Mission, the first European grape planted in U.S., is coming back

When Adam and Andrew Mariani bought an old abandoned turkey farm near the town of Sonoma, Calif., they knew the property had been a thriving vineyard from the 1850s until Prohibition. In a nod to the Dresel family, German immigrants who had owned the land, the brothers planted sylvaner and riesling, two German grape varieties that are — well, let’s just say not widely planted these days in Northern California. They also planted German clones of pinot noir, known in German as spätburgunder.

Over the past 15 years, their Scribe Winery has gained a following among the natural wine crowd for the pétillant naturel sparkling wines, a chardonnay fermented on its skins and a nouveau of pinot noir, as well as the riesling, sylvaner and other wines.

While doing more research on the history of the estate, the brothers discovered an 1872 news clipping from the Alta California, a daily newspaper published in San Francisco. The article told how Julius Dresel, the grower at the time, had sent some of his wines to Geisenheim, his hometown and Germany’s equivalent of the University of California at Davis for wine studies. There the wines were reviewed by a panel of professional tasters, who raved especially about Dresel’s red wines made with the mission grape. The mission was “pure of taste, ripe and unctuous,” with sweetness and “genuine alcohol” that contrasted with previous weak harvests in Germany. They even compared the still mission to fine wines of Burgundy. Dresel, being no marketing slouch, made sure the newspaper got wind of his accomplishment.

“We knew the history of mission in California, but this was the first we’d heard that it was grown on our estate and had received such acclaim,” Andrew said. “It was the first time we had seen tasting notes and analysis of the wines that were grown here. We thought it would be interesting to see how mission would perform if made with a modern approach.”

I spoke to the brothers by phone as they were driving around a vineyard in their pickup truck. It was difficult to tell who was speaking, especially when they finished each other’s sentences.

Mission gets its name as the grape planted by Spanish missionaries who accompanied the spread of Spain’s empire in the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. After being introduced to Mexico and Chile in the mid-1500s, mission was established along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico in 1629, making it the first European vinifera variety planted in what is now the United States. It reached California in 1769 with the founding of the first mission in San Diego.

The grape’s various aliases speak to its history, and the places where it can still be found form a map of the age of Spanish conquest. We can still buy some made from legacy vineyards in Chile, where it is called país, by Mariposa by Gillmore and Bouchon Family. In Argentina, where it is called criolla chica, the Torres family makes a delicious sparkling wine. Only in the past 15 years or so, modern DNA research identified the variety as listán prieto, a vine native to central Spain that was believed to have been wiped out by the phylloxera blight in the late 1800s.

Mission was the main red grape in Spanish California, but it fell out of favor when the territory became a U.S. state and immigrants from other European countries, pursuing riches in the gold rush, brought other varieties more familiar to them. Phylloxera and Prohibition — which sounded the death knell for the original Dresel vineyard — furthered the grape’s decline in popularity.

Mission can still be found in some of those gnarly, bush trained vineyards planted a century or more ago that are still scattered across California. Up until at least the 1980s, some wineries made a sweet, fortified dessert wine with mission called Angelica. Today, a few maverick winemakers produce small amounts of mission from these legacy vines.

“No one has planted mission in California since Prohibition, that we know of,” Adam said. “Nurseries don’t sell it.”

With no commercial source for the vines available, the brothers turned to UC Davis, which maintains a legacy vineyard of historic wine grape varieties grown in California. They took 10 cuttings from the healthiest mission vines, each with four buds, and propagated them each year. Like layers in puff pastry multiplying after each fold, before long they had thousands of cuttings, enough to plant two acres using modern vineyard trellising and spacing. In 2020, they harvested enough grapes to make some experimental wines. Last year, they settled on two reds, a still and a sparkling, both of which they made available to Scribe Winery’s club members in July.

The still wine reminded me a bit of beaujolais, with its savory character and light body. The sparkling mission is reminiscent of an American lambrusco, ideal for barbecue or charcuterie. They are prime examples of the lighter style of wines increasingly popular with today’s consumers.

“They have an earthy quality to them,” Andrew said. “Nothing else on our estate has this kind of old school rusticity.”

As the vines mature, the brothers should be able to increase production, but there’s only so much they can make with two acres of vines. They don’t have immediate plans to propagate more mission, but they are impressed with the variety’s vigor and hardiness, which could help the vines in drought years.

Those gnarly old vineyards won’t last forever. But for now, at least, these two acres on a revived old farm near Sonoma provide a bridge from California’s vinous past to its future.

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