Next time you're in downtown Los Angeles at Olvera Street and the historic El Pueblo complex, look up. A grapevine seems to float across the top of vendors' stalls, its tendrils creeping this way and that, leaves healthy and green. The canopy covers almost 400 square feet, filling available space like kudzu. Follow its labyrinthine path over the roof of the Avila Adobe and back down into the newly restored Avila Adobe courtyard. There are actually three grapevines, two there, and one in front of a storefront down the street, each with massive roots that are more like tree trunks.
These are vines that are possibly older than California itself.
City Archivist Mike Holland, a home winemaker, has had his eye on the vines for a while, curious about their origin and how old they might be. He's an avid history buff and shares his obsession with his friend Wes Hagen, a third generation Angeleno and consulting winemaker for J. Wilkes Wines in Santa Maria Valley.
Last year Holland asked Hagen whom he could contact at UC Davis to get a DNA analysis done on the vines. He referred him to the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis, which keeps a database of all plant material it analyzes. "When I told the lab manager Jerry Dangl that I wanted to get an analysis of three vines on Olvera Street at the old Pueblo site, he offered to do the analysis at no cost," says Holland. They sent him a kit. He cut the leaves as requested and sent the whole thing off to the lab.
The results, when they came back three weeks later, were stunning.
"The three vines are identical to one another and they match what has become known as'Viña Madre.' This is the famous 'old Mission grape of California' growing at the San Gabriel Mission. We know from our analysis of samples from San Gabriel that this variety is a first-generation hybrid between a native Southern California grape (Vitis girdiana) and the European grape (Vitis vinifera) variety 'Mission,'" Dangl wrote in an email. The latter was introduced by the Spanish missionaries in 1769.
Think about it. Since the Avila Adobe dates from 1818, the vines could possibly be 150 years old — or more.
"This is a vine that produced fruit in Los Angeles before wines were commercially made in California," says Hagen. "Before Napa. Before Sonoma. Before Monterey. Even before Santa Barbara. A vine that is older than the state of California itself. We're talking about the genesis of New World wine and a vine that represents a link to Junipero Serra, to the Mission era."
Of course, it still hasn't been established exactly how old the vines actually are — or whether they were planted to make wine or to create a shady pergola. (The Mission grape is a particularly vigorous and leafy vine.) Because the genetic material is the same, we can assume that the vine cuttings originally came from Mission San Gabriel.
Over the last several weekends, with the permission of El Pueblo director Chris Espinosa, Holland has been picking the grapes in the early morning before anyone is around. His plan is to make some wine. By last week he'd harvested just 10 pounds of grapes and should pick up a few more on his last pass this weekend. It's not much — and means that at most, he'll be able to produce less than a case. "The rule of thumb is 18 pounds per gallon and I have barely a thumb's worth," says Holland.
After a gentle pruning earlier in the year and the removal of a tree that had been blocking some light, the vines looked healthier and this year produced more grapes than before. Because the Avila Adobe is a historic site, Holland can't do anything to damage the integrity of the specific area. That means no trellising, and he can't use nails or hammers. He can't even tie down the vine. He can only suggest the vine grow in a certain way by slightly shifting a shoot in one direction or another with his hands — but the vine has its own mind.
"What is there is there and I have to adapt to what the vines are doing. In a normal vineyard system, you have your trellis, your spacing, your canopy management," he explains. "Up there, it's literally a green carpet of leaves and tendrils with clusters here and there."
The only thing Holland did was to trim some leaves to give some clusters more light and air on his day off on Fridays. "It's really like a rooftop vineyard."
This first batch of wine will be a test run. He wanted to keep it small and simple. "I'll probably make it in my garage like I do my other wines," Holland says. But he's very curious to see what it will taste like. So is Hagen, who's standing by if Holland needs any advice. And also pestering him with questions via email about what style of wine he thinks he's going to make.
Dry? Or something semi-sweet like the original communion wines? The Mission grape, which thrives in Southern California's warm weather, was used to make sweet sacramental wine and may not be suited to make a great table (dry) wine. That's yet another reason why wine production eventually moved north.
So far Holland is playing it close to his vest. He'll know by spring what he's got.
But for a twist of fate, says Hagen, who often gives talks on the history of wine, Southern California would have been the locus of commercial winemaking in California. In fact, the Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes had a large-scale commercial winery as early as 1833 very close to the site of what is now Union Station. By the time California became a state in 1850, Los Angeles County had approximately 100 vineyards. And by 1860 was producing 162,980 gallons of wine, well over half of California's entire production of 246,518 gallons.
