On the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, just off Redwood Retreat Road in Pamela