California Chinese and the Napa Valley Wine Caves

An historic story that hasn’t received a great amount of attention are the wine caves built by Chinese laborers during the latter part of the 1800’s. In fact, in 1885, Chinese laborers built a 350 foot wine cave in Napa Valley California using only picks and shovels.

napa california
Napa California

The Early Chinese Immigrants

The Chinese in California, who first arrived in large numbers due to the Gold Rush, built a great deal of the state during the late 1800’s. An interesting fact is that the Chinese were actually quite knowledgeable about California much before the great gold rush. It’s said that by the year 1600 the Chinese knew enough about California to have drawn a map of the coast. Some historians contend that Chinese explorers may have visited the west coast many years before Columbus landed in the New World in 1492 and the map from 1600 would be a good indicator.

While the Chinese worked the gold fields in the Sierra Nevada foothills, they did so with resentment from the white miners. As a result, the Chinese tended to work in groups for added protection and to work sites that were considered less desirable by the whites. The resentment didn’t end there as the California legislature soon passed a tax act that effectively took half of the Chinese workers wages. On top of that the law incredibly allowed any citizen to collect these taxes which led to violent clashes.

napa california opera house
Historic Napa Opera House

The First Napa Wine Caves

The wine caves built by Chinese laborers into volcanic rock were used for wine aging and storage. Construction on the first caves began in 1871. In 1881 a second set of tunnels began to be built.

If you visit Napa Valley California today you’ll be able to view this first wine cave at the Del Dotto Vineyards at 1055 Atlas Peak Road in Napa, CA . In 1997 the wineries new owners restored the original winery and started to store their wines in the historic caves.

The Napa Valley wine caves were just one of their accomplishments. There’s much more to the story of the Chinese laborers in early California which is detailed below. There are many reminders today that still survive which point to the work of nineteenth century California Chinese laborers.

The excerpt below is from the book Rails Tales, and Trails published by Nimbus Marketing and really gives you a great glimpse at he numerous projects California Chinese laborers were involved in.

For more information on the book and it’s companion award winning film “The Hidden Wonder of the World, the Transcontinental Railroad from Sacramento to Donner Summit” visit website

The Chinese in California

During the nineteenth century tens of thousands of Chinese crossed the Pacific to work, trade, and settle in California. Drawn initially by the gold rush, they brought the skills that would help them thrive in Gold Mountain. Like others from around the world, the Chinese who did not strike it rich in the mines engaged in a variety of occupations to make money in California.

You can see and feel the spirit of the early Chinese in many places in California. The Tree-of-heaven (also known ailanthus, Chinese sumac) can be found sprouting in abandoned gold mining sites, a living reminder of the Chinese gold miners who arrived in the 1850s.

Some of California’s earliest buildings were made of pre-fabricated materials shipped from China and assembled by Chinese workers in the Golden State. Of all buildings prefabricated in China and exported to the United States, the earliest one still standing is the Double Springs Courthouse in Calaveras County. It was constructed in 1850 from pre-cut camphor wood.

Most of the early Chinese debarked in San Francisco, known as Dai Fou, the big city where they established a thriving community. They also headed inland toward the gold mines and settled in Sacramento, as Yee Fou ,the second city. Marysville, just 40 miles from Sacramento became the supply center for the northern mines, was called Sam Fou ,the third city.

Chinese workers in mountain snow building the transcontinental railroad through the Sierra Nevada range. Public domain photo

Chinese immigrants built many of the flumes and roads in the mining districts. Throughout California, there are stone walls that are said to have been built by Chinese American workers in the nineteenth century. They are usually made from uncut field stones, without the use of mortar. The stones were obtained by clearing the surrounding land for pasture or farming.

The wine caves of Napa Valley were constructed in the late 1800’s. They were dug by pick and shovel. The loose dirt was carried out in woven baskets. You can find many abandoned wine caves throughout the hills of the Napa Valley.

Chinese laborers pulled early Sacramento out of the mud, building earthen levies that kept the American and Sacramento rivers from regularly flooding the nascent city. But by far the most visible reminder of the early Chinese are the massive tunnels, of the old Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada from Sacramento to Truckee.

Many Chinese stayed with the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and helped build modern California.

Two additional Rails, Tales, and Trails book excerpts that describe a short self-guided tour of the of historic transcontinental railroad sites from Auburn California to Donner Summit can be found on the Western Trips links below.

Self-Guided  Historic Tour From Auburn California

Donner Summit and the Central Pacific Railroad

For more information about the Chinese contribution to the building of early California, please visit website

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Book excerpt copyright Nimbus Marketing. Photo of Chinese railroad workers from the public domain)