The first time Patrick Cappiello visited the Somers Vineyard in California’s Lodi wine region, he couldn’t believe it.
The vines for the Mission grapes were higher than almost anything he had seen before — 12 feet tall, more than twice as high as most vines, and they seemed to form a canopy over the rows.
“They looked almost prehistoric,” says Cappiello, the co-founder of California’s Monte Rio Cellars. “You really can’t compare it to anything else. I had seen photos, but it’s not the same thing.”
All of which was Cappiello’s introduction to what has become the Mission grape revival — not just in California, but in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as Chile and the Canary Islands off of Spain. The grape, though still little known and hardly likely to be found at the local bottle shop, has attracted the attention of an assortment of younger U.S. winemakers like Cappiello, and their passion and enthusiasm have helped renew interest in a grape that had all but disappeared.
The reasons for Mission’s newfound popularity are complex and varied — part nostalgia, part historic preservation and tradition, part hipster trend, and part of the wine business being, well, the wine business.
“I never know what to say when people ask me that question,” says Mike Anagnos, who manages the 18 acres of Mission at Somers. “Why is Mission coming back? I guess it’s because what’s old is new again, and there are younger winemakers who are discovering it. And I’m glad it’s happening. I like to see the growth and more people drinking Mission since it’s good for the California wine industry.”
A long history
Mission, known as País in Chile, Listan Prieto in Spain, and Criolla Chica in Argentina, was the first European wine grape brought to the Americas. Spanish missionaries, needing communion wine, planted it in Mexico in the 16th century and took it with them over the next 200 years as they moved into what would become California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Mission, so-called because it was planted in the Spanish colonial settlements known as missions, is hardy and drought-resistant, ideal for the U.S. Southwest. Plus, it’s high-yielding and doesn’t require much effort in the vineyard, two bonuses for priests growing grapes in near-desert conditions.
On the other hand, Mission typically doesn’t produce quality varietal wine the way other vitis vinifera grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, do. It’s low in acidity and high in sugar, the exact opposite of what’s required; its color is very light, almost a see-through red; and since its cherry-ish fruit flavors aren’t particularly concentrated, it often tastes weak and uninteresting.
But for a couple of centuries, Mission was almost never made as a varietal; rather, it was used in blending for the generic wines called Burgundy and brandy, although they were technically neither, that most Americans drank up until the 1970s.
But as California moved to drier styles in the ‘70s, and when varietal wines appeared in the 1980s, Mission started disappearing. Its vines were ripped out in favor of the newly-popular Cabernet and Merlot, as well as for subdivisions in Southern California. In 1971, according to federal government figures, there were about 6,400 acres of Mission in the state; twice as much as Cabernet, three times as much as Chardonnay, and almost 60 times as much as Merlot. Today, there are less than 400 acres of Mission, and only 52 have been planted since 2013.
“If you study the history of California wine,” says Cappiello, “it’s certainly one of the most important moments in history. It’s a glimpse of the past, from the 1900s, a hands-off, much less manipulative style of winemaking.”
“If you study the history of California wine it’s certainly one of the most important moments in history. It’s a glimpse of the past, from the 1900s, a hands-off, much less manipulative style of winemaking.”
Making dessert wine
Mission has survived on the strength of a fortified dessert wine called Angelica, known by that name since at least the 1870s and made for more than a century by a variety of small producers up and down the state. Young Angelicas can be nondescript, but as they age, they take on flavors of berries and figs, as well as notes of toasted walnuts, molasses, and coffee. And they can age for up to a century.
This sounds like Port and Sherry, but with one difference — spirits are added to the Mission juice before it starts to ferment; in the others, spirits are added after fermentation is underway. Though, because of California law, the spirits must be added at the very start of fermentation for the product to be called wine. And that difference is crucial.
“That’s actually a form of food preservation,” says Marco Cappelli, acknowledged by many as the godfather of modern Angelica, who makes it for his self-named winery, as well as Miraflores and Toogood. “If you add the brandy before fermentation, you’re actually preserving the juice. And this made perfect sense for the missionaries, who needed a barrel in the middle of nowhere that wouldn’t go bad for their sacramental wine.”
As did mining camps in the wake of the 1849 California Gold Rush. Cappelli gets grapes from the three-acre Deaver plot in Amador County, which dates to the 1850s and was likely planted to make a fortified Mission to sell to thirsty miners.
Into the future
What none of this addresses, though, is why now? Why is Mission being revived? Why has New Mexico launched a program to turn its Mission into rosé? Why is it being used again for communion wine in Arizona? Why are high-end winemakers like Tegan Passalacqua of Turley fame making Mission varietal wine?
Much of the answer revolves around historic preservation and groups like the Historic Vineyard Society. Its goal is to save California’s oldest grapes and vineyards from the bulldozer, in much the same way the National Register of Historic Places tries to prevent culturally important buildings from turning into suburban strip malls.
In addition, varietal Mission has been embraced by the natural wine movement. There is no postmodern winemaking hocus pocus here; just grow it, crush it, ferment it, and drink it. How much more natural does wine get?
“And,” says Morgan Twain-Peterson MW, the winemaker and owner of Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma and a leading Mission acolyte, “you can’t underestimate the importance of natural wine in certain important markets.”
Finally, says Twain-Peterson, the grape is the antithesis of the established California wine industry, with its $1 million an acre vineyards and its over-hyped and over-the-top red wines.
“It’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s much more authentic than another bottle of Napa Cabernet,” he says. “And besides, it’s tasty with dinner — and isn’t that what matters?”