Fray Junípero Serra

The Origins of California Viticulture

California viticultural history is unique in its origins, distinct from all other areas of the United States. California viticulture originated with the Spanish Crown seeking new lands to conquer and sending explorers to map and explore the Pacific Coast on land and sea.

In 1518 Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés sailed with his army from Cuba to conquer Mexico. He discovered Lower California (Baja) on the Pacific Coast and sent explorers north along the coast to claim Alta California for Spain and Charles I. He also decreed that each settler in Mexico and Baja had to plant 1,000 vines per 100 inhabitants on the land; this marked the beginning of California viticulture.

The grape vines, Vitis vinifera, were brought from Spain by ship and became known in the New World as Mission Grapes. The grape has been identified, five centuries later, as Listán Prieto, a red grape believed to have originated in the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain. The grapevines and/or cuttings arrived in Mexico around 1540. Cuttings from these original vines gradually spread from Mexico to the area we know today as New Mexico in 1620 and ultimately to Alta California in the late 1700s under the care of the Franciscan padres.

The second unique characteristic of California viticulture is geography, especially California’s isolation from the rest of the United States. The entire west side of the state has 840 miles of coastline; most of the mountain ranges run north and south with elevations rising over 14,500 feet on the eastern border. The Central Coast of California is known for its Mediterranean climate.

The third defining characteristic of California viticulture is the Catholic cultural and religious heritage that dates back to the mid-eighteenth century. The first chapter of California wine history is defined by 21 missions located south to north from San Diego to Sonoma along the Camino Real. Each Spanish mission was a religious and cultural center built to spread both Catholicism and Spanish culture to the local inhabitants. Spain wanted those who lived in Alta California to become citizens of the “New Spain.” But the mission was also an important economic structure. Each mission was designed to be self-supporting within five years of its founding. 

King Charles III of Spain and the Rediscovery of Alta California

King Charles III reigned from 1759 to 1788. The King was interested in expanding the Spanish empire. He launched new voyages and land expeditions to survey the Pacific Coast. The efforts and records of the early explorers had been lost and forgotten over the previous 160 years. The King wanted Spain to physically occupy Alta California to introduce Catholicism and Spanish culture to all who resided there. He engaged the Catholic Church, a powerful religious and political force, to assist him. The religious order of the Franciscans had experience in building missions in Lower California (Baja) to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. The Franciscans were also experienced in agriculture and viticulture. José de Gálvez is credited with developing the idea of building missions to control Alta California. Gálvez selected Fray Junípero Serra as his chief missionary. Fray Serra was named President of the Missions. 

King Charles III sent military troops and Franciscan padres to Alta California to colonize the territory, introduce Spanish culture and convert its inhabitants to Catholicism by establishing settlements, now known as missions. 

Two expeditions were organized – one by sea and one by land. The first destination for both was San Diego. The land expedition was led by Gaspar de Portolá and included Fray Serra and Father Juan Crespi who kept detailed diaries of the expedition. Over 200 head of cattle, food and supplies, and cuttings from vines and plants accompanied the land expedition.

The First Land Use Planning in Alta California

The strategy developed by the Spanish to colonize Alta California can best be described as “land use planning.” Planning is the process that involves analysis of future community needs and the development of a comprehensive vision of residential, commercial, industrial, religious and cultural uses of the future community. The missions were not singular church buildings as we often refer to them in the 21st Century; the missions were large land areas with many buildings that provided housing for those who lived in the community. They were agricultural centers where animals were raised and food was grown, stored and cooked to feed the residents of the community. Barn-like structures, stables and storage facilities for grain were built from adobe bricks and stone. The missions were industrial centers where wine, furniture, clothing, household goods, building materials, and leather goods were produced for trade by craftsmen. The missions were also cultural centers where Spanish music, art, and dancing were enjoyed. Festivals and celebrations were shared by the residents. There were hospitals providing public health services. The missions also provided hospitality services for travelers. And each mission had a church to provide religious education, services, baptisms, funerals and burials. There were administrative offices and lodging for the padres and the small number of soldiers who were attached to each mission for protection.

But that was just the beginning of “Land Use Planning.” The next challenge was transportation planning. Trails and roads were developed so that travelers, soldiers and padres could travel over 500 miles from San Diego to Monterey to Sonoma visiting each mission for hospitality services along the way. Trails were planned and developed to reach sheltered harbors and beaches on the Pacific Coast where provisions sent from Spain could be delivered to the missions and agricultural produce, cowhides, leather goods and wine could be shipped to trading markets. 

