California’s modern wine industry began at the missions. The mission padres considered wine to be an essential item. It was used as a drink with meals and as a medicine. It was an important part of the church service, used in the sacrament (ritual) of communion. When the mission wineries were thriving, wine was used as an item of trade.
There were grapes growing in California before the Spanish padres came. The Indians ate these grapes (now called Vitis californica and Vitis girdiana) but they did not make a fermented drink from them. Instead, the Indians used wild cherries to make a fermented drink they called pispibata. Like the Indians, the padres found that the wild grapes did not make a good wine.
The grapes that provided the start of California’s winemaking were brought here by the padres. These grapes are called Vitis vinifera.
Father Junípero Serra has traditionally been credited with bringing the first grape vines to California. The story says that he brought them with him in July 1769 on the first Sacred Expedition from Baja California to San Diego. These first grape vines are described as gnarled, black, lifeless-looking sticks.
Recent historians have questioned whether it was indeed Father Serra who brought the first grape vines, and whether it was in 1769 or later. They base their doubt on the fact that none of the records of the missions nor letters from the padres written before 1778 mention grape vineyards nor winemaking.
In December 1781, from Mission San Carlos, Serra wrote to the padre at Mission San Diego, inquiring about the health of the grape vine cuttings. He hoped they were “living and thriving, for this lack of altar wine is becoming unbearable.” Other letters have led researchers to believe that the first grape vine cuttings were brought to California on the San Antonio, a ship which arrived from Baja California in May 1778.
It is possible that Serra did bring grape vines with him in 1769, and that he planted them as California’s first vineyard. If so, the vineyard may have been washed away by rainstorms the next spring, as were most of the crops and gardens planted at Mission San Diego. This would explain why there was no mention of winemaking for some years. Still, some believe that those first vineyards survived and that winemaking began by 1771 at Mission San Gabriel.
Historians agree that by the early 1780s, wine was being produced at the California missions. A letter from Father Serra written in October 1782 mentions that a barrel of wine on its way to Mission San Carlos from San Juan Capistrano had fallen off the mule and broken open.
When a new mission was founded, the other missions were expected to help it out by sending grapevine cuttings, livestock, and seeds for planting.
Though winemaking was to become one of the most successful and profitable mission industries, it was not an immediate success. In 1800, wineries were operating at Missions Santa Clara, San Buenaventura, Santa Bárbara, San Luis Obispo, and San Gabriel. Father Fermín de Lasuén, then president of the missions, wrote about winemaking in 1801: “In most missions, despite our endeavors, we have no success.”
By 1823, when the last mission was founded in California, the winemaking picture had changed. All but four of the missions had wineries that were flourishing. The leader was Mission San Gabriel, where three wine presses and eight brandy stills produced nine thousand gallons of wine and three thousand gallons of brandy during its best years.
Fences around the vineyards kept animals from straying into the grapes. At the southern missions, these fences were made of cactus such as prickly pear. At the northern missions, stones or adobe bricks were used. Birds were a particular problem. At some missions, platforms were built in the vineyards where Indian boys stood beating drums to scare away the birds.
It was the Indians at the missions that did the work of tending the vineyards and pruning the vines. Men, women, and children helped with the harvesting of the grapes.
The grapes were crushed on a wooden platform or on an area where the ground sloped. The crushing platform was covered with clean, well-cured hides. Indian men crushed the grapes by trampling on them with their feet.
Before crushing the grapes, the men cleaned their feet and tied cloths over their head and hands. The cloths on the hands were for wiping the sweat off their bodies as they worked. They each held a pole to help them keep their balance in the slippery grapes.
As the grapes were crushed, the juice drained off into cowhide bags tied to the sides of the platform. It was then stored in wooden tubs or barrels for two or three months. During this time the grape juice fermented and became wine.
Later, grapes were crushed in large brick vats set into the ground. The juice drained out through openings in the bottom of the vats and was collected in hide bags. Some of these vats can be seen today at Mission San Gabriel.
One of the problems at the mission wineries was having enough containers to hold the wine. Hide bags were gradually replaced by wooden barrels, but there were never enough of either. When wine was shipped to another mission, there was usually a written request to be sure to return the barrel.
Between 1823 and 1833, winemaking at the California missions reached its peak. Several missions became known for their wine. Mission San Diego had 50,000 acres of land planted in grapevines. Mission San Fernando Rey was famous for its wine, as was Mission San José. Though Mission Soledad had only about 20 acres of vineyard, its location in the Salinas Valley became a grape-growing center in the 1960s.
Second to Mission San Gabriel in wine production was Mission San Francisco Solano, the last California mission to be founded (1823). By 1824 the mission vineyards were thriving. The mission was closed just nine years later. When General Mariano Vallejo acquired the land around the mission, he replanted cuttings from the mission vineyard. He also started a winery, which led to the Napa Valley wine industry. The restored mission is the site of the annual blessing of the grapes during the Vintage Festival there each autumn.