SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Few may know it, but historians, viniculturists and connoisseurs say that this historic mission town was the center of winemaking in California long before Napa Valley.
Father Junipero Serra, the spiritual leader of the Portola expedition that founded the missions, nurtured European grapes that made the state's first wine in the 1780s.
The finished product was used for Communion and barter. Weary travelers heading north often stopped at the mission for a swallow, and marauding privateers got drunk on it. Then in the 1840s, the padres lost the mission, and their viniculture came to a halt.
Now, after a 145-year hiatus, wine is making a comeback.
In a bid to re-enact history for the 300,000 people who visit the historical landmark every year, Mission San Juan Capistrano has replanted vines identical to the ones imported by Serra more than two centuries ago.
"We don't want the children who come here to forget about the importance that agriculture played 200 years ago," said Nicholas Magalousis, the mission's museum director.
For Magalousis, the new vineyard ended a seven-year search to find the species of grape that Serra cultivated. The mission planted some native California vines in 1984, but Magalousis was not satisfied with that effort.
Undeterred, he wrote to the state's major wine producers, asking whether they had the \o7 criolla \f7 or golden Muscat vine--a Spanish species that later became known as the mission variety. About a year ago, Alexander McGeary, a Dana Point restaurateur and viniculturist, told Magalousis that \o7 criolla \f7 cuttings could be obtained from the University of California Plant Foundation in Davis.
A few weeks ago, workers at the mission cleared a rose garden and planted 14 \o7 criolla \f7 vines next to corn, squash, tomatoes and peppers--other crops that were grown by Indians.
Magalousis insisted that the demonstration vineyard be historically accurate. No metal trellises or chemical fertilizers will be used. The dark mission soil will have to suffice and, in the traditional Spanish fashion, vines will climb on heavy wooden stakes driven into the ground.
After the vines are grown, museum guides will tell visitors how the town's Juaneno Indians harvested the grapes, dumped them on a sloping winery floor and danced on the fruit to crush it, Magalousis said.
Mission officials estimate that it will take at least five years to produce their first vintage, which will be used for Communion.
The mission probably will turn over its crop to McGeary, whose Shadow Mountain Winery in northern San Diego County will turn the grapes into wine. The bottled wine will be returned to the mission, and some might be sold to visitors.
Although constantly called upon to satisfy the palates of visitors, parishioners and trading partners, the mission's cellar in the 1700s and 1800s was seldom dry and often supplied the entire mission system when wine stocks were exhausted.
In a letter from the San Gabriel Mission on Oct. 27, 1783, Serra said: "Many Masses have not been said because of our lack of wine. We have plenty everywhere at present, except at this mission. We met with an accident--when the barrel was being brought here from San Juan Capistrano, it fell off the mule, broke into pieces, and all the wine was lost."
The incident, however, would hardly be considered a tragedy today. From its meager beginnings, the production of California wines has grown into an abundant, $6-billion-a-year industry.
But mission variety grapes are cultivated by just a handful of California growers because they yield what is no longer considered a fine wine, according to W. Mark Kliewer, a professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. Kliewer said the padres probably persisted with the "sweet and bland" mission variety because it yields more fruit than other vines.
"It is not a very popular variety today because the trend in these last few decades has been for varieties of distinctive flavor," Kliewer said. "The French would definitely turn up their noses at it. They would call it \o7 un vin de ordinaire\f7 ."
City historian Pamela Gibson, who has written three books about San Juan Capistrano, said the mission's wine production is well documented, and she praised the mission's effort to use the vineyard as "a history lesson."
"It's a wonderful experiment," she said. "It is as close as you can get. The history of wine is necessary in the understanding of religion and humankind."