Agricultural skills were required to analyze soil, climate and weather to determine what plants and animals could be raised in each location. This required extensive mapping and research by the padres.

Water, which remains a challenge in California today, was an even greater challenge in the 1700s and 1800s. There were a series of extreme droughts and extreme rain. The missions had to have water sources such as rivers, creeks and springs. The control and transport of water through ditches, aqueducts and dams were also planned by the padres.

Each mission became an experimental agricultural farm for determining the plants and trees that would grow in each microclimate. The successes and botanical observations created the agricultural heritage that we have inherited in California. We are the most important source of agriculture in the United States. Over 400 crops are grown across California including the fruits, nuts, vegetables which produces between $43 and $50 billion dollars in cash receipts.

Fray Junípero Serra Father of Land Use Planning, California Wine and Viticulture (1713-1784)

My research shows that Fray Serra’s role in establishing the California Missions was quite different from what has been portrayed in the press in the last few years. I would like to clarify his role as President of the Missions from my research. He was charged with selecting  the sites of each mission, making certain there were sources of water, lands for planting grains and cereals, vineyards, orchards and grazing lands for horses, cattle and sheep. He selected the padres he felt could administer and develop the plans for each mission site which included planning for multiple buildings at each site. He consulted with them and lobbied on their behalf to obtain the supplies needed for each mission project.

He traveled thousands of miles between San Diego to Carmel during the 13 years he spent selecting sites for the missions.  Most of the  missions were within 35 miles of  the Pacific Ocean so they could receive supplies and send shipments to other missions, presidios and pueblos by boat. 

Fray Serra selected the sites of the first nine missions starting in 1769 in San Diego. The development of the mission site was not his responsibility. Each site took many years to be fully developed. I use Mission San Diego as an example. It was not until 1794 that Mission San Diego planted a vineyard surrounded by an adobe wall. Olive oil was first pressed at Mission San Diego in 1803 from mission olives grown near the site. The dam and irrigation system was established between 1800 and 1817. 

The timeline of the nine missions Fray Serra founded is: Mission San Diego in 1769, Mission Carmel in Monterey which became his headquarters in 1770, Mission San Antonio and Mission San Gabriel in 1771, Mission San Luis Obispo in 1772, Missions Delores in San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano in 1776, Mission Santa Clara in 1777 and Mission San Buenaventura in 1782. 

The mission system was an extraordinary experiment in land use planning. It was successful in bringing Spanish culture, architecture, building techniques, art, music, religion, water management and agricultural practices to California, particularly on the Central Coast. This history was documented as it occurred and can be studied in the archives of Mission Santa Barbara and other missions. Each California mission has been restored and many have museums showing the artifacts used in farming and winemaking.

Fray Serra died in 1784 in Carmel. Each of these nine missions he founded, including Mission San Luis Obispo, was established at a specific location taken in the name of the king of Spain and marked by a religious ceremony. The missions supported the declaration of the province of New Spain in Alta California, an expansion of the empire of Spain. Each site was commemorated with a symbolic structure. The economic policy established by the Spaniards was that each mission would become self-supporting at the end of five years. 

There is no historical record of genocide that I am aware of in California relating to the missions, certainly not in San Luis Obispo County. The Indian tribes of California were key to the agricultural development at the missions and the ranchos throughout California. The Wine History Project honors their legacy and spiritual connection to the land.

It is also important to note that the people who traveled with the padres to staff the missions, including soldiers, settlers, craftsmen, and farmers, were of multiple ethnicities including Spanish, Mexican, European, African and mixed ethnicities. They planted the crops and raised the livestock that continue to support the economy of San Luis Obispo County. Many of those travelers settled in California instead of returning to Europe when Spain lost their colony, New Spain, to Mexico. Their descendants and rich cultural diversity live among us. The missions, presidios and pueblos are the oldest buildings in California. Historians, botanists and college students continue to study the past to try to understand the rich diversity of California history.

The Franciscans Introduce Agriculture

The Franciscans introduced agriculture to California which dramatically changed the ecosystem from one influenced by the randomness of nature to one of planting crops in specific areas with an organized design, irrigation and farming technologies. One of the most important reasons that the padres were successful was due to the Mediterranean climate in Alta California which was very similar to the Mediterranean climate in Spain. There are only five major Mediterranean climates in the world – California Central Coast, and in coastal areas of Chile, Australia, South Africa and around the Mediterranean Sea. The padres were familiar with arid lands with uncertain water sources and variable rainfall. They were able to determine which plants would thrive in the Alta California environment based on their experience. The padres recognized that the fog and breezes of the Pacific Ocean were important influences on the climate. Most of the missions are located close to the Pacific Ocean, its fog and cool breezes.

