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9 The Southwest and California
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Winegrowing in the California Mission Period

Hundreds of miles to the west of the Rio Grande, along the Pacific coast, the widely scattered small mission communities and the great, isolated ranchos of Mexican California were beginning to be infiltrated by Yankee adventurers and traders at just about the same time as such people began to appear in New Mexico. Grapes and wine were among the first things to interest them there, as they had done in New Mexico, for there was in California, as in New Mexico, an already established tradition of winegrowing. Though of much younger date, it was, like that of New Mexico, developed in connection with the missions, was directed by the Franciscans, and was based on the Mission grape. Unlike that in New Mexico, it survived Americanizing and secularizing, flourished under alien hands, and grew rapidly


into a major economic force. Since the years just after the Civil War, the story of American wine has been dominated by California, and by an industry inherited directly from the Franciscan founders.

The first mission in Alta California—the region that became the American state—was founded by Fray Junípero Serra at San Diego in 1769, where, accompanied by soldiers and priests, he took the first step in the spiritual conquest of the Indians and towards the secular control of the coast, so long neglected by European powers, against all rivals. It is convenient to date viticulture in the state from this event; it was, indeed, so dated when the state celebrated the bicentennial of the wine industry in 1969. But that was a mistake. True, General Mariano Vallejo late in the nineteenth century affirmed that his father, who was among the first contingents of soldiers sent to Alta California, told him that Padre Serra brought the first vines and planted them at San Diego; another source (Arpad, son of the famous Count Agoston Haraszthy) says that this was done in 1769 or 1770.[13] These are both impressive witnesses. Yet such documentary evidence as exists for the earliest mission years plainly contradicts their testimony. As Father Serra moved back and forth along the coast, founding mission after mission in the chain that ultimately stretched north of San Francisco Bay to Sonoma, he regularly complained of the difficulty of obtaining a supply of wine for the celebration of the mass; such wine as he did get was clearly imported from Mexico or Spain, not the produce of local missions.[14] In the early part of the nineteenth century, for example, Mission San Gabriel was recognized as the largest producer of wines in California, yet as late as 1783, fourteen years after the first mission had been founded and twelve years after the founding of San Gabriel, Serra wrote that San Gabriel had no wine at all, the barrel sent to it on muleback from the coast having slipped and broken so that all the wine was lost.[15]

The first clear reference to the planting of grapes at a California mission comes from San Juan Capistrano in 1779, ten years after the arrival of the Franciscans in California.[16] These vines might have produced a small crop as early as 1781, but the evidence points to 1782 as the likeliest date for California's first vintage. In an original and important essay Boy Brady has not only established this chronology for the first California wine but has also plausibly identified the means whereby the vines were first brought to the state; they came, he suggests, in May 1778 on board the supply ship San Antonio under the command of Don José Camacho.[17] If so, the state has a neglected benefactor long overdue for public recognition.

The beginning made at San Juan Capistrano (and perhaps at San Diego in the same season) grew, in time, to include the entire system of missions, with uneven but substantial success. Santa Cruz, at the north end of Monterey Bay, was not successful in growing grapes. Neither was Mission Dolores in San Francisco, being too cool and foggy; yet the California pioneer William Heath Davis reported that in 1833 he had frequently drunk the wine of Mission Dolores, as fine a California red as he ever had, "manufactured at the mission from grapes brought from the missions of Santa Clara and San Jose."[18] Mission San Gabriel, a few miles east of


Mission San Gabriel, painted in 1832 at the height of its prosperity by the German 
Ferdinand Deppe—the only known painting of a California mission from so early 
a date. Its wine, for the celebration of the mass, for the occasional use of the fathers, 
and for the entertainment of visitors, was highly regarded in Spanish California. From
 the vines of San Gabriel developed the vineyards of Los Angeles, from which, in turn, 
the winegrowing industry of California grew. (Santa Barbara Mission Library-Archive)

Los Angeles, eventually developed into the largest and most prosperous of all the mission establishments; it stood first in the size of its winemaking operations, too, and for some judges at least, in the quality of the wine it produced. The original vineyard at San Gabriel was called the Viña Madre—"Mother Vineyard"—a name that has created some confusion by its implication that this was the original of all the mission vineyards. It was not that, but was, instead, the first of the several vineyard properties that the mission developed in the large surrounding valley it presided over.[19] Father José Zalvidea, a tough, capable Biscayan, is credited with developing viticulture at San Gabriel, over which he ruled from 1806 to 1827.[20] By 1829 the American merchant Alfred Robinson wrote that the San Gabriel grapes annually yielded from four to six hundred barrels of wine and two hundred of brandy, from which the mission received an income of more than twelve thousand dollars.[21] Robinson's figures are unquestionably exaggerated, but they tell us clearly that observers were impressed by what they saw being done under Father Zalvidea and his successors.


