The tragedy of Daneri winery

Have you ever driven on Dennery Street? The name is a misspelling of the Italian surname Daneri, and the once mighty wine making past in Otay is vaguely denoted by that wrongly written road name.

Emanuel Daneri, born circa 1846 in Italy, emigrated to the United States in 1866. By 1874 he and his wife Rosa, also Italian, were living in California.  The family grew to include son John and daughters Flora and Amelia. They lived in Old Town San Diego.

Publicity about Otay ballyhooed its suitability for agriculture, claiming multiple harvests were possible, perfect soil for a variety of crops and no difficulty in obtaining water. One crop particularly emphasized was grapes. Italians took notice and a community of Italians became established in Otay.

The Daneris applied for a homestead and planted grapes on 160 acres by 1878, receiving a patent on the property in 1885.  Eventually they owned 900 acres in the fertile Otay Valley. The Daneris made both sweet and white wines from their grapes, and were claimed to be the largest producer of wine in San Diego County. Newspaper accounts of the Daneri enterprises described the estimated wine produced to be 10,000 gallons, out of the 30,000 gallons manufactured by the entire county.

Two years later, after adding another vineyard, the output of Daneri’s Otay Winery and Distillery had doubled. The wines, and other produce Daneri grew, were sold in San Diego on Fifth Avenue in the Otay Winery and Distillery Depot.

To produce his product, Emanuel received two or three train carloads of wine casks from San Francisco. A photograph of the wine cellar interior at the San Diego History Center shows the huge casks in place on their heavy wooden supports, with basketry covered bottles displayed on the earthen floor in the foreground. Extant in bottle collections are crockery jugs stenciled either “E. Daneri” or “E. Daneri / Otay Winery / and Distillery.” These jugs were manufactured in Macomb, Ill.

The Daneris, active members of their community, donated a parcel of their original homestead to be the site of a school.  By August of 1889 the Otay Press was describing the construction of the Daneri school house; a brand new school bell called the scholars to class. Children from 12 households attended. The school records of 1890 through 1896 indicated that seven were Italian families.

The Daneri Winery continued successfully through more than three decades, and son John was now helping his parents, along with seven employees. According to The San Diego Union, in 1903 the Daneris operated one of the five largest wineries in the county, with an annual output of 20,000 gallons of wine.

All together, the Daneris invested 37 years in this enterprise. But at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1916, all of it was destroyed when the Otay Dam broke.

Daneri’s household and wine cellar was located on the south bank of the Otay River. Emanuel, coming out of the wine cellar, saw to his horror a 40-foot wall of water rushing to his ranch.  He managed to get his family to higher ground, screaming to those inside to get out. But they didn’t hear, and Emanuel and Rosa watched as the house, with six people still inside, disappeared in the flood. All of them were killed.

The house with its lifetime of the family’s belongings, all the crops, the frame building that surmounted the wine cellar and those casks were washed away.   Even the soil was gone. The valuable dirt disappeared and the formerly fertile property was worthless.

I was part of the archaeological team working on the Daneri site in 1992. One wall remained from that flood, and there was a four-foot depression in the soil of approximately 60 feet in diameter.

Using a backhoe, we put in four trenches and uncovered the remnants of the wine cellar and part of an olive orchard.

The cellar had been constructed of poured cobble-filled concrete, with 10-foot-high walls, stretching 60 feet long. The wall top included a carefully molded concrete gutter. We also located a concrete slab that indicated a doorway. Only four broken artifacts were encountered.

Devastation of the site even so many years later was clear.

The Daneris left the valley. In 1917 they moved to San Diego and sued the city, claiming the Otay Dam was poorly built, seeking restitution for their losses. But the court decided the flood was an act of God and the Daneris were left with nothing.