Agriculture was structured with a business model that required planning and specific skills. The Franciscans carefully planted vineyards, orchards, gardens and introduced cattle and sheep herding on mission lands. Food was produced for the local populations but the surplus was used for trade and barter with merchants and sea captains to build wealth and economic security. Agricultural techniques were taught to local farmers and a wide variety of plants and trees were imported from Europe. Each mission experimented to see what crops would succeed in their respective soils and climates. Detailed records were kept by the padres; many can be found in the archives of Mission Santa Barbara, Spain and in Mexico.

Vineyards and olive groves were usually planted close to the Missions, often surrounded by walls of adobe and stone or fences of cacti planted close together. Grains and cereals were planted in fields at a distance from the missions. Most of the missions established ranchos as outposts where horses, cattle and sheep were raised. The local inhabitants, most often Native Americans, were taught the skills for each endeavor.

The Mission Grape is Introduced

It is a varietal of Vitis vinifera from Spain that was introduced to the western coasts of North and South America by Catholic Missionaries for use in making sacramental, table, and fortified wines. It was the only grape grown in California until the 1830s when European settlers in Los Angeles added some classic European varietals to their vineyards.

The Mission grape did not grow well in the cooler climates near Mission San Jose or the San Francisco Bay area but prospered at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California where the production of wine grew to 50,000 gallons a year in a winery that was 14 by 20 feet in size. The Mission grape also prospered at Mission San Juan Capistrano where it was first planted and in the vineyards of Mission San Luis Obispo which became the second largest producer of wine in Alta California.

Wine Making in the Early Mission Era

What wines were the Padres making? Official records indicate there were four wines from the one Mission grape varietal. The first was a sweet white wine made by fermenting the wine without the skins. Two red wines were made both as dry or sweet by fermenting the juice and skins together. A sweet wine was made by adding brandy to fortify it.

Winemaking in the early Mission Era – what was the process with no equipment available? The Indians would have harvested the grapes into woven baskets. There were probably no knives available so bunches would have been pulled off the vines. Mission grapes bunches have brittle stems so the process should have been relatively easy to do.

At some missions, the wineries were built with a sloping floor. The grapes were placed on the floor and Indians would dance on them to crush the fruit. The juice drained into a small well in the floor and was scooped into cowhide bags. In the early years, there were no barrels, so new bags were made each year from cowhides coated with pitch and sewn up with the hair side in. You all have probably had the pleasure of sipping from a Spanish bota bag at some time in your lives. These bags were flexible during the fermentation process and could be delivered directly to the consumer. Eventually wooden barrels were accumulated and used to store wine. The wooden barrels contained the supplies shipped from Spain to Alta California.

The first California wine critic was a French visitor to Los Angeles who noted that the Mission grapes were good, but frontier winemaking techniques were not.

The Legacy of the Mission Grape

The most important contribution of the Mission grape was to prove that grapes could be grown in the coastal regions of California. Mission grape vines continued to flourish well into the 1880s. The Mission wines produced by the first commercial winemaker, Pierre Hypolite Dallidet, in San Luis Obispo County were highly acclaimed for their quality and were sold throughout California. The Mission grape is still thriving in San Luis Obispo County. Some old vines grow wild and are standing over six feet tall. Others are growing wild, trailing out along the ground or on fences. New Mission vines are being planted in local vineyards as part of a field blend. 

The Heritage Mission Grape Vineyards on the Central Coast

The Wine History Project has planted an educational Heritage Mission Grape Vineyard at the Historic Dana Adobe (1840) in Nipomo to educate the public about early viticulture and winemaking techniques of the Mission period. The mission grapes planted have been propagated from cuttings from the “mother vine” at Mission San Gabriel. Winemaking will begin following the 2025 harvest at the Dana Adobe.  

The Wine History Project collaborated with UC Davis and Cal Poly University (San Luis Obispo) to propagate the mission grapevines for the Dana Adobe Vineyard. Twelve of the vines were gifted to the Viticulture Department at Cal Poly to be planted in the Fountain Vineyard, a student vineyard located on the San Luis Obispo campus. The Wine History Project has donated funds to build a trellis for the vines to create a place of learning and reflection for students working in the vineyard.

