The Unfurling Story of the Homestead’s Grapevines

by Jennifer Scerra

How old are the Homestead’s oak trees? How many unmarked graves are in El Campo Santo cemetery? Why are there no photos of Nicolasa Workman? History is all about asking questions to make sense of the past; and boy do we have a lot of questions!

One of the most exciting things that happens around the Homestead Museum is when someone’s research turns up new answers. Sometimes a letter or a newspaper will give us a name that we never knew. Or looking closer at a photo, we might recognize something in the image we hadn’t noticed before. And from time to time, we turn to colleagues and experts in other fields, whose own question and answering process can shed new light on our story.

For decades we’ve told visitors that our historic grapevines *might* have been grown from a cutting the Temple family took from the San Gabriel Mission’s Mother Vine, the oldest existing wine grape in California. It was a story that had been passed to us, through the years, but without a clear origin or evidence to back it up.

The story of grapes in California is complicated: It is a global story, featuring conquest, disease, and heartbreak—planting, dying, and starting over—where plant names are used and confused—and recent DNA testing has given us new information and of course, new questions. So what’s true? What’s not? Where did the region’s vineyards come from? And how do the Homestead’s oldest grapevines relate to the story of wine in California?

Photo 1 La Casa Nueva east elevation looking south, ca. 1928 2005.420.1.38
This 1928 photo shows grapevines already covering the walkway next to the newly completed La Casa Nueva.

The history of wine in California

The story of wine in California might begin with the Spanish Empire. Beginning in the 1500s, it expanded rapidly, becoming the largest empire in the world at the time (and the fourth largest ever). As the Spanish moved through North and South America, they brought with them a hardy and highly adaptable variety of European wine grape, known today in Spain as Listán Prieto. It was planted widely throughout the Americas and is known most widely today as the Criolla or Mission variety, but also by dozens of regional names including:

Almuneco, Arjuncao, California, Comun De Las Palmas, Creole Petite, Criolla, Criolla 6, Criolla Chica, Criolla Peru, El Paso, Forastero Negro, H’riri, Hariri, Hariri Noir, Khariri Noir, Listan Negra, Listan Negro, Listan Preto, Listan Violet, Listrao, Mision, Mission, Mission’s Grape, Moscatel Negro, Moscatel Negro Du Perou, Negra, Negra Antigua, Negra Comun, Negra Corriente, Negra Corriente Ica, Negra Corriente Majes, Negra Corriente Tacna, Negra Peruana, Pais, Palomina Negra, Printanier Rouge, Rosa Del Peru, Uva Chica Negra, Uva Del Pais, Uva Negra, Uva Negra Vino, Uva Pais, Uva Tinta, Vina Blanca, Vina Negra, Zerhoun Noir

By the 1760s, worried that other world powers like the British and the Russians were expanding and encroaching, the Spanish pushed north in the Americas. They established presidios (military forts), pueblos (towns), and missions; they brought in immigrants and enslaved the native Californians; and in doing these things, they took control of Alta California. But travel during this time was difficult and shipping unreliable, so, soon, the mission padres began to think of planting and making wine for mass and everyday drinking.

The grapevines, like the missions, came from the south. The first vines were most likely planted at the southernmost missions, either San Diego or San Juan Capistrano, in the 1770s. The grapes brought from Baja California were the Mission/Listán Prieto variety, which had been so successful throughout South and Central America. By the 1780s the vineyards were better established and the missions finally had a steady and reliable source of wine.

The largest and most successful of the new wineries was located at Mission San Gabriel. 50 years later, when the missions were secularized by the Mexican government and their assets seized, San Gabriel was reported to have over 16,000 grapevines and a reputation for making the best wine of the 21 missions. Their 200-acre vineyard was known as Viña Madre and served as a source for cuttings and both sacramental and table wine throughout California.

Though the era of the missions had come to an end, the Mission grape continued to be the most widely cultivated in California for decades still to come. By 1858, California had over four million vines (over one and a half million in Los Angeles country alone, including the thousands grown here at the Workman vineyard). New varieties from Europe were just beginning to arrive. One man, Agostín Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant, is credited with introducing 492 varieties to California in the 1850s and ’60s. His vines are the historic source of many of California’s popular grape varieties today. Haraszthy’s Buena Vista winery is also ignominiously known as the first location where the symptoms of phylloxera were seen in California.

