Spreading Civilization…One wine at a time.

No one reading Fermentation needs convincing that wine is a pretty cool thing, on many levels. Yet one thing about wine that is not mentioned or remembered enough is the way by which wine, or really the grape) is a marker of civilization’s progress.

MissionThis I was reminded of when I read an interesting little story on one of only a hand full of winemakers who is still making wine from the Mission grape. All but extinct as a wine, Mission was once the workhorse of wines in California and other parts of the western hemisphere. But this is a long time ago.

The Mission grape was brought to California and planted by the Jesuits and Franciscans as they brought God and Spain progressively further north from Baja California. Along the way the grape was planted at and around the missions (hence the name) that run from southern California up to Sonoma. Before it came to Alta California hit had been used in Spanish controlled North America for 250 years.

According to Charles Sullivan in his "Companion to California Wine" we have no identical match in Europe for this variety of grape. Some have suggested it is a very close relative of the "Monica" variety found in Sardinia. But we don’t know more than it was brought to the New World, planted for wine production and eventually made its way to what would one day be the vineyards of California.

Missionmap_1Apparently it never made wine anywhere near the quality level of the noble grapes such as Cabernet, Pinot, Merlot, Syrah etc. But, it was red. It had that going for it. Plus, there were no wine competitions to speak of in the New World in the 18th century and it is unknown if there were any professional wine critics hanging around the missions to weigh in on its quality. So, it flourished with the help of the Franciscan PR Machine of the day: Communion and thirst.

By the mid 19th century, the power of communion and thirst were overtaken by the power of expanding wealth and disposable income, which inevitably leads to the desire for luxuries, and the influx of immigrants from places like Germany, Italy, and France who had known wine far better than what they were tasting from the lowly Mission grape. Mission wine was apparently not luxurious enough. New grapes to make better wine were planted to sate the desire to live life better or to drink as they had in the old country. By Prohibition in 1919 there were only about 5000 acres of the grape. Most of it was made in to sweet, fortified wine.

California is today one of the most prosperous political entities on the planet. Winemaking is among its most important and visible industries across the globe. Winemaking was begun in California with the Mission grape. The Mission grape was brought to California by the Spanish. The Spanish brought winemaking to the New World. Somewhere in the Old World there is the mother and father of he Mission grape, a couple of vines that were surely brought to their resting place by the Romans.

One of the great things about wine is how it is capable of being far more than a beverage to sate your thirst or confirm your faith. It is one of those rare products that can help you see where you came from, where your culture once was, how your society progressed, and how civilization spread its influence across the world. You can’t do that with Coke or Pepsi.

Posted In: Culture and Wine


6 Responses

  1. Jeff (Solvang, CA) - November 9, 2005

    Very cool article! My dad was a park ranger; I literally grew up at a California Mission (Lompoc) and, after school, would very frequently pick and eat the grapes from some extremely gnarled old vines when I was a kid. I recently moved back to the Central Coast to take a job as a cellar boy at a winery, and found out in conversation with a local grape grower that those grapes were, in fact, Mission. I’m now kind of excited to to make some wine at home using Mission grapes…
    Thanks for the article,

  2. Tom Wark - November 9, 2005

    That is pretty cool. I’ve actually never drunk wine made from the Mission grape. However, I plan to make it my…..(sorry)…mission to do so.
    What winery are you at?

  3. Al - November 10, 2005

    It’s much better as a grape than as wine – at least the examples I’ve found.
    For a good example of what Mission can do, try Tularosa Vineyards Mission (from Tularosa, New Mexico).
    There are some who say the Mission was originally the Monica, but was bastardized by the use of seeds to transport the vine instead of cuttings because they were easier to carry with you and wouldn’t wither like a cutting (and the seeds have a mixed parentage and are not identical with the mother vine, where cuttings are identical)…maybe it had some material from the Carribean native varietals introduced this way…
    FWIW: back in the mid 60’s California had ~8,500 acres of Mission growing – but only 656 acres in 2003 (down from 726 acres in 2002).

  4. Jeff (Solvang, CA) - November 10, 2005

    Since reading the article, I’ve asked around about Mission; everyone has given me blank looks when I ask if they know of a wine made from Mission grapes… Those 656 acres must be going somewhere- perhaps just the table? If I manage to find a source for Mission wine, I’ll let you know. I’m working with Dan Gehrs at Lucas & Lewellen, and also putting some time in on Dan’s wines. It’s been a tremendously educational- I recommend it to anyone interested in wine.

  5. Al - November 11, 2005

    From the CASS Acreage reports (v. 2001), it looks like Mission was being grown in the following CA areas:
    District 10 (Amador, Placer, El Dorado, Calaveras Co’s), District 12 (San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced Co’s), Districts 13 & 14 (Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Kern), and District 16 (Riverside, Orange & San Diego Co’s).
    Judging from those locations (and the 2001 statewide avg. price of $160.97/ton) it must’ve been absorbed into a mega-blend somewhere.

  6. Deborah (Sta. Rita Hills) - March 15, 2007

    Hi Jeff,
    Just came across this blog. I have a little vineyard of 100+ year old Mission grape vines, just over the hill from La Purisima Mission. I’m making a historic Ancient Vine Angelica. You’ll have to give me a call and come by to see the vines and have a sip of history.
    Winemaker ~ Gypsy Canyon Winery

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