Preservation of Mission Era Horticulture

Santa Barbara City College provides a curriculum in career horticulture providing skills, techniques and art forms in horticulture design, construction, ground contracting, nursery/greenhouse technologies and regenerative and restoration horticulture.  In 1999 an important collaboration was established between the Environmental Horticulture Department and the Santa Barbara Museum. The purpose was to explore the possibility of identifying, locating and propagating heritage plants that still exist from the time of the padres. Each mission in Spanish Alta-California had gardens, crops and animals that provided food, utilitarian, spiritual and aesthetic needs. The collaboration was very successful: plants were found and modern technology will confirm the heritage plants. This new area of study, Horticulture Ressurection, continues with volunteers, college and high school students taking part. The plants include olives, figs, pomegranates, pome fruits, stone fruits, and grapevines. They are on display for the public to study and and enjoy.

The La Huerta Historic Gardens have been established at the Santa Barbara Mission. Most of the plants date back to the Mission Era of California (1769-1834). The word Huerta is Spanish for “the orchard.” La Huerta is a collection of heritage, heirloom and historic plant materials cared for by volunteers and financially supported  by a grant from the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity. There are four areas to visit. The first garden is the Chumash Exhibit Garden which is focused on native regional plants used by the indigenous Chumash people. This focuses on the importance of the Chumash’s role in introducing agriculture to the missions by planting the seeds and tending the gardens. The second garden is the Mission Era plants grown for food including citrus crops, seasonal fruits, vegetables and sugar cane. There is an exhibit about seed saving which includes seeds of Peruvian popcorn, gourds, lima beans, wheat and puffs of cotton balls with the black seeds embedded inside. The fourth site in the garden is focused on composting. There are tours for school children and adults available. You can find more information at www.santabarbaramission.org

Missions founded in San Luis Obispo County

The Mission in San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded on September 1 in 1772. Fray Serra hung a bell in a tree to designate the location and said Mass for the soldiers and local inhabitants who attended the ceremony. He named the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa for St. Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, France. St. Louis became a Bishop at age 23; he was brought up and revered by Franciscans.  Fray Serra also was aware of the large bear population in the Los Osos Valley which would provide food for the padres and workers at the Mission San Luis Obispo and Mission San Antonio de Padua for several years before cattle ranching and crops were established. The building of the mission infrastructure was a lengthy process, often stretching over 30 years, but after many fires and other obstacles, Mission San Luis Obispo finally completed in 1804. The mission population reached its peak at 832 members. 

There were two ranchos associated with Mission San Luis Obispo. The first was Santa Margarita de Cortona which became the principal source of growing wheat and storing the crop for the Mission. At  Santa Margarita de Cortona the padres had an impressive building constructed  from local stone with long corridors and arched doorways. There were multiple rooms for workers and for the storage of grain. There was a small chapel and a place for travelers to spend the night. The remains of this building are protected by a wood structure on the Santa Margarita Ranch. The second rancho was San Miguelito where corn and beans were grown and harvested.  The ruins were located a few miles inland from the town of Avila and documented in 1934 by Edith Webb. They no longer exist.

The Mission San Luis Obispo was under the authority of the Mexican government from 1835 to 1845 after Spain was defeated. In 1845 the Mission was sold and the title transferred to three buyers, including Captain John Wilson, who paid a total of $510.00. In 1859 the United States returned the Mission to the Catholic Bishop in Monterey. It has remained a Catholic parish serving the area to the present day. The restoration of the building began in 1933 under Father John Hartnett; Harry Downie was in charge of the restoration.

In 1797 Mission San Miguel Archangel was founded 40 miles north of San Luis Obispo. It was the 16th of the 21 missions. Both missions had extensive lands and specialized in animal breeding. Vineyards were planted with Mission grape vines also and tended by the Padres. In 1836, after Mexico declared their independence from Spain and took possession of Alta California, Ignacio Coronel was appointed by the civil government to take jurisdiction of the mission properties. The Indians left the Mission San Miguel and the mission raided and became impoverished. Padre Abella stayed at the mission until his death in 1841. The mission properties were then sold to Petronillo Rios and William Reed in 1846. The Reed family was brutally murdered there in 1848. For the next ten years the buildings were rented to a variety of owners who operated a saloon, a dance hall, storage facilities, and occupied the  barns and living quarters. In 1859 the mission was returned to the Catholic Church. In 1929 it returned to the control of the Franciscan fathers.

