Home > History of Wine > “[T]erraced mountain sides with vineyards like those of Madeira, Vesuvius and Etna” : Jose Gomes Serrao’s Hawaiian Wine

“[T]erraced mountain sides with vineyards like those of Madeira, Vesuvius and Etna” : Jose Gomes Serrao’s Hawaiian Wine

It is safe to write that during my recent trip to California one of the last things I expected to see was an empty bottle of Hawaiian wine.  There is a collection of old, empty bottles at the Taylor & Norton wine shop in Sonoma.  Standing next to 1945 Rebello Valente, Vintage Port and 1959 Chateau Grand Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac was the red labeled bottle of “Pure Unadulterated Serrao’s Own” from Jose Gomes Serrao.  The label states the wine was “Made From Grapes Grown At Kaumana, Hilo, Hawaii”.


This struck me as unusual.  Thomas Pinney wrote that in 1937 there were two wineries licensed in Hawaii.[1]  In his footnote he continues, “Because neither Colorado nor Hawaii can have had any significant grape production, these operations presumably depended on grapes from California, if in fact they produced wine at all.”  I did not find the report he specifically cites but another Federal report lists two bonded Hawaiian wineries as of July 1, 1943.[2]  These were the Serrao Wine & Liquor Co., Hilo and the K. Takitani Winery, Makawao.  We know from recently published work that Jose Gomes Serrao cultivated the vine and produced wine on Hawaii from 1903 through Prohibition.[3]  In this post I briefly describe the origins of Hawaiian winemaking along with the efforts of Jose Gomes Serrao which parallel those of the Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station.


The cultivation of the grapevine in Hawaii dates back to March 4, 1792, when Captain George Vancouver left grapevines, orange trees, and garden seeds.[4]  In 1815 Don Francisco de Paul Marin, also known as “Marini” or “Manini”, planted a vineyard for the king.  He reported that he made 38 gallons of wine but it is not stated whether this was from his vines or those left by Vancouver.  On January 26, 1819, Camille de Roquefeuil reported that Don Francisco Marina “makes a fairly decent wine from vines he brought from California.”[5]  On April 17, 1822, Reverend Daniel Tyerman visited “M. Manine, a Spaniard”.[6]  Here he found three acres laid out with a garden, vineyard, and orchard.    The vines were “trained after the Spanish fashion in bushes, flourish luxuriantly.”  The vineyard was located on “the slope of a beautiful hill” at the foot was a small river.[7]  Reverend Tyerman was informed they were bear fruit three times per year but the third was prevented, “least it should too much exhaust the stocks.”  Jacques Arago found the grapes “excellent”.   One report from a few years later indicates that Don Marin had “cultivated the vine so successfully as to have made tolerable wine”.[8]  Charles Samuel Stewart found that a “considerable quantity of wine is yearly made from his vineyard.”[9]  The site of Don Francisco Marina’s vineyard was locally known as “ka pa Waina”.[10]  It appears this is a literal translation of the English vineyard.[11]  Don Marin continued to cultivate the vine and produce wine until the early 1830s.  Today the location of his vineyard is commemorated by Vineyard Street.


Chart of the Sandwich Islands. Vancouver, George. 1798. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Chart of the Sandwich Islands. Vancouver, George. 1798. David Rumsey Map Collection.

It is interesting to note the encouragement for viticulture and vinification given in the annual address of The Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society in 1853.[12]  Stating that these views were “in common with a large portion of the community” it was noted the volcanic soils of the islands might be equated to the Italian wines of Vesuvius, those of Tokay, and Hermitage.  It was felt that vineyards could be established in areas where sugar and coffee could not be produced.  The production of wine would allow a new product to be exported, reduce the cost of the wine available for purchase on the islands, and promote temperance.  I did not spend much time researching the second half of the 19th century but it appears to be a quiet period.  In the 1897 Petition Against the Abrogation of the Treaty Between the United States and Hawaii the California Wine Makers’ Corporation feared the removal of a heavy duty on non-grape wines of Hawaii because such wines had “threatened the extinction of the California wine trade with the Hawaiian Islands.”[13]


The Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station was funded by Congress and established in 1901.[14]  An experimental vineyard was planted the following year in 1902.  In March 1906, a cooperative experimental vineyard was planted on Maui.[15]  This vineyard contained 175 different varieties of “wine grapes” and was overseen by Portuguese settlers.[16]  These cooperative experiments with private growers continued for years.  It was anticipated that an influx of immigrants from Spain, Portugal, and the Azores would make grape growing and winemaking profitable.[picture of grapes]  By 1915 it was acknowledged that a particular clone of the Isbella vine, brought by the Portuguese from Madeira, showed the greatest success.[17]  Small vineyards were to be found near Honolulu, Hilo, Kona, Makawai, and the lower slopes of Haleakala.  The vineyards located closest to cities typically provided table grapes.  Wine was made at several locations, presumably using the Isabella grape.  Apparently it was “necessary to fortify it heavily to prevent deterioration.”[picture]  In addition to determining the grape varieties ideally suited to the islands the station investigated trellising, pruning, and fertilizing.[18]


