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'When the Valley Met the Vine' The Spanish years

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We are on a historical journey to understand what makes the Napa Valley unique in the world of wine. 

The Napa Valley, long home to Native American people, was first discovered and explored by Europeans in 1823, shortly after Spain surrendered the territory after Mexico’s successful war of indepence in 1821.

Spain technically had no direct influence on viticulture in the Napa Valley, but it was the Spanish who first cultivated Old World Vitus vinifera grapevines and introduced primitive winemaking techniques to California. It was also the colonial policies and the society that developed in California during the Spanish era that provide the historical context for the story of wine in the Napa Valley.

300 years and one grape varietal

Wine grape vines from Europe were introduced to North America by the Spanish just two decades after the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

Spain had been involved with cultivating vines and making wine since it was occupied by the Carthaginians around   200 BC, and even further back to the Phoenicians around 1100 BC. Scholars agree that grapes have been cultivated on Spanish soil since between 4000 and 3000 BC.

Through the centuries the Spanish experimented with numerous varietals and styles of wine, but Spainish wines did not have a reputation of distinction in the European wine trade around the time of Columbus, save the sweeter wines from Jerez known as sack and later, Sherry and wines from around the ports of Cadiz and Malaga.

The established church of Spain was Roman Catholic, where wine was an indispensable part of the celebration of the Mass. Consequently, it’s no surprise that shortly after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and the beginning of attempts at converting indigenous people in a land where grapevines would propagate, they introduced Old World vinifera wine grapes.

Fernando Cortez and his conquistadors discovered that grape species other than Vitis vinifera were native to Mexico but they were unsatisfactory for wine due to their unpleasant taste. In 1522, a scant year after the conquest, the records indicate that Cortez sent to Spain for vine cuttings  

The Spanish planted the first vineyards of vinifera grapes in the New World for the Catholic missions in Mexico. Wine-making using grapes from vinifera vines began in 1524 when Cortez, now governor of New Spain, ordered every Spaniard with a land grant from the crown to plant 1,000 grapevines for every 100 Indians under his control.

It is unknown to this day what European varietal was brought from Spain to Mexico, but the grapes were often described by the early Spanish in Mexico as “common black grapes” lacking in any distinctive flavor. It eventually came to be known in North America as the “mission” variatal.

In South America after the mid-1500s when Spaniards took Mexican vines to Peru, Chile, and Argentina they became known as the “criolla” variety. (Some vines may also have been sent directly from Spain to South America).

The Spaniards in Mexico were successful in their viticultural endeavors — in fact, too successful. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the British in 1588, Spain, declining in economic power, looked to the New World as a destination for Spanish exports. King Phillip III outlawed new plantings or vineyard replacements in Mexico after 1595 to protect the Spanish wine trade.

This ban on commercial vineyards and winemaking continued for 150 years and prevented  significant commercial wine industry from developing in Mexico. Mission priests continued to produce sacramental wine and wine for their personal consumption, and missionaries spreading out to remote places like Baja California brought mission vine cuttings with them to produce their own wine.

King Phillip’s dictum prohibiting the propagation of vineyards in Mexico (other similar laws aimed at Chile and Argentina, which were less successfully enforced but similarly destructive to the early development of indigenous New World wine industries) is often past over casually by historians, but it  had immense consequences in Mexico and California.

In an article titled “The History of Wine in Mexico” (from the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, first published in the 1950s), Rafael Heliodoro Valle writes that the historical record shows during the 300-year Spanish colonial regime, Mexico imported Spanish wines made from many varietals, including frontignon, garnacha, moscatel, malvasia, Pedro Jimenez and tintalla; however, there does not seem to be any account of a varietal other than mission being planted in all of Spanish Mexico.

 It was left to 20th and 21st century Mexican vintners in places like the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California to prove that Mexico is capable of producing a variety of excellent wines.

Viticulture but no commerce

The Spanish did bring mission grapevines to California but not until more than 200 years after Cortez first planted his grapes in Mexico, and neither the vines nor the padres ever made it as far as the Napa Valley in the half century that the Spanish occupied California.

What took the Spanish so long to come to California?

A mere 40 years after Columbus’ landing in the Caribbean, the Spanish had managed to conquer the most advanced civilizations of the New World, the Aztecs (1521) and the Incas (1532), plunder their wealth and establish themselves as rulers throughout the New World. They expanded the Spanish territory to include all of Mexico including Baja California and much of South America.

Historian Robin A. Humphreys  in “The Fall of the Spanish American Empire” wrote, “The Spanish Empire in America was of awesome size, stretching unbroken from the Cape Horn to San Francisco. … The distance from Stockholm to Cape Town is less extensive.”

Around 150 years after the discovery of the New World, 300,000 Spanish had established more than 200 cities and towns. Until 1769, however, no Spanish came to occupy the land they called Alta California.

The Spanish knew of California and claimed it as part of their empire. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo explored its coast in 1542, and his party may have sailed as far as Mendocino. But being protected by mountain ranges, deserts, and a relatively unexplored coastline to the west, California remained occupied by indigenous people exclusively until the Spanish began to be concerned about the Russians and English establishing themselves to the north.

Finally, in 1769 Father Junipero Serra, established a mission — with grapevines — in what is now San Diego. He founded the final mission in San Rafael in the 1800s, planting mission vines wherever they would propagate and thrive.

By being the first to bring Vitis vinifera vines to California, Serra is commonly called the “Father of the California Wine,” but the Spanish efforts to colonize California were far from successful. Their grand plan was to organize missions to convert, train and “civilize” the Indians, along with a small number of military forts and an even smaller number of villages of immigrants from Mexico. It was not enough to make California a secure territory of the Spanish Empire.

Historian Leon G. Campbell writes “census figures show that as of 1781, the four presidios, two pueblos, and eleven missions of the province of Alta California were populated by no more than 600 persons exclusive of the indigenous groups.” The population grew to only a few thousand by the time of Mexican independence in 1821.

In addition Campbell notes,“The first Californios were largely non-whites, or mestizos of mixed Spanish and Indian parentage, drawn from the towns of northern Mexico or forcibly conscripted from the jails of the same regions to relieve overcrowded conditions. Men of wealth could not be expected to make the journey (to California) … the hardships were many and the chances of material gain small.”

The Spanish implemented two policies concerning their California territory that severely restricted the development of any kind of wine market. Trade with anyone from outside California was forbidden. Smuggling along the coast with ships coming from several countries did occur, and these rules were eventually relaxed, but no serious import or export wine business could develop in the territory. Also, the Spanish government gave out almost no land grants in California but kept productive land for the Catholic Church. Thus, the Spanish effectively eliminated wine as a part of the life of Spanish California except in connection with the church.

When the Spanish period in California ended in 1821, the Napa Valley was still waiting to be discovered, and only the mission varietal of grapevine had made it to California. Although growers began planting other varietals, the rather undistinguished mission grape would dominate viticulture in the Napa Valley and California until the 1880s. The mission grape, Father Serra’s indirect contribution to the Napa Valley’s wine culture, proved to be quite a mixed blessing.

Editor’s note

This is part 2 in a six-part series excerpted from Napa author Tim Gaughan’s book which traces the history of wine in the Napa Valley.

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