Wine at the California Missions

Wine at the California Missions
By Eve Iversen

[Based on a paper originally presented at the 1998 CMSA Annual Conference, San Juan Capistrano]


Grapes and the wine they produce are one of California's signature crops. Today's vast vineyards serve every market from elegant parties to weekend get-togethers. Most people are unaware of the long history of this beverage in the golden State. Grapes and the art of wine-making came with the Spanish padres in the late1700's. This is the story of the growth, decline, and rediscovery of Mission grapes, a story that can help preservationists and the general public experience a part of California's past.

The chain of missions that extends from the southern tip of Baja California Sur to Mission Sonoma in Sonoma County, California served many purposes. The missions and associated presidios were intended to confirm Spain's claim on the two Californias against the intrusion of other European nations such as Great Britain or Russia. They were also intended to act as a base for the padres in their work of converting the Indians. To this end, each mission was to be as economically self-sufficient as possible. Agriculture was a key element in mission planning. The padres had to locate the mission near a reliable source of water and on good soil. The choice of crops was easy since the climate of California resembles that of Spain.

Among the crops planted were pears, olives, figs, grapes, cherries, plums, peaches, apricots, date palms, pomegranates, rosemary, lavender, quince, guava, mustard, wheat, barley, asparagus, onions, peas, potatoes, beans and corn (maize).

Not all crops could be planted at all the missions, as may be seen in the examples of two San Francisco Bay area missions, San Francisco de Asis (Dolores) and Mission San José, the first cold and damp, the second comparatively sunny. Differences between the two were commented on by foreign visitors such as Dr. Georg Von Langsdorff, who visited both. He wrote about Mission San Francisco:

...we were conducted to the kitchen garden, which did not answer my expectations. There was nothing in it but some sorts of pulse [legumes], and culinary vegetables, with a few stunted fruit trees, which scarcely bore any fruit, and most of the beds were overgrown with weeds. The north-west winds, which prevail so much on this coast, and the dry sandy nature of the soil, are insurmountable obstacles to horticulture: the only things that grow well in the gardens are asparagus, cabbage, several sorts of salad, onions, and potatoes. In some fields, tolerably sheltered from the wind, pease [sic], beans, Turkish corn [maize], and other pulse [legumes] are cultivated, and thrive pretty well. The wine, which is a production of the country, was but of an ordinary quality. (Von Langsdorff 161-162)

By comparison Mission San José, in the present city of Fremont, was an agricultural paradise. An impressed Dr. Von Langsdorff wrote about it: ...the quantity of corn in the granaries far exceeded my expectations. They contained at that time more than two thousand measures of wheat, and a proportionate quantity of maize, barley, pease [sic], beans, and other grain. The kitchen garden is extremely well laid out, and kept in very good order; the soil is everywhere rich and fertile, and yields ample returns. The fruit-trees are still young, but their produce is as good as could be expected. A rivulet runs through the garden. Which preserves a constant moisture. Some vineyards have been planted within a few years, which yield excellent wine, sweet, and resembling Malaga. (Von Langsdorff 193)


Wine-making in the missions was necessary for two reasons: First, wine is necessary for the celebration of the Roman Catholic mass. It is specifically called for in the ceremony and the only acceptable substitute, under extraordinary conditions, is grape juice. Second, wine was the table beverage of the padres. Brandy was also consumed but in much smaller quantities since it required wine to be distilled. The first serious research on the history of mission wine in California was done by Edith Webb in the Mexican archives and her findings published in1952. Mission San Juan Capistrano may have been the first mission to grow grapes. Journalist Roy Brady writes about a shipment of vines brought to Alta California on the supply ship San Antonio around 1778:

They were planted at San Juan Capistrano immediately after their arrival. But the mission was moved in summer of that year. The vines were growing by then and could not be moved with the mission. They were left in place until winter, when they were dormant. They were then taken to the new site, buried to protect them from severe cold ... and planted when the winter had passed . (Brady 60)

Mission San Juan Capistrano is referred to as Viña Madre (Mother Vineyard) but it was only one of several vineyards that were begun at about the same time. Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Diego are almost as old as San Juan Capistrano. Today an example of a wine press and wine cellar can be seen at Mission San Gabriel. A wall painting of a vineyard was on the wall of the sala at Mission San Fernando from ca. 1825 but it was destroyed by the 1971 earthquake.