Phylloxera is a grape disease caused by the identically named phylloxera aphid. The tiny insect feeds on grape roots, leaving them weak and vulnerable to fungal infections. Vines that are attacked grow sickly, brown, and die, and the world soon learned that entire vineyards could be wiped out by the pest. All over California, vines died. Phylloxera also made its way to Europe, wreaking havoc on the continent’s numerous and sometimes ancient vineyards.

To understand how phylloxera came to be a problem, and how wine makers in California and around the world eventually learned to live with it, we have to talk about other grapes. Though there are countless named cultivars and varieties of grapes grown, there are only eight distinct species of grapes in the world. Six of them are native to North America. Two of them are native to California (Vitis californica, and Vitis girdiana). Only one species, Vitis vinifera, is native to Europe and it is the source of virtually every variety of grape historically used to make wine. The phylloxera insect and the six North America grape species evolved alongside each other, living in a carefully balanced truce. European grapes, on the other hand, have few defenses against phylloxera and die quickly when infected. The Mission grape that had been so successful was now in perilous danger.

Grape growers tried many things to battle phylloxera, but the most successful tactic utilized nature. North American grapes, particularly species from the East Coast, have sticky sap and protective layers to guard their roots from phylloxera. So, growers grafted the branches of their European wine grapes onto the roots of North American grapes. In France, Spain, California, and around the world, the bottom of each plant was now a North American grape, while the top of the plant, still producing the same old wine grapes, was Vitis vinifera. Winemakers had a solution, but every wine grape in affected areas had to be replanted with grafted roots—an expensive, long, and arduous task.

Turmoil struck California again beginning in late December of 1861. Throughout the state, it was reported that 40 days of warm rain fell, which melted all the snow that had previously accumulated in the region’s many mountains and caused the largest flood in California’s recorded history. In Southern California there was so much water that the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana rivers merged. Cattle, vineyards, and other agriculture were swept away, including the historic Viña Madre Vineyard at the Mission San Gabriel. Only a few, lonely vines survived there.

Later in the century, another disease, with no known cure even today, finally killed most of Los Angeles’ remaining vines. Pierce’s disease is a bacteria that kills grapevines within two years of being infected. The bacteria prefers warm weather, is spread by insect bites, and like phylloxera, is more deadly to Vitis vinifera than to native North American grapes. The disease was once best known as “Anaheim Disease” because of its devastating effects on that city. Though more than 40,000 acres of wine grapes were grown there in 1880, only 14 acres were left by 1891 after the disease swept through.

Photo 2 Los Angeles Herald June 27 1981
“The Anaheim Disease,” as written about in the Los Angeles Herald, June 27, 1891.

Between disease and natural disaster, hundreds of thousands of acres of wine grapes in Southern California were gone, never to return. By the early 1900s, all that was left were small pockets of surviving vineyards (in places like Rancho Cucamonga), a few celebrated historic plants, and in undisturbed wild areas, the regions native grape—Vitis girdiana.

Which brings us up to the time when our historic vines were supposedly planted.

DNA testing and new evidence

To try and answer our questions about where our oldest vines came from, we decided to have genetic testing done on grapes from two locations on our historic site. The first was a very large grapevine that covers an arbor in the courtyard of the 1840s Workman House. The second was one of several dozen good size vines growing over the Mission Walkway, which surrounds the 1920s-era La Casa Nueva.

Photo 3 Workman House Grapevines
The Workman House vine as it appears today.
Photo 4 La Casa Nueva Grapevines
The La Casa Nueva vine.

Following instructions given to us by researchers at the Plant Identification Lab at UC Davis, we collected very young leaves from a branch taken from each plant. The leaves were packed flat and put into envelopes containing desiccant beads to dehydrate them. Then off they went to Davis, California.

Photo 5 Collecting Leaf Samples
To get our DNA samples, we followed instructions from the UC Davis lab, which directed us to cut very young leaves, lay them flat without touching, and put them in an envelope to be dehydrated.

A few weeks later we had our results:

“The two samples, ‘A Workman’ and ‘B LCN’, match one another. The shared DNA profiles matches what has become known as ‘Vina Madre’. This is the famous ‘Mission grape of California’ growing at the San Gabriel Mission.”

So what does this mean for our story?

We know now that the grape vines near the Workman House and La Casa Nueva are identical. At some point, cuttings were taken from a vine near the San Gabriel Mission, and these two plants were grown from those cuttings (or cuttings from those cuttings). These plants are not offspring of the San Gabriel vine because they were not grown from seeds. Rather these are genetically identical to each other and to the original vine.

