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Making Wine From California's Oldest Vines

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Sanden Totten/KPCC
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Grapes growing from the vine at Avila Adobe in Los Angeles.

When you think of California wine, you probably think Napa, Sonoma or maybe Paso Robles, but the state’s first major wine hub was in Los Angeles back in the 1800s.

A lot has changed since then, but one vine from that era is still producing grapes, and local winemakers are eager to work with that fruit.

Not surprisingly, the vine is on Olvera Street — the backbone of L.A.’s oldest neighborhood. And it’s right out in the open, but most shoppers and tourists are too busy checking out the swirl of stalls selling brightly colored blankets, guitars, masks and T-shirts to notice.

“That’s actually not an uncommon experience,” said Michael Holland. “They’re not necessarily looking up.”

The vine is part of a massive arbor shading a section of the famed walkway.

By day, Holland is L.A.’s official archivist, cataloguing the city’s historic records, old photos, even sheet music praising the wonders of Los Angeles.

By night, he’s an amateur winemaker. So when he saw grapes growing on this historic site, he knew he had to harvest them.

“Just from the heritage perspective … this is a highly unique opportunity, and I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it,” Holland said.

The Olvera Street vine stretches from the market to the Avila Adobe, the city’s oldest standing residence. Holland said the vine was probably planted around the same time that house was built, in 1818.

He enlisted fellow DIY winemakers to help prune and tend to the overgrown plant. He also got advice from Wes Hagen, the consulting winemaker for J. Wilkes Wines in Santa Maria.

“The vine wants to grow up, absorb sunlight, produce sugar and attract birds,” Hagen said. “We want to get to the fruit before the birds, and get the sugar that would have attracted them and turn it into delicious, delicious alcohol.”

To help the vine produce those grapes, Hagen and Holland have been climbing onto a roof above the back patio of the Avila Adobe, where they cut off dead branches and help healthy ones take hold.

Hagen said the heart of the vine hasn’t been getting enough sun to produce the compounds that make for sweeter grapes. Instead, they can have too much of something called pyrazine.

“Fruit that’s grown in shade tastes like green bell peppers … it’s the exact same compound,” he noted.

Last year, Michael Holland harvested as many of these grapes as he could to make some wine. He also took some leave clippings and sent them to UC Davis to have their DNA analyzed.

It turns out this scraggly old vine is a direct genetic match to one known as “Vina Madre.” It’s a plant first grown at the San Gabriel Mission, founded in 1771.

Jerry Dangl, manager of the plant identification lab at UC Davis, says it’s a very important and interesting vine.

“Scientifically, it’s a first-generation hybrid between Vitis vinefera, the European wine grape, and Vitis girdiana, the wild desert grape in Southern California,” he explained.

That means this plant is a cross between the grapes brought over by early European settlers and hearty local plants. Dangl says that unique blend likely helped it survive all the pests and disease that eventually wiped out most of L.A.’s wine industry in the late 1800s.

The Olvera Street plant was probably a clipping from that Vina Madre vine at the mission, which means it could be older than the state of California itself.

However, Vina Madre is not a vine associated with winemaking. In fact, the Olvera Street plant was most likely put there for shade — a function it still provides today.

Dangl knows of one other location where this grape grows, and it is also used in an arborlike setting, not a vineyard. If there were evidence it was used for making alcohol, that could be an important moment in the history of California wines.

“I would be very interested in finding Vina Madre in what looks like a production situation,” Dangl said.

That hasn’t stopped city archivist Holland from trying to make wine with these grapes.

He used a recipe borrowed from a friend at Gypsy Canyon Winery. It was reputedly written in 1891, making it somewhat contemporary with the vine itself. The result is a fortified dessert wine called an angelica.

“This is what the padres would have made,” Holland said. “This is what they would have served at Mass.”

Holland opened a bottle and served some to Rachel Macalisang, lead sommelier at a Beverly Hills foodie haven, The Bazaar by José Andrés.

“It’s a very pretty color. It’s lighter than I thought it would be,” Macalisang said.

She is one of the first people to try the new wine. Macalisang said older vines often produce more complex flavors than younger plants and that can enhance a wine.

Is that the case with Holland’s angelica? Macalisang takes a sip — and smiles. She says it’s full of fruity flavors like candied apple, cherry, fig and raspberry jam, but it’s not cloyingly sweet like some dessert wines.

“It finishes a little drier than I thought it would,” she adds between sips.

Macalisang thinks if people back in the 1800s did use these grapes for wine, it could have been a decent one.

We may never know if that happened, but at least now, these grapes are something worth toasting to.

Copyright 2016 KPCC