Fray Junípero Serra

Father Serra and his padres brought wine and the vines to San Diego California in 1769. The grape he brought is known to us as the Mission Grape. 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.

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. 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.

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.

An important contribution of the Mission grape was to prove that grapes could be grown in the coastal regions of California. The Mission in San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded in 1772, but after many fires and other obstacles, finally completed in 1804. The mission population reached its peak at 832. 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.

By Libbie Agran