The Lion family no longer resides in South County, but their name lives on
Published in the Oct. 28 – Nov. 10, 2015 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Mike Monroe
Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. The days are shortening as the sunlight angles farther to the south. There is a sense of crispness in the air.
The leaves of trees and vines are changing color, although the vibrancy is muted due to the drought. And there is feeling of relief and rest ahead after a long hot summer. Why not enjoy the fruit of the vine paired with a nip in the air as we celebrate harvest time? Let’s pause before the holidays to absorb for a moment this truly wonderful place we call home.
Did I use the word “holiday?” Oh no, the hustle and bustle that makes us hurdle over Thanksgiving is soon upon us. So instead of a brisk walk, we will amble around the tasting area of Lion Ranch and enjoy the hospitality of owners Todd and Kim Engelhardt. I introduced myself to the couple recently and asked if I could write a piece on the history of the Lion (say “Lee-On’ as if your were speaking French) family after whom their winery was named.
Bev Stenehjem wrote a wonderful book called the “Wineries of Santa Clara Valley” in which she described the history of several of our venerable wine-making families.
The Lion family no longer resides in South County, but their name lives on as many of our landscape features are designated with the Lion appellation. Theirs is a story worth re-telling. The patriarch of the family, Lazard (aka Leopold) Lion, was born in Alsace-Lorraine, France, in 1829, immigrating to America in 1852. The the following year he settled in San Francisco, traveling to the Gold Rush city via the Isthmus of Panama.
Mr. Lion was an astute businessman specializing in the dry goods business. He developed several subsidiaries in San Jose including an exclusive carpet house, a furniture store, a glove manufacturing facility and he had shares in the Vendome Hotel and a local bank. He and his wife, Zulema Martin Lion, raised four sons and a daughter. Each of the boys was an officer in L. Lion and Sons, which was incorporated in 1890. The oldest, Gustave, or “Gus,” became the president of the company, and it was Gus who was the manager of the Lion Ranch in San Martin — a 5,585-acre parcel purchased in 1890 from James Murphy. The land was only the western portion of the huge Rancho San Francisco de Las Llagas originally granted to Carlos Castro in 1828. Prior to Spanish colonization, the Pitac and Chitactac peoples of the Bay Area Ohlone group had lived here for at least 3,000 years.
“San Martin — Then & Now,” written by Donna Brodsky, has an excerpt from a book by another Frenchman, Amaury Mars, who visited the Lion Ranch in 1901 and “fell in love with the area,” saying “San Martin is laid out at the foot of sloping hillsides as in a magnificent amphitheater, it is one of the prettiest villages in the valley.” He exclaimed, “What a sight it was to behold — all those old oaks and majestic sycamores. One’s eyes actually glisten with pleasure while surveying the rural picture formed of pastures, grain fields and orchards.”
The home ranch from the photo in Brodsky’s book suggests a location near Santa Teresa Boulevard and California Avenue. Another illustrates a small check dam impounding a pond near the crossing where the Anza party camped along Llagas Creek in 1776.
In 1921, Gus Lion began subdividing the family holdings with a 2,500-acre parcel sold to a business acquaintance, Frank Hayes. Hayes ran beef cattle, operated a dairy farm, and cultivated hay, grain, prunes, walnuts and, of course, wine grapes. Today, we know Hayes Valley as CordeValle and the Clos LaChance Winery. The next time you visit Clos LaChance and enjoy the vista of their expansive vineyard note the tall rounded peak on the southern flank of the valley — that is Lion’s Peak.
A couple of other Lion place names are also of note. I live in Gilroy on Lions Creek Drive, which is actually a creek that has its headwaters on the eastern shoulder of Lion’s Peak. In 2013, an investment group led by Jason Goelz of Jason-Stephens Winery bought a 378-acre property in the west foothills of Gilroy called Lion Oaks Ranch. There are several barns and a Victorian house believed to have been built in 1884. Comparing some old pictures suggests this might have been originally a Lion family residence.
Our hike along the Wine Trail will certainly not be too exerting, but it’s OK to relax once in a while and enjoy friends with a glass of delicious wine.
Mike Monroe is a business owner and naturalist. He is a docent for Santa Clara County Parks.