fields) and her husband Alan Olcott Stearns would purchase the property in 1938 and go on to transform the existing Victorian into the beautiful Greek Revival style home that is still on the property today. Since 1949 the Lamoreaux family has owned and tended to the sprawling property of vineyards, meadows, streams and, of course, the majestic oak trees. The property boasts 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that are still used in some of the finest wines the valley has to offer.
Captain J.W. Osborn’s award for the “Best Farm in All of California” in multiple years starting in 1856 was a stunning achievement. In honor of the this achievement, Materra | Cunat Family Vineyards proudly offers a taste of the beginning and the future of Oak Knoll with the release of our Vine 1 Cabernet Sauvignon – a truly exceptional wine honoring one of Napa Valley’s pioneering vintners.