It may have been in the vineyards of the San Gabriel or San Diego valleys that the European grape Vitis vinifera was first hybridized with native grapes, but the genetics of the Mission grape are unclear. The parent variety has never been proven. Robinson suggests that it may be a subvariety of the Pais grape of Chile or perhaps the Criolla . (227) However, Dr. Harold Olmo of the UCD Viticulture and Enology Department has an alternative theory that the Mission grape is a hybrid of Spanish Vinifera and the wild grapes of California (Olmo and Koyama, 31-41). There are two species of wild grapes: V. girdiana of the San Joaquin Valley and V. californica of the Sacramento Valley. Whichever theory is correct, the hybrid vigor of the plant now called "Mission grape" is shown by the massive vines that it can grow. An example of a huge and long lived vine can be seen at Mission San Gabriel where a single vine shades most of the mission's grounds.

The Mission grape breeds remarkably true. When a Mission grape is sexually bred to another Mission grape, it will dependably produce grapes of the same variety. Almost all other varieties of domestic grape will not do this. For example, a Merlot bred to a Merlot will not produce another Merlot; almost any other variety will result. This explains why vegetative reproduction is used with almost all domestic grapes.


The Mission grape is still grown in California. Another characteristic of the Mission grape is its hardiness; it requires little care, is resistant to disease, and can live for more than a century. Table 1 shows the distribution of the grapes by county over the past thirteen years. ( California Grape Acreage) Most of the grapes are grown for inexpensive wines by Robert Mondavi and Gallo.

From my home in Northern California, I visited vineyards in Amador County and talked to the owners. I found that several vineyards have Mission grapes. Sometimes they are used as root stock and might be resistant to Phylloxera. This resistance has not been tested but considering the endurance of the older vines, "Mission" may be a useful root stock. These are the Amador County vineyards I visited:



Bearing Acres of Mission Grapes by County, 1984-1994

DEAVER WINERY, Plymouth: Five acres of grapes dating from about 1855 were removed in 1997 due to old age.

STORY WINERY, Plymouth: 300-350 acres of Mission grapes, the stock coming from the Deaver Winery about World War I. Many of the Mission vines are grafted to Zinfandel. The winery makes "Mission Gold" sweet dessert wine at $9.95 bottle. Jan Tichenor, co-owner of the Story Winery, said, "Mission grape vines are beautiful. The quality and character of each vine should be preserved."

SHENANDOAH WINERY, Plymouth: Six acres in Mission grapes. Mr. Lee Sobon, the owner said: "The historic value is the main value. The grapes are not susceptible to insects or other problems."

Fred McMillian donated three bottles of Mission grape wine to the Bottled Wine Library of the Vinifera Wine Growers Association in 1989. ("Bottled Wine Library..." 262) These included:

grape mural, Mission San Fernando, 1969 Sasha Honig

Grape mural, Mission San Fernando, 1969 Sasha Honig

Mission Del Sol of Harbor Winery
Mission Cream Sherry of Shenandoah Winery
Mission Del Sol of Story Winery

Angelica wine is a fortified wine made of 50% Mission grape juice and 50% Mission brandy and is historic to the mission period. Besides the vineyards still growing Mission grapes, several wineries are making wines and Angelica from purchased grapes. Heitz Cellars of St. Helena sells "Cellar Treasure" for $16.50 per bottle. Trentadue of Geyserville sells a small bottle of Angelica for $35.00. [Editor's note: Galleano Winery of Ontario, Southern California, also makes an Angelica, which was served at the California Mission Studies Association Annual Conference of 2000 at Mission San Gabriel.]


Mission grapes are but one example of a "heritage crop. " All over California local groups are working to protect and preserve pieces of the past. The new appreciation of Spanish and Mexican historical sites in California (missions, asistencias, presidios, adobes, etc.) includes building restoration and landscaping. Gardens or more extensive plantings such as orchards and fields give the visitor a more complete picture of life at the site and can lead to new and enjoyable activities such as a grape stomp. Grape arbors can provide a beautiful place to rest during a tour or for groups to meet after exploring a mission. Visitors will also better understand the role of agriculture in historic times. Using traditional domestic plants as well as native species will lend another layer of authenticity to such locations, and in the process, help maintain biodiversity in our state.


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