Mission Grape Vine

Mission Grape Vine

The Historical Significance of the Mission Grape in the Americas

The Mission grape is the earliest vinifera variety to be cultivated in the Americas. The original dark grape variety was important to the Catholic Church for use in making sacramental wine as well as wine for everyday sustenance taken with each meal. Fortified wines were made from the Mission grape variety as well. Vitis vinifera was brought by ship to the Pacific Coast of the New World; it became known as the Mission grape. Five centuries later, it has been identified as the Listán Prieto, a red grape, which is believed to have originated in the Castilla – La Mancha region of Spain. Spanish scholars from the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia in Madrid announced their findings, identifying the origins of the Mission grape by matching the DNA to the little-known variety, Listán Prieto Prieto. This grape, Listán Prieto, is also known as Criolla Chica in Argentina and Pais in Chile. For more than 300 years this grape variety dominated the landscapes of the Americas until French grapes were imported in the 19th century.

The historical significance of the Mission grape dates back to the Age of Discovery which began in the 1400s and continued into the 1700s — a period when the great European seafaring nations sent explorers to map geographic regions all through the world. The Portuguese and Spanish explorers were sent by European monarchs to discover new routes to India and to colonize the New World (North, Central, and South America). Written records were kept by sea captains, military officials, Jesuits, and Franciscans which provide the details of the spread of Mission grapevines from Chile and Argentina to New Mexico and California.

Hernán Cortés was the first Spanish explorer to reach what is now Mexico with his army in 1522. Grape seeds were planted there almost immediately; Mexico is known as the oldest wine producing country in the Americas.

Avila Adobe, 1956. Front porch and marker of Avila Adobe on Olvera Street, Los Angeles, University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special Collections, Los Angeles Times photographic archive.

Avila Adobe, 1956. Front porch and marker of Avila Adobe on Olvera Street, Los Angeles, University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special Collections, Los Angeles Times photographic archive.

Characteristics of the Mission Grapevine

The Mission grapevine is very hardy and drought-resistant. It can live well over 100 years. The vine can grow to become very tall, reaching the size of a large shade tree or it can grow horizontally to a great length. As of 2016, the oldest Mission vine that was still yielding grapes was located at the Avila Adobe, California Historic Landmark #145. This is the oldest structure in Los Angeles County located in the Paseo de Los Angeles Historic District of Olvera Street. The Avila Adobe was built in 1818 by Francisco Avila who planted his vineyard in the courtyard.

The Cornelio Avila Family — Landowners in Los Angeles and Avila Beach

While writing this article, I wondered if the Avila family in San Luis Obispo County was related to Francisco Avila of Los Angeles. As you know a historian never stops asking questions.

In answer to this question, Miguel Avila who was named Corporal of the Guard at our own Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was also the grantee of Rancho San Miguelito in 1842, early in the Rancho period. This Rancho contained the community we know as Avila Beach today. Descendants of the Avila family still live in San Luis Obispo County. Here are the details. The source is Wikipedia. Cornelio Ávila (1745 – 23 November 1800) was born at El Fuerte del Marqués de Montesclaros in New Navarre, New Spain (today’s El Fuerte, Sinaloa, Mexico). He was a Spanish soldier who served in Alta California and then settled in the two-year-old Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles sobre el Río Porciúncula in 1783 with his wife María Ysabel Urquídez (1750–1801). They had 6 children who were born in Mexico: José de Santa Ana Ávila y Urquídez (1770–1806), Francisco José Ávila (1772–1832), Agustina Ávila (born 1775), Anastasio Ávila (born 1776), Antonio Ignacio Ávila (1781–1858), Ildefonsa Ávila (born 1782).

After settling in Los Angeles, three Californio children were born: Bruno Ygnacio Ávila (1788–1861), María Hilaria Ávila (born 1789), and José María Ávila (1790–1831). Cornelio Ávila died while visiting Santa Barbara in 1800, and was buried at the Presidio Cemetery.