Reliable statistics for the mission period do not exist. San Gabriel is said to have had 170 acres in vines and to have produced 35,000 gallons a year[22] —a modest figure if the acreage is accurately given: but then a good deal of wine was turned into brandy. Father Duran, a Franciscan who enjoyed a good reputation for the wines and brandy that he produced at his mission of San Jose, thought that the best wines of the whole mission system were those of San Gabriel.[23] But it was not without competition. General Vallejo is reported by Haraszthy as saying that the wine of Sonoma, last and most northern of the missions, "was considered by the Padres the best wine raised in California."[24] But then Vallejo had taken over those Sonoma vineyards and had an interest in promoting their reputation (so, too, did Haraszthy for that matter). The Sonoma Mission vineyard was tiny, so that not many can have known its wines, whatever their reputation may have been. Another judgment on mission wines was delivered by an observant Frenchman, Captain Auguste Duhaut-Cilly, who in 1827 decided that it was at San Luis Rey, between Los Angeles and San Diego, that there were "the best olives and the best wine in all California." He acted on his judgment by taking some of the mission's wine back with him to France: "I have some of it still," he wrote in 1834. "After seven years, it has the taste of Paxaret, and the color of porto depouillé."[25] This makes it clear that the wine was of the sweet fortified kind, on the model of angelica. Paxeret or Pajarete is an intensely sweet Spanish wine of the Pedro Ximénes grape grown in the town of Paxarete. Porto depouillé means literally a well-fined port, perhaps suggesting one that through age has begun to lose color. It is not clear to me whether Duhaut-Cilly's description indicates a red wine grown pale with age, or a white one grown brown—the latter, I suspect, for that would agree with the report described below of the mission wine drunk by a curious gourmet in the twentieth century.

After San Gabriel, the next largest of the mission vineyards was at San Fernando, also in the region of Los Angeles. San Fernando had only about a fifth of the winemaking capacity of San Gabriel, yet it was considerably larger than those next in line, the missions at Ventura and San Jose.[26] Many of the figures on the missions are more than ordinarily untrustworthy, being taken from inventories made after the secularization of the missions, when the vineyards, along with the other temporal interests of the Franciscans, had long been neglected or even abandoned. It is enough to say that at one time or another almost all of the missions made wine both for the table and for religious purposes, and that at a few the production of wine and brandy was a business of modest significance.

At San Gabriel, about which more seems to be known than any other of the missions, there were four sorts of wine produced, described in a letter from Father Duran to Governor José Figueroa in 1833. Two were red—one dry, "very good for the table," the other sweet. Two were white, one unfortified and the other strengthened with a quantity of grape brandy.[27] In all probability, though the description is not as clear as one would like, the fortified white wine of San Gabriel is the original of the wine called angelica, once the most famous produce of the Los


Angeles county vineyards. Angelica, as it used to be made (and apparently is no longer), was not so much a wine as a fortified grape juice, such as the French call mistelle and the Spanish mistela: this is a drink that properly belongs to the class of cordials rather than of wine (compare the Scuppernong wines of North Carolina). To a must that has not yet begun to ferment, or has only partially fermented, brandy is added in such quantity as to arrest the action of the yeast. This was an effective way to handle the Mission grape, which under the hot skies of southern California gave a fruit almost raisined, rich in sugar but low in acid, so that its dry wines were flat and unpalatable. With the sweetness retained, and the preserving alcohol supplied by the addition of brandy, the juice, christened angelica after the City of the Angels, became a popular wine—some will say deservedly, others not.

