Mike Imwalle (left) and Leonard Hoskins (right)
Mission Grape Vine
Mission Grapes and Angelica Wine
The Mission grapevines provided the wine for the Catholic sacraments as well as the table wine for the padres and pioneers who settled in California starting in 1769. All but four of the twenty-one missions had prolific vineyards; the red and white table wines made from the dark-skinned grapes were regarded as pale in color and of poor quality. However the distilled spirits known as Aguardiente made from Mission grapes as well as the wine known as Angelica which was invented in California during the mission era received much praise. Aguardiente, or fiery water, was developed and consumed during the Mission Period (1769–1833) and the Rancho Period (1834–1846). This “hard liquor” was also enjoyed by miners during the California Gold Rush era (1848–1855) when hundreds of thousands of people came to California to seek their fortunes under harsh conditions.
Angelica is a sweet high alcohol wine made from Mission grapes; Aguardiente is added to stop the fermentation. Angelica is known for its longevity and nutty sweet flavor if barrel aged for a minimum of eight years, according to wine historian Charles L. Sullivan. The wine is still produced in California. In a remarkable magazine article, Angelica was praised as “the most magnificent California wine I have ever tasted” by Harvey Steiman, the editor of Wine Spectator Magazine. The tasting he referred to took place in 1979. However, Harvey was referring to a 1875 bottle of Angelica that had been shared with him. Angelica continues to be featured by small producers in California.
The Rancho Period (1834–1846)
By 1820 many ranchos had taken cuttings from the old mission vineyards to propagate mission vines around their pueblos and ranch buildings. The oldest residence in San Luis Obispo County is the Dana Adobe in Nipomo which was originally built on a Mexican land grant which was presented in 1837 to William Goodwin Dana, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, of nearly 38,000 acres called Rancho Nipomo. By the 1840s Captain Dana who had married Maria Josefa Carrillo in 1829, the daughter of the original Governor of Alta California, Carlos Antonio Cerrillo, had established a large cattle ranch, built his home, and eventually produced 21 children. Additionally, he also planted crops and vineyards.
The Dana Adobe is now a historic landmark located on 100 acres of the original rancho site. The adobe building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the surrounding land is a California Historic Landmark, No. 1033 Ranch Nipomo. The adobe has been restored and a new Dana Adobe & Cultural Center is open to inform visitors and locals about the history, culture, ecology and heritage of the rancho era.
The Wine History Project
The Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County collects and archives local wine history; this history is shared with the public through exhibits, films, lectures and projects. In 2019 the Wine History Project approached members of the Board of the Dana Adobe organization to discuss planting a Mission grape vineyard on their property. These were Mission grapevines rooted from the cuttings of a historic grapevine located at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California. Mission San Gabriel is known for having the largest vineyards and wine production of all the missions in California during the Mission Period (1769–1833). We were introduced to Len Hoskins.
Mission Grape Vine grown in Leonard Hoskins’s backyard, now planted at Tolosa.
Len Hoskins and The Tallow Vat Preservation Project
Len Hoskins has been working as a volunteer at the Dana Adobe for almost two decades. He served on the preservation team that preserved a rare artifact in the Dana Adobe historic collections—a large iron rendering pot known as a tallow vat. As Len describes, hides and tallow were a key economic force in the rancho’s economy between 1838 and 1849. The Dana family built tallow works on their property. The vat was used for melting and cooking the animal fat from large herds of cattle. In 2005 the Dana Adobe Board decided to conduct a preliminary archaeological survey of the site where the tallow had been processed.
Len’s leadership and the decision to engage Mike Imwalle, the head archaeologist at the Santa Barbara Presidio, to advise and guide the project was key to its success. The collaboration with a professional archaeologist enabled the volunteers to receive training and develop the skills needed to preserve a rare artifact and its history.
When the preservation of the tallow vat was completed, Len drove to the Santa Barbara Presidio to present a Certificate of Appreciation to Mike Imwalle and to take him to lunch. At the end of the afternoon, Mike presented Len with two gifts – an olive tree that was rooted in the 1700s at a Mission La Purisima orchard near Jalama and a famous Mission grapevine rooted from “the mother vine” at Mission San Gabriel. Over the next few years, Len watched his grapevine grow into a very large plant in his small backyard. This is not surprising because it is common knowledge that a Mission grapevine often grows as high and wide as a large shade tree. In the Mission era, the padres often grew a few vines into tree-like shapes to provide shelter from the sun.
The Gift That Keep On Growing
Len realized he needed to find a new home for the Mission vine. Len consulted his cousin, Bob Steinhauer who is a well-known viticulturist in the Napa Valley. Bob introduced Len to Jim Efird, a viticulturist and partner in the Tolosa winery in San Luis Obispo. A second important collaboration was soon established. Jim agreed to plant the Mission vine in front of Tolosa. Jim also agreed to provide Len with access to this large and healthy vine so he could harvest cuttings for future projects. Although Jim has retired, Tolosa continues to care for the vine, protecting and celebrating an important piece of viticultural history. Len has continued to harvest the cuttings with the goal of “planting 18th Century History” on its own roots. Len grew his new cuttings in his backyard and prepared them to be planted in a Mission vineyard.
The Wine History Project Plans for a Mission Vine Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County
The vision of establishing a Mission grape vineyard in San Luis Obispo County was still front and center for the Wine History Project in 2020. The Dana Adobe was not yet ready to join the project so the Wine History Project searched for another location since it was time to plant the vines that Len had nurtured. Len donated eight Mission vines to the Wine History Project. The Wine History Project in turn, donated cuttings from the vines to California Polytechnic State University College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences Wine and Viticulture Department. With Len’s help, the Wine History Project donated the funds to pay for the process of testing the vines at UC Davis to make certain that they were free of disease. Read more about the project on the Wine and Viticulture Department’s website and in the department’s publication Vines to Wines Fall 2020 issue.
The Mission vine cuttings growth under the care of Len Hoskins.
Viticulture Tragedies bring the “Mother Vine” Home — The Gift That Continues Giving
And now the story becomes poignant and amazing—Mike Imwalle notified Len that the Mission vine planted at the Presidio in Santa Barbara died. Shortly thereafter, there was a devastating fire at Mission San Gabriel. The roof of the Mission was destroyed, precious artifacts damaged and the “mother” grapevine burned. After discussing these viticultural tragedies with Len, the Wine History Project gave Len the Mission vines that he had donated to us. They were sourced from the original “mother vine” at Mission San Gabriel. It was the perfect moment to return them to their ancestral home. Len also gave vines to Mike Imwalle for the Santa Barbara Presidio, thereby preserving the earliest viticultural history at two historic landmarks in California.
Collaboration among professionals, historians, wineries and volunteers preserve our wine history and provide a living history for the public that is unforgettable. The Wine History both thanks and salutes Len Hoskins, Jim Efird, and Tolosa for collaboration and for honoring our wine history in San Luis Obispo County!