The History of Russians in the Guadalupe Valley of Baja California
by Steve Dryden
From Russia with Love, Spirit and Wine
There is a story in Mexico’s premier wine growing and winemaking region located in Guadalupe Valley that needs to be told. It’s a fascinating and mysterious part of history and also very tragic and sad. This is a story about love, vision, determination, passion, faith, spirit, ethics, democratic principles, creativity and hard work. Let us not forget who really created Mexico’s grape growing industry by cultivating desert-like land into a true “Garden of Eden.” God bless them!
It starts in 1905 with the arrival in Baja California of a Russian pacifist group of Christians called “Molokans.” The Molokans were spiritual Christians who had broken ties with the Russian Orthodox Church and were being severely persecuted in their homeland. Their exodus from the central Russian provinces of Tombov, Saratov, Voronezh, to Transcaucasia took place in the fourth decade of the 18th century. In Transcaucasia they settled in various colonies near Georgia, Armenia and Kars, Their spiritual beliefs were in stark contrast with the state supported Russian Orthodox church dogma that demanded participation in state sponsored wars.
In early 1881, a new government decree demanded military service and the Molokans resisted due to their belief in peace and harmony amongst all brothers and sisters. The government responded with exile, imprisonment, torture, and forceful induction into the armed forces. During this period of extreme suffering the Molokans decided to try to migrate to the United States. At the beginning of 1900 the Molokans wrote a petition to Tsar Nicholas Alexandrovich asking for permission to leave Russia. The Tsar denied the request, but Leo Tolstoy, who greatly admired the Molokans, helped them get the necessary permission.
In the spring of 1904 the migration to Los Angeles, California started and the Molokans founded Russian-Town in the suburbs of LA. They were deeply grateful to the United States for allowing them a place of refuge, but it soon became apparent that the California lifestyle was in conflict with Molokan family values and spiritual foundations. Another factor was that land in California was too expensive to farm in their old world fashion. The old Russian notion of the land being community property and community farming in a closed village-type settlement led them to look at the possibility of moving to Mexico.
They wanted to create a farm colony and sought help from banker and businessman Donald Baker. He suggested that they needed to visit an area in Mexico called “The Guadalupe Valley.” These Molokans had a history in Russia as perfect colonizers of land due to their excellent farming skills, communal teamwork, high ethical standards, integrity and hard work. They fell in love with Guadalupe Valley and were impressed by the friendliness and courtesy shown them by the Mexicans. The regime of President Porfirio Diaz granted them permission to live in Mexico and legally purchase the land. The Molokans worked with Baker and were able to purchase a ranch known locally as Guadalupe Ranch or Rancho Ex-Mission de Guadalupe about 5266 hectares for $48,000.
The original group of Russians who settled in Guadalupe consisted of 104 families. The farming colony grew quickly with over over 800 Russians in the valley by 1928 many became Mexican citizens by naturalization or by birth. The farming colony grew well until about 1940-45 when many began to move back into California to join others near the town of Bakersfield. By 1947 there were 49 families remaining in Guadalupe Valley. The farms flourished and the former arid and unproductive land was now converted in a very productive oasis of plenty. Everything went well until 1959 when squatters began to invade the valley and took over many Molokan farms forcing the Russians to abandon almost all property and investments by 1965.
During the good times, 1905-1959, the Molokans developed superior farming methods with crop rotation and irrigation. Almost two-thirds of the valley could be farmed, one out of three acres was covered with valuable forest and water was abundant from hand-dug wells. They planted wheat, barley, alfalfa, oats and grasses allowing cattle to graze throughout the valley. The fields were also planted with table grapes. Wild horses, descendants of Spanish horses, were tamed and trained as draft horses making the Molokans the first ones in Mexico to use horses instead of oxen to work their farming equipment. Life was good in the valley and the hard working and spiritually motivated Molokans were very happy and successful.
In 1907, Molokans first introduced grapes into the valley on a large scale. The missionaries had planted some small vineyards near the mission prior to 1907, but never really developed the full potential that the valley could offer. Some members of the Russian community had gained experience growing grapes in Europe and put their skills and knowledge to work in creating one of the most important grape producing regions in the world. Several important varieties of table and other grapes were grown such as: Emperor, Ribier, Thompson (seedless), Flame, Tokay, and White Muscatel. Many of the vines were brought from Fresno, California.
Today a few descendants of the original Molokans families continue to grow grapes and make wine. David and Abel Bibayoff own and cultivate about 80 acres of table and wine grapes in a region of Guadalupe Valley called Rancho Toros Pintos. Alexie M. Dalgoff obtained a permit to make wine in the 1930’s and the family continues the wine growing and winemaking tradition with a nice selection of wines and quality table grapes from their beautiful vineyard.
Vinos Bibayoff will celebrate 100 years of Russian Molokan tradition this August with a special event featuring, quality wine, food, traditional music and dance. They have a wonderful and very interesting Russian Molokan museum at their winery open to the public. In fact, they loaned me the book, The True Molokan by George Mohoff, to research most of this story. The Bibayoff’s are very warm and wonderful people and will provide you with a golden opportunity to visit the winery to enjoy their wines and hospitality. They’re open on Saturdays and Sundays and can be reached at 646-176-1008 for directions and information. They host special events, BBQ’s, weddings, tours and picnics in the country. Do yourself a favor and visit this historical Molokan family and museum. Tell them that you read about their winery in the Baja Times. Try the wine!
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Article Originally Posted on Baja Times