By 1899, the Gomez Serrao family had 80 acres of Isabella grapes growing near Hilo.  These vines were grown from cuttings Jose Gomes Serrao brought from Madeira to Hawaii in 1883.  By 1903, Jose Gomes Serrao was producing wine from his Kaumana vineyard.  The timing between his efforts at producing wine and those of the Experiment Station should be investigated.  Please read the blog post Jose Gomes Serrao: Distilling in Paradise for his background story.  One early advertisement from November 17, 1909, offers “New Grape Wine” suggesting one “Try This Home Product.”[19]  Just several days later the article “Serrao’s Wines Fine Home Product – Industry That Is Developing In Hawaii County Is Winner” was published.[20]  The articles states that Jose Gomes Serrao was cultivating grapes in Hawaii for “the manufacture of the purest and best wines to be found anywhere.”  That year he produced 2,498.40 gallons of wine primarily from his estate fruit but also from the vineyards of his neighbors.  His first harvest must have occurred in August 1909 because he expected his next harvest to be eight months later in March 1910.  He had planted five additional acres in the hopes of producing more than 5,000 gallons of wine.  These vines were expected to bear fruit in 1911.  This suggests his and neighboring estates contained some 10 acres of vines.  Presumably these vines were planted at low altitudes where “the grapes ripen well and are not broken as in the higher altitudes.”  As for the quality it was noted that many people who formerly purchased Californian wine had purchased Serrao’s wine due to the “perfect purity” and the belief in “supporting home industry.”



Jose Gomes Serrao also advertised his “Serrao Liquor Company” throughout the years in Our Navy published by the U.S. Navy.[21]  One advertisement from 1910 notes amongst other drinks “Pure Kaumana Wine, ‘Serrao’s own’ made from Kaumana (Hawaaiian) Grapes.”  His ventures must have been successful for his company helped fund a laboratory near the “Volcano House” for use by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[22]  By 1913 Jose Gomes Serrao was repeatedly listed as “the wine expert of Hilo” and that “Kaumana Wine is a product of the ‘Big Island’ and is absolutely pure.”[23]  In September 1916, Jose Gomes Serrao exhibited at the Second Annual County Fair of the Big Island.[24]  He displayed his Kaumana wine in kegs and bottles.  There was also a realistic arbor of grape vines.  Just several years later, the enactment of Prohibition effectively ended his success in wine production.  When wine production was eventually resurrected by his sons, the shipping restrictions during World War II forced the final closure.

[1] Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From Prohibition to the Present.
[2] Liquor industry. Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on the judiciary, United States Senate, Seventy-eight Congress, first session, on S. res. 206. 1944. Hathi Trust Digital Library.
[3] Love, Ken; Paull, Robert. “Growing Grapes in Hawai’I” Fruit, Nuts, and Beverage Crops. February 2014, F_N-26. URL: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/F_N-26.pdf
[4] Yearbook of Agriculture. 1902. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=UmcTAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[5] Birkett, Mary Ellen. Hawai’I in 1819: An Account by Camille de Roquefeuil. The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 34 (2000). URL: http://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/handle/10524/602/JL34075.pdf?sequence=2
[6] Journal of Voyages and Travels by the Rev. Daniel Tyerman.  1832. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=6IxnV21A8qoC&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] Arago, Jacques. Narrative of a Voyage Round the World in the Uranie and Physicienne Corvettes, Commanded by Captain Freycinet, During the Years 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820. 1823. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=rLENAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[8] Voyage of H.M.S. Blonde to the Sandwich Islands, in the years 1824-1825. 1826. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=ZsERAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[9] Stewart, Charles Samuel. Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands During 1823, 1824, and 1825.  1828. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=wBQIAAAAQAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[10] Honolulu Star Bulletin.  All about Hawaii. 1920. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=36gsAAAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[11] Ke Kauoha Hou, etc. (The New Testament, etc.) Hawaiian & English.1859. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=P-tUAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA2#v=onepage&q&f=false
[12] The Transactions of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society, Volume 1. 1854. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=Ruc3AAAAMAAJ&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false
[13] Congressional Serial Set. 1897. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=e_wqAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[14] Krauss, Beatrice, H. “A Short History of the Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station, 1901-1982”.  College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawai’I at Manoa. URL: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/site/downloads/KraussHAES2.pdf
[15] Hawaii Agricultural Experiement Station. Annual Report. 1902. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=qQ8TAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[16] A second report indicates 124 varieties. Experiment Station Record, Volume 17.  1906. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=dufNAAAAMAAJ&pg=PR2#v=onepage&q&f=false
[17] Report of the Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station. 1915. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=nIs5AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[18] Economic Entomology: Pamphlets, Volume 149. 1922. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=LXpCAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[19] Evening bulletin., November 17, 1909, 3:30 EDITION, Page 7, Image 7. Honolulu. Library of Congress.
[20] Evening bulletin., November 22, 1909, 3:30 EDITION, Page 8, Image 8. Honolulu. Library of Congress.
[21] U.S. Navy. Our Navy, Volume IV, No 7. November 1910. Hathi Trust Digital Library.
[22] Report of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association. 1917. Hathi Trust Digital Library.
[23] The Maui news., September 06, 1913, Page 6, Image 6. Wailuku. Library of Congress.
[24] The Hawaiian gazette., September 29, 1916, Page 6, Image 6. Honolulu. Library of Congress.

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