The Timeline

1700s

1769:

King Charles III of Spain reigning from 1759 to 1788 launches new voyages and land expeditions to survey the Pacific Coast. He wants Spain to physically occupy Alta California and engages the Catholic Church, a powerful religious and political force to assist him. The sea expedition is organized by José de Gálvez. The land expedition is led by Gaspar de Portolá with Father Junipero Serra, who had been appointed as President of the missions. The land expedition travels with over 200 heads of cattle and with grape cuttings to be planted in mission vineyards.

1769:

 Fathers Junípero Serra, Juan Vizcaino, and Fernando Parrón establish Alta California’s first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá.

1769:

Don Gaspar de Portola and expeditions explored the Central Coast, camping in the sand dunes and discovering the existence of grizzly bears.

1770:

Mission San Carlos Borromeo-Carmelo is founded in present-day Carmel-by-the-Sea. California.

1771:

 Mission San Antonio de Padua is founded near present-day Jolon, California.

1771:

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel is established by Padres Pedro Benito Cambon and Angel Fernández de la Somera in present-day San Gabriel, California. The mission later becomes California Historical Landmark No. 158 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places: NPS-71000158.

1772:

Father Serra and his expedition reach the Central Coast and establish the location of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa on September 1 in present-day San Luis Obispo.

1773:

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa buildings are erected. It is not known when the first grape vines were planted. The mission later becomes California Historical Landmark No. 325.

1775:

The oldest California winery was established at Mission San Gabriel where the famous Trinity Vine, planted in 1775, flourished for over 150 years. Also known as the Mother Vine of California, cuttings from the vines at San Gabriel were planted throughout California. In 1861 a small segment of the original vine was transplanted to a site adjacent to the Mission and to Home of Ramona (or Ramona’s Inn). Its trellised branches once covered 10,000 square feet and were a popular gathering place. Portions of the original vine, named the Old Grapevine, can be viewed at what is now known as Grapevine Arbour Park.

1782:

Father Serra is present at the founding of the Presidio of Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, California.

1783:

The first layman wine grower of record was Governor Pedro Fages in Monterey. He first planted orchards and then added a vineyard in 1783.

1784:

Father Junípero Serra (1713-1784) dies and is buried at the Carmel Mission in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

1786:

The Rev. Fermín  Francisco de Lasuén replaced Father Serra. He established nine more missions sites from 1786 to 1798.

1790s:

The auxilliary rancho known as Santa Margarita de Cortona was established just north of the Cuesta. The area was 17,735 acres. A stone building was constructed with spaces for a  granary, stable, barn, chapel and lodging. Wheat was grown and stored on the site. Cattle and sheep grazed there. 

1797:

This is the earliest reference to distilling brandy in the Mission Era of Alta California according to historian Thomas Pinney.

1797:

Mission San Miguel Arcángel is established in present-day San Miguel, California. Vineyards are planted in Vineyard Canyon and a winery established before 1804. The mission later becomes California Historical Landmark No. 326 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places: NPS-71000191.

1797:

Mission San Diego vineyards produced enough grapes for wine.

1800s

1810:

Spain’s king is imprisoned by the French. Funding for the missions and the military ceased.

1810 – 1830:

An estimated 21,000 Native Americans working at the 21 Missions produced leather hides, tallow, wool and textiles. The leather products were exported to Boston, South America and Asia which sustained the economy for twenty years.

1820:

The Belfrey and Front of the Church were added to Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The mission bells, shipped from Lima, Peru, were installed.

1821:

Mexico achieved independence from Spain.

1824:

Mexico sent the first governor to Alta California.

1832:

This year was the peak of the development of the twenty-one Missions; the coastal mission system controlled an area equal in size to one-sixth of the land in Alta California.

1833:

The Mexican Secularization Act of 1833 is passed. All 21 Spanish Missions are secularized. This act divided the mission lands into land grants which meant that the Indian congregation lands were transferred to military commanders, their loyal men,  and men of standing in the Mexican society. This ushered in the Rancho Period.

1835-1845:

Mission San Luis Obispo is placed the rule of Mexico.

1845:

Mission San Luis Obispo is sold to three men.

1859:

Mission San Luis Obispo is returned to Bishop Alemany of Monterey by the United States Government. It has remained a Catholic parish churn fro m1859 to the present.