Let’s remember that grapes are part of the American landscape. I used to wait patiently, under my grandmother’s arbor, for her Concord (Vitis labrusca) grapes to ripen in Maine’s sunshine. She’d then put the juice right into her Concord jelly. It was always on our Thanksgiving table. Thomas Jefferson tried ever so hard to make wine from Native grape varieties. More native varieties also include the following:
- Catawaba – Vitis labrusca
- Norton – Vitis aestivalis
- Muscadine – Vitis botundifolia
- Mustang – Vitis mustangensis
- Niagara – Vitis labrusca
- Vignoles – Vitis rupestris (and other varieties, check pout Wine Folly for more)
The following was a final project that I wrote for my enology class at Santa Rosa Junior College, taught by Pat Henderson, when he was the winemaker for Valley of the Moon. We each got to choose one wine grape variety for a presentation (text and a sample also had to be provided). My choice, as everyone else was choosing Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, went off that chart. My choice was easy for me; I really wanted to know more about the Mission Grape’s role in California’s Wine Viticultural history. The Mission grape, unlike the others above, is the first Vitis vinifera grape that we know of on American soil.
After my presentation, which included a tasting of a light, but flavorful, Malvadino Mission wine, Pat asked for permission to use this piece in future classes… Permission granted. You, too, are also able to benefit from this history.
[This photo is of the famed Santa Barbara Mission, which I purchased. I’ve never been there.]
Role of the Mission Cultivar
The Mission Period pre-California (1568-1662) – The earliest winemaking in the continental US is credited to the Spaniards of Santa Elena, South Carolina around 1568. The first wine grapes in New Mexico were planted by Franciscan missionaries at Mission of Socorro on the Rio Grande about 1626. In 1662, Franciscan fathers came from Mexico into El Paso Valley, Texas, where they established the San Ysleta Mission. They came with cuttings of the Mission grapes, strapped to the backs of their pack mules. Because the climate there was so drastically different from the United States’ East Coast, the grapes flourished under these perfect, viticultural conditions, i.e., dry, hot, stony soils. The earliest successful viticulture was established in the 17th century in the great Spanish province of New Mexico, stretching from El Paso, Texas to the Pacific Ocean.
The Mission Period in California (1769-1834) – In the 1700’s, New Spain (Mexico) was home to many Spanish missionaries who were determined to convert the new world’s heathens to Christianity. Establishing a mission had specific criteria; i.e., the site must not only be near woods and water, but it must also be on a rise of ground so that missionaries could clearly see the arrival of ships. Additionally, there needed to be open fields for both grazing animals and planting their food items. The items not only consisted of fruits and vegetables for their meals, but also included grapes for their sacramental wine and their brandy. Once fruit and vegetables were planted, and the vines were in the ground, they were tended and watered by their Indian converts.
Spaniard Father Junipero Serra had a dream of founding a chain of missions up the coast of Alta California. It is he who is known to have brought the first mission grapevines from Baja, California in an arduous, overland expedition to San Diego. Padre Serra established 21 missions stretching 650 miles along El Camino Real from San Diego to Sonoma, today’s California Coastal Highway 101. Each site was set at a one-day’s walking journey apart, and became way-stops for California’s first tourists. “To facilitate trade and communication, each mission was built the distance of one day’s ride or hard walk from the next.” *1
The mission grape is believed to be of Mexican and/or South American (Argentina) origin, related to the Spanish Criolla, and the Pais varietal of Chile. In the early 2000’s when I wrote this report, there were 36,872 acres planted to the Mission variety. Prior to being planted in California, the Mission was first grown in Mexico for 200 years. Criolla means “a New World scion of an Old World parent, adapted to the new condition.” *2 The grape flourished in California, producing a sturdy vine that didn’t require staking, and ripened well in almost any climate. The exception was Mission Dolores in San Francisco, whose climate was, and still is, consistently cool and damp.
Padre Serra arrived in San Diego on July 16, 1769, and established his first mission, San Diego de Alcala. Once the flag had been raised, the tireless Padre Serra, who was small and slight in stature, continued up the coast of California to establish 20 more missions. By 1823, 54 years later, the last of the Spanish missions had been established, stretching along the coast of California from San Diego to Fort Ross, located in Sonoma County, and under the command of Mariano Vallejo. The mission/forts were centers of civilization, trade and industry, manufacturing a wide variety of goods from wine and brandy, leather and saddles, to woolen items and soap. These commodities were traded for objects they could not manufacture; i.e., pots and pans, lighting fixtures, and musical instruments. In 1834, under duress of the padres enjoying the good life, by the provisions of the Secularization Act, missions were turned over to civil government.