The methods used in the missions were of the simplest, though such descriptions as exist do not always agree and are not always very clear. As in New Mexico, the ready availability of cowhides and the relative scarcity of wood determined the choice of materials. The standard method of crushing seems to have been by pouring grapes onto a cowhide, perhaps suspended over a receptacle, and then setting an Indian to treading the grapes with his feet. The juice expressed by this means was caught in leathern bags, in barrels, or in brickwork cisterns (some of these remain at San Gabriel), where it fermented; red wine, of course, fermented on the skins and stems of the crushed grapes; for white wine, the juice was drawn off to ferment separately. The skins might then go into a primitive still for brandy.[28] Most of the Franciscan fathers were natives of Spain and may be supposed to have had at least a general notion of how wine was made. We know that at one mission there was a copy of a winemaking guide, the second part of Alonso de Herrara's Agricultura general , in an edition published at Madrid in 1777.[29] The work was originally published in 1513, a fact that sufficiently indicates the conservative instincts of the Spanish, whether in the Old World or the New.

Whether the missions had wine in sufficient quantity to make it an item of commerce, how extensive that commerce was, with whom it was carried on, and how long it lasted, are all questions without distinct answers.[30] Until the overthrow of Spanish rule, all foreign commerce was forbidden, so at best the trade in mission wine was restricted to the brief span from the beginning of Mexican rule in 1821 to the secularization of the mission properties in 1833. The reports of travellers from the 1820s and afterwards make it sufficiently clear that mission wine then was at least available for the priestly table as well as for the altar—"plenty of good wine during supper" is the remark of one of Jedediah Smith's party at San Gabriel in 1826;[31] and we have seen how in the next year Duhaut-Cilly was able to take wine from San Luis Rey to France, and how, in 1829, Robinson could speculate on the large income brought to Mission San Gabriel by its wines. There is nothing coherent or distinct in all this, however. Father Payeras, president of the missions, made a contract in 1823 with an English firm trading to Lima to supply mission produce for a term of three years.[32] Among the goods listed as items of trade, wine and brandy are named; but no price is attached to them, and it is not likely that



Wall painting in the  sala  of the fathers' dwelling, c. 1825, Mission San Fernando, California, 
showing the Indian "neophytes" harvesting grapes—a unique combination of native American 
art and the Mediterranean tradition of winegrowing. The painting was destroyed in the earthquake 
of 1971. (Courtesy Dr. Norman Neuerberg)

much can have been shipped to Peru. At best one may cautiously suppose that during the 1820s a few of the missions could afford to manage an intermittent trade in wine, largely with and through the ships that coasted the shores of California.

Whatever trade the missions may have had in their hands came to an end beginning with the decrees of secularization passed by the Mexican government in 1833. By this act the Franciscans were stripped of their temporalities and restricted to the spiritual care of the missions, presidios , and pueblos of Alta California. The decree did not take effect at once or uniformly: the work of expropriation proceeded unevenly; some missions held out longer than others; and California was in any case far distant from the central authority in Mexico. Thus we find that years after the decree some missions were still cultivating their vineyards.[33] But the back of the enterprise had been broken. At San Gabriel, to take that place again as an


image of the whole, the father superintendent ordered the large vineyards of the mission to be destroyed in the face of the decree of secularization. His order, so the tradition goes, was refused by the Indians, who, one supposes, were not about to destroy the source from which their aguardiente flowed.[34] Nevertheless, the good days were over. By 1844, so a modern historian of the Franciscans in California writes, "the mission had nothing left but some badly deteriorated vineyards cared for by about thirty neophytes" (Indians attached to the missions).[35] And at San Diego, a couple of years earlier, a French traveller had sadly observed vineyards stretching around the ruined mission that were "capable of furnishing the best wine in California" but that now lay uncared for and idle.[36]

Mission wine, which thus became practically extinct in the second quarter of the century, nevertheless had a curious survival in an unlooked-for part of the world. In the 1920s, in Paris, an English wine lover encountered an expatriate Pole who told him that, 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 in 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 diner: "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 or so ago. The wine was light brown in colour, rather syrupy, resembling a good sweet Malaga in taste, and in good condition."[37] The age is a bit exaggerated—in all likelihood the wine was from the 1820s and therefore just a hundred years old—but the recrudescence of such a wine in so unexpected a place is sufficiently surprising and pleasing. The description is pretty much what one would expect if the wine were an angelica type such as described earlier. And it is curious to note that this latter-day description agrees with one of the earliest accounts of mission wine: the German traveller Langsdorff, calling at Mission San Jose in 1806, noted that the wine of the place is "sweet, and resembles Malaga."[38] It is not likely now that anyone will ever have a chance again to taste the Franciscan wine of Old California.

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9 The Southwest and California
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