"Most people don't know that Los Angeles is the birthplace of commercial wine in the New World," says Hagen. "Two things drove grape production north: Anaheim disease (later known as Pierce's disease) which decimated vineyards in the Los Angeles basin in the 1880s, and the Gold Rush. Without those two factors, Los Angeles would have been the predominant wine-producing region throughout the 19th century and into the 20th."
That didn't happen. But we still have a little piece of history right here on Olvera Street to celebrate. And maybe, just maybe, we'll have some wine from a vine that goes back to the very beginning of California wine.
A timeline of wine in Los Angeles
As wine historian Thomas Pinney, author of the massive "A History of Wine in America," has observed, "For most of the 19th century, if you said California wine, you meant Los Angeles wine." Here is a timeline for the divine drink in the City of Angels.
1771 Mission San Gabriel Arcángel is established by Father Junipero Serra, the fourth of the 21 Spanish missions in California.
1778 The first vine cuttings are brought to the Alta California missions from, most likely, Baja California, and planted at mission San Juan Capistrano.
1781 The new pueblo of Nuestra Señora de la Reina de Los Angeles on the bank of the Los Angeles River is founded by settlers from Sonora and Sinaloa who stopped at San Gabriel Mission and most likely brought vine cuttings from the mission with them.
1782 The first Alta California vintage is made at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Mid-1790s Sometime before 1799, José Maria Verdugo plants the first secular vineyard in all of California on his Rancho San Rafael north of the pueblo where downtown Glendale is today.
1818 The Avila Adobe is built by prominent ranchero Francisco José Avila, who was mayor of Los Angeles in 1810. It remains the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles.
1820s Mission San Gabriel's vineyards, of 147,000 to 163,000 vines, are the most extensive of all the missions up and down California.
1833 Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes establishes his winery El Aliso on the site of what is now Union Station. He plants Mission grapevines, but also sends to Bordeaux for cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc in an attempt to supersede the dominant Mission grapes. At about the same time, William Wolfskill establishes a vineyard at Alameda and 3rd Street.
1840s Antonio Pelanconi, an Italian immigrant, starts the first winery on Olvera Street (originally called Calle de los Vignes or Vine Street and renamed in 1877). The Pelanconi house is the original winery building. Several other wineries were located within and near El Pueblo. What is now La Golondrina restaurant and El Paseo across the street were both once wineries.
1848 Los Angeles winemakers begin shipping wines north to thirsty miners in the Gold Rush. But the demand from all the immigrants pouring into Northern California eventually means wine production moves north to the Sierra foothills and Napa and Sonoma.
1850 California becomes the 31st state in the union. Los Angeles County has approximately 100 vineyards and wineries, 85 in the pueblo alone. In the same period, Northern California had a couple in Napa, two in Sonoma and a handful in the Santa Clara Valley around San Jose.
1857 The demand for wines from Los Angeles is so high that vintners look for property elsewhere and establish huge plantings in Anaheim. Within 10 years, there are 47 wineries. By 1883, the total vineyard acreage in the Santa Ana River valley is estimated at 10,000.
1858 Hungarian-born Agoston Haraszthy of Buena Vista winery in Sonoma writes a "Report on Grapes and Wine in California." In it, he decries the dominance of the Mission grape and recommends blending. Haraszthy had imported and was growing 165 varieties of grapes at his Sonoma estate.
1860 Wine production census shows a total of 246,518 gallons of wine produced in California, with Los Angeles producing 162,980 gallons of that, or well over half.
1870 Los Angeles is producing 531,710 gallons of wine a year, making it effectively the center of wine in California.
1882 Anaheim disease (later renamed Pierce's disease), is discovered in Anaheim and within a few years the insect-borne bacterial infection decimates vineyards in the Los Angeles basin. The blighted vineyards are later replanted with citrus groves.
1917 Italian immigrant Santo Cambianica puts an old railroad boxcar on a tiny lot on Lamar Street and paints "San Antonio Winery" on its side. That's the beginning of the downtown Los Angeles winery that's still in operation today.
1920 Prohibition is voted in, dealing California wineries a decisive blow. San Antonio Winery survived because founder Santo Cambianica had contracted with the Catholic Church to produce sacramental wine. During Prohibition, his output actually increased.
1930 Olvera Street opens to the public as a Mexican Marketplace. It now receives over 2 million visitors a year.
To read more about the fascinating (and complicated) history of wine in our town, see the book "Los Angeles Wine: A History From the Mission Era to the Present (The History Press, 2014)" by Stuart Douglass Byles. Much of the timeline information is distilled from information from this book and from email exchanges with its author. Also see the two volume "A History of Wine in America" by Thomas Pinney.