Ancient Mission Vines

Ξ March 9th, 2008 | → 7 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History |

This necessarily incomplete article began with a simple visit to Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, California’s 13th mission. Located at 36641 Ft. Romie Rd., Soledad (founded 1791), it is not the oldest mission nor the most significant historically, but it has what no other California mission has, twenty ancient Mission grape vines, vines dating from at least the mid-19th century, perhaps earlier. Or at least I believe them to be, along with a property maintenance man! No one seem to know with complete certainty just what they are or where they came from. I’ll explain in a moment.


Of course, San Gabriel Arcangel (founded 1771) has 3 or 4 ancient vines, one of which is 75 feet in length, and all are believed to be original to the mission (though some claim the vines were planted in 1861). Yes, they still produce. In fact, a few years ago grapes were harvested from the vines and a few bottles of wine were made. Sad to report, when the bottles were placed on display in the mission’s winery museum they were promptly stolen (private communication). And it is claimed that when La Purisima Conception (founded 1787) was undergoing restoration in the 1930’s original vines were dug up from the historical mission vineyard site at Jalama Beach and transplanted to the new mission grounds. It is also believed original ancient vines, now wild, survive on National Forest Service land near San Antonio de Padua (founded 1771). As well do untended vines survive on private farmland near San Miguel Arcangel (private communication).


There are other exciting examples of surviving vines, new information, new leads I’ve learned of and will discuss at a later date as my research firms up. Yet the idea of ‘research’ here requires significant qualifications. Some missions have more abundant, dependable historical records than others. Santa Barbara, the “Queen of the Missions”, for example, has quite rich holdings. But of Nuestra Senora de la Soledad…? Much has been lost. Situated between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges, on the windy floor of the Salinas Valley, it is of a particularly forlorn aspect. Isolated. One of the least successful missions with respect to neophyte recruitment and conversion.


Even as late as 1953 it still retained high adobe walls, structures of discernible use to mission life, but rains would virtually melt them away by the nineties. And theft would take a toll. All the remaining roof tiles not previously sold had been stolen along with who knows what else. Indeed, restoration was late in coming to Soledad. It is claimed by an authority, “Finally, in 1954, the Native Daughters of the Golden West began restoring what little was left of the Mission Soledad. When restoration was begun, only piles of adobe dirt were remaining.” As the recently surfaced photo I’ve posted reveals, this was not at all the condition of the mission in 1954. But the authority above highlights an ongoing problem with research on Soledad. Though their museum may contain artifacts, a modest archive including a big book of newspaper clippings waiting for proper digital preservation, it remains a sad fact that generations with knowledge of the mission have passed on without leaving a record, their oral memories untranscribed. Hence, the same stories keep getting reprinted, all using the same abbreviated, partial sources. Information is scattered, dispersed. Much of Soledad’s history is only recoverable, revitalized by chance encounters with the right soul. Such as the aged maintenance man I mentioned above. Though I had heard rumors of the age of the vines before it was he who told me matter-of-factly that many but not all of the vines and olive trees came from La Purisima Conception cuttings. It was a detail I’d not heard in weeks of research. Regrettably, he did not specify whether the cuttings arrived as part of Soledad’s 1954 restoration or if they were planted earlier. Indeed, though another oral source suggests an age of no more than fifty years, the vines appear much older than that.


In any event, the origin and age of the Soledad vines remain compelling mysteries for me, ones that I shall endeavor to solve; as well as that of the proper dispositions of other ancient grapevines throughout the California Mission system. When I visited Nuestra Senora de la Soledad on Saturday, 3/08, the buds were swelling on every vine. Bud break should occur in just a few days. I will return soon.



7 Responses to ' Ancient Mission Vines '

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  1. Alfonso said,

    on March 10th, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    Wonderful post…thanks for pulling it all together…AC

  2. Peter May said,

    on March 13th, 2008 at 4:55 am

    Great post. Mission is THE original California variety yet is almost totally overlooked, and few Californians have every tasted a wine made from Mission yet are willing to dismiss them as no good.

    There are some very old (1800’s) Mission vines at Storey Winery in Amador County that look like small trees. The wine from them tastes a bit like a house wine you’d get in Italy, basic Chianti.

    It is such a historic variety and yet no-one seems to care what happens to these ancient historic vines.

    I look forward to reading more

  3. Lynn Alley said,

    on April 13th, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    So….did you talk with Jo Bianchi? I think that’s her name. her family has owned the land on which La Soledad is built and she, for a long time, has acted as conservator for the mission. I believe she told me the vines were not original…and I know the olives are not..they came from La Purisima. I’d have to do some digging (har, har)…but this is my passion, as well.

  4. Lynn Alley said,

    on April 13th, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    P.S. Who wrote this article?

  5. Administrator said,

    on April 13th, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Hello, Lynn. Actually, her name is Nick Bianchi. And yes, I have spoken with her. She worked with MOPREP up until a few years ago planting olive tree cuttings from Purisima. I wrote the Ancient Mission Vines piece. Since then I have done considerable additional research. I plan a complete update of the matter of the Mission grape not only at Soledad but throughout the Mission system. I am waiting on info from the org Native Daughters of the Golden West who, as you may know, were largely responsible for Soledad’s restoration back in the 1950’s.
    Thanks for the note.

  6. on May 15th, 2008 at 2:06 am

    Hi and thanks for the mention. The Santa Barbara Mission’s website is actually Thanks!

  7. Administrator said,

    on May 15th, 2008 at 6:01 am

    Correction noted. Thanks.

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