Research from the UC Davis Plant Lab has shown that other sites around Southern California also have this same identical plant growing. When the vines were tested at the Avila Adobe in downtown Los Angeles in 2014, they also came back as matches. Around California this variety is referred to a Mission grape, Viña Madre, or Mission Grape of California. Even though the name is very similar, surprisingly, it is genetically distinct from the Listán Prieto/Mission grape that was planted in the 1700s. We know this because DNA testing on the original Mission San Gabriel vine adds important details to another unexpected and interesting story.

After disease and floods destroyed the Viña Madre Vineyard at the San Gabriel Mission in the 1850s and ‘60s, a few lonely grape vines popped back up afterwards. One plant grew rapidly, growing huge in size. As time passed, and the devastation of the floods was forgotten, rumors began to spread that this enormous plant was old—so very old that the mission fathers must have planted it as one of the first wine grapevines in California.

Photo 6 Entrance to Old Grapevine (Planted 1765 [sic]) San Gabriel, Cal. 2011.392.1.1
A postcard from the Homestead Museum’s collection highlighting the “Old Grapevine.” In the early 1900s, the former site of the San Gabriel Mission vineyard became a tourist destination known as Ramona’s Home (after the fictional character from the novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson). Signage advertised that it housed the oldest and largest grapevine in the world.
Photo 7 Queen of the Grape Festival
A press photo from the Museum’s collection. In 1928, Amapola del Vando, queen of the San Gabriel grape festival, posed for a photo standing in front of the now famous, and enormous, “mother vine” at the former site of the San Gabriel Mission vineyard.

But those rumors were just that—rumors. In 1908, long-time San Gabriel resident David Franklin Hall gave a sworn statement about the history of the vine and how he planted the grapevine at his home near the San Gabriel Mission in 1861, almost 100 years after it was rumored to have been planted.

“Personally appeared before me, one DAVID FRANKLIN HALL, who deposes and says as follows:

In 1854 Dr. George I. Rice and I bought of Hipolito Cervantes the house and lot now known as the Grape Vine Property. The house was a small affair, of three rooms, and a bat roof, and there was no grape vine on the lot.

L.J. Rose’s purchase of land, which he improved and called SUNNY SLOPE, included the house of —– Courtney, (a son-in-law of Michael White, one of the oldest pioneers), on which he (Courtney) had transplanted a wild grape vine he procured from a canyon near the home of B.D. Wilson (Lake Vineyard).

Its location obstructed the plans of Mr. Rose, and he gladly gave it to me, and assisted me in digging it up. It had been pruned to a height of two and a half (2 ½) or three (3) feet, and the trunk had thickened to a diameter of three or four inches. We left one short branch on it. I took it in my buggy to my own house, and placed it where it now flourishes, in the spring of 1861.It grew luxuriantly from the start, and we used its shelter as a summer kitchen until I sold the premises to Mr. Bailey in 1881 or 1882, of which date I am not positive but I had been there continuously for twenty-seven years.

DAVID FRANKLIN HALL.

Subscribed and sworn to before me, this 10th day of January, 1908.

Notary Public in and for Los Angeles County, California.”

Other people, not knowing or not caring about Hall’s version of the story, continued to cut and grow their own plants from the huge vine, sometimes sharing the fictitious tale of its history and age.

When DNA testing was finally done on the plant, scientists learned something fascinating: the grape is a hybrid. Though growers of grapevines usually choose to grow vines from cuttings, grapes can and do grow offspring from seeds. This particular plant is a first-generation hybrid between a Vitis vinifera Listán Prieto/Mission grape that likely grew in the original Viña Madre Vineyard before the flood and a native Californian Vitis girdiana grape. The hybrid was found after the floods. And it likely avoided being killed by phylloxera and Anaheim Disease because of its resistant North American genes.

What did we learn?

In conclusion, the genetic evidence suggests that yes, there could be some truth to the story that has been handed down about our historic Homestead grapevines. Although we don’t know exactly when or by what means the grapevines were planted here—and although the Viña Madre Vineyard and its original Mission grape vines planted by the friars are long gone—we do know that our oldest grapes are the same variety as the large hybrid grapevines that are still growing  near the Mission San Gabriel. We continue to have many questions, but it is exciting to learn how this new information fits in to what we already know. And we can’t wait to see what more we will find!

Photo 8 Mission Walkway, East Gate, ca. 1941.
Grapevines seen on the east gate of the Mission Walkway, ca. 1941.

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