On a recent Saturday morning in the courtyard of the San Gabriel Mission, winemaker Jasper Dickson stood beneath a cluster of dark red grapes and gnarled vines.
Positioning his ladder against one of the church’s exterior walls, he glanced over at Terri Huerta, director of development and communications for the mission, and gestured to the 200-year-old adobe brick.
“OK if I lean this here?” he asked tentatively.
“Oh, that’s fine,” Huerta said with a smirk. “Those walls have been through worse.”
That might be putting it mildly. After surviving two powerful earthquakes in the 1980s, in July the historic mission-church was badly damaged by a massive fire that destroyed the roof and complicated a large-scale restoration that was underway in advance of the 250th anniversary of the mission’s founding next year.
Yet for anyone looking for a bit of news that isn’t connected to destruction, it might be found in the mission’s bucolic courtyard, home to a leafy green canopy of ancient grape vines that resembles kudzu run amok.
It’s here that Dickson, who runs Angeleno Wine Co. with partner Amy Luftig Viste, and a small group of local winemakers are at work on an unusual project: Harvest grapes from the mission’s historic vineyard and turn them into wine.
Along with Mark Blatty of Byron Blatty Wines and Patrick Kelley of Cavaletti Vineyards, Dickson and Luftig Viste are members of the Los Angeles Vintners Association, an organization founded last year that seeks to “revive the city’s viticultural and winemaking past.”
Earlier this year, Huerta reached out to members of the group to see if they would be interested in helping propagate the historic vines at San Gabriel Mission, the oldest of which — known as the Mother Vine or Trinity Vine — is said to date to the 1770s.
“These vines are living pieces of history, and for us it was an amazing opportunity just to be able to work with them,” Blatty said.
Once the group arrived to take cuttings, they noticed that the sprawling network of vines, which covers a large pergola covering most of the courtyard, was brimming with fruit — about 1,000 pounds of it, Blatty estimates.
“We sort of looked up and asked, ‘Hey, do you mind if we pick all this?’” Blatty said. “Nothing was being done with the grapes and we figured we might as well try and make something with them. It’s amazing to see vines that are this old but still produce a lot of fruit.”
A direct descendant of plantings made by Father Junipero Serra, the vines at San Gabriel Mission are something of an anomaly, viticulturally speaking.
A DNA test performed by UC Davis researchers in 2014 found that they were a cross between Vitis girdiana, a wild grape native to Southern California, and Vitis vinifera, otherwise known as the Mission grape, a prolific varietal that was carried from Spain and planted across the Americas.
For the Franciscan friars, the planting of vineyards at California missions was originally born out of a need for sacramental wine, a must-have for performing the rite of communion. It was at San Gabriel, however, that the Mission vines truly flourished; eventually the mission evolved into what might be considered California’s oldest winery….
The above comes from an Oct. 9 story in the Los Angeles Times.