The first child of Cornelio Avila, José de Santa Ana Ávila y Urquídez (1770–1806,) married María Josefa Osuna y Alvarado in 1792. Jose served as a soldier at Santa Barbara from 1801 – to 1806. They were the parents of Miguel Ávila (1796–1874) a Californio son born in Los Angeles. In 1816 Miguel enlisted in the Presidio Real de Monterey company, and in 1824 was named corporal of the guard at La Misión de San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Here was the family connection I was searching for. In 1826 Miguel married María Innocenta Pico (born 1810), daughter of José Dolores Pico. Miguel Ávila was the grantee of Rancho San Miguelito (which includes present-day Ávila Beach) in 1842, and served as an Alcalde of San Luis Obispo in 1849.

Old grape vine, Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, 1895. Los Angeles Public Library.
Old grape vine, Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, 1895. Los Angeles Public Library.

The Trinity Vine, “The Mother Vine” is the oldest in California

The oldest vine, known as ”the mother vine” or “the Trinity Vine” planted in the 1770s was still thriving at Mission San Gabriel in 2016. The Mission survived two massive earthquakes in the 1980. Disaster struck again in July of 2020 when a massive fire destroyed the roof, priceless artifacts and much of the work on the large-scale restoration in progress to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Mission’s founding.

There are many volunteers helping the Mission recover from this tragedy. One of my favorite projects is the one organized by members of the Los Angeles Vintners Association. Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig Viste, owners of Angeleno Wine Co. and other young winemakers harvested grapes from this historic vineyard, some of which survived, to make wine from the historic grapes. This organization was founded two years ago to “revive the city’s viticultural and winemaking past.” The Director of Development & Communications at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, Terri Huerta, contacted the Los Angeles Vintners Association to ask for their help in propagating the historic vines at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. This is an important collaboration and we will continue to monitor their progress.

Front Elevation of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, Historic American Buildings Survey Photographed by Frederick Scholer April 14th, 1934.
Front Elevation of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, Historic American Buildings Survey Photographed by Frederick Scholer April 14th, 1934.

The Mission Grape Dominated Viticulture in California for 100 years

The Mission grape dominated viticulture in California until the mid-1860s. As more grape varieties were introduced throughout California by nurserymen and growers, the Mission grape transitioned to becoming a favorite table grape described as pleasant and agreeable. The grape itself can produce both red and white wines which range in character from dry to sweet depending on the terroir and the addition of fortified wines. The color of the juice is very pale so it was often planted with the variety Alicante Bouschet, once a popular French grape widely cultivated since 1866, to provide a rich red color by blending juice from the two grapes.

The first planting of the Mission vines in California was celebrated in San Diego at the site of the first mission site, San Diego de Alcalá, by Junipero Serra in 1769. The second plantings were done at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel 1771. These vines became legendary and were the source of many Mission grapevines planted throughout California from 1770 to the present. Mission San Gabriel also became known as the source of the first vines planted at the Pueblo de Los Ángeles in 1786 on the site where the city of Los Angeles developed to become the largest city in Southern California. Mission San Gabriel was designated as a World Heritage Site on May 6, 1971, which means that it is considered to be a cultural site of outstanding universal value.

Winemaking became a crucial source of income for the California Missions and vineyards were eventually planted at each of the twenty-one missions. The terroir was not favorable in all areas; the vineyards at Mission San Gabriel became the largest and most prolific. In the 1790s, the Mission winery was producing over 35 million gallons (130,000 kl) of wine. By 1820 their mission wines, particularly fortified wines, were being shipped to Europe.

It is interesting to note the observations of Janis Robinson, editor of the Oxford Companion to Wine in the section on missionaries. She states that the missionaries have played a role in establishing viticulture throughout the world and particularly in documenting these achievements. Missionaries have had a profound effect on the history of wine production in much of Latin America, California, New Zealand and to some extent, Japan. I find the diversity of terroir, climate, and geography fascinating.

Mission Vines in San Luis Obispo County

I am often asked: “Are there other Mission vines in San Luis Obispo County?” Yes, there are a few and we are documenting them. You can always visit the large vine at Tolosa winery in San Luis Obispo.

To the best of my knowledge, as of 2017, the largest concentration of Mission grapevines was growing on 1,000 acres in the Gold Rush country located in Northern California. Today that vineyard’s acreage is less than half the original size.

Please check out our website for more information on the Mission vines in San Luis Obispo County and the restoration of the San Gabriel Mission Vineyard.