In the fall of 1769 in San Diego, Indians were taught to plant, then to tend Padre Serra’s first grapevines. These vines bore abundantly in September of 1772, and the Indians were then taught to make wine. It was fiesta time at Mission San Diego with the first vintage. Mexicans and Indians hurried to press the grapes. The press was a cowhide suspended from four corner posts set in the ground. Baskets of grapes came up, balanced on the heads of scurrying Indians. When they arrived, the baskets were handed to a man on a short ladder that emptied the grapes into the cowhide. When it was full enough, two Indians with scrubbed feet began to trample the grapes. When the grapes became pulp, it was put into cowhide bags for fermenting. More grapes were then put into the press for stomping. The wine was racked into new skin bags for storage.
The missionaries’ contributions to the wine industry were many:
- Brought the Mission vine to CA
- Trained growers and winemakers
- Proved that CA is a world-class winegrape growing region
- 1986 — 1,800 acres located in CA
- Links the modern industry to its origins
- Likes hot country
- Is very productive, yielding good, off-dry wine
- The Mission grape remains a significant crop in CA, though rarely seen as a varietal name
- Created a profitable business, a glimpse of how the future might become
- Much easier to preserve in difficult conditions than low-alcohol dry wines
Mission wine, which has thus become practically extinct in the second quarter of the century, nevertheless had a curious survival…In the 1920’s, in Paris, an English wine lover encountered an expatriate Pole who told him at the turn of the century, at Fukier’s, the best restaurant in Warsaw, “the choicest and most expensive dessert wine came from California.” The Englishman, finding himself not long after Warsaw, remembered what he had been told, went to the famous restaurant Fukier and asked for its California wine. He naturally supposed that it must be California wine such as other restaurants had, and was curious to know how it could be both the most expensive and the best available in a distinguished restaurant. The waiter told him that, fortunately, there were a few bottles still left, some of which were brought to the curious dinner: “Imagine my surprise when I found that they were of wine from the Franciscan missions of California grown during the Spanish period, a century and a half ago. The wine was light brown in color, rather syrupy, resembling a good sweet Malaga in taste, and in good condition.” *3
Judgment of early Mission wine was harsh, as fermenting and aging in skin produced a wine of inferior quality versus the now familiar barrel and stainless steel fermenting and aging. “One judgment, expressed in 1827,” the grapes of Los Angeles, Captain Duhaut-Cilly wrote, were quite good, but the wine and brandy made from them were “quite inferior, and I think this inferiority is to be attributed to the making rather than to the growth.” *4
Famous California Mission Viticulturists:
- In 1841, George Yount (the first white settler in Napa Valley) planted at his Caymus Rancho, among other fruit, a vineyard of Mission grapes, and made wine from them for his own enjoyment and that of frequenting guests, using the Spanish method of storing in hides. This planting was located near what later became Yountville.
- British-born John Patchett cleared some land a mile west of Clay and Calistoga Streets in Napa, and planted a vineyard of Mission grapes for winemaking, hiring a German gentleman by the name of Charles Krug to be his winemaker.
- Charles Krug, revered as the founding father of Napa County’s winemaking, learned the craft in the town of Sonoma from Agoston Haraszthy, personal friend of Mariano Vallejo.
- Gottlieb Groezinger, a very prolific vintner, bought land from Henry Boggs in Yountville, which is now part of the Vintage 1870 Mall. By 1873, Groezinger was producing 160,000 gallons of wine; 100,000 of it from the Mission grape.
- J.H. McCord, a ’49er, had a winery, Oak Grove on the corner of Highway 29 and East Zinfandel Lane in Napa Valley. McCord claimed that his vineyard of Mission grapes was the oldest in the Valley, and was producing 50,000 gallons per year by 1890.
- Los Angeles vintners: John Chapman planted a vineyard of 4,000 Mission grapevines in Los Angeles in 1824. Dutchman Juan Domingo (a.k.a., Johann Groningen), Frenchmen, Louis Bouchet and Victor Prudhomme were among the first viticulturists of influence. One of the most important Los Angeles vintners was Jean Louis Vignes. Vignes was from the winemaking region Cadillac in France, and in 1833 imported European varietals from France, thereby laying claim to being the first American to plant vitis vinifera. Mexican viticulturists were Manuel Requena, Tiburico Tapia, Ricardo Vejar and Tomas Yorba. One estimate gives Los Angeles 100,000 vines as early as 1831: such a quantity would have yielded 30,000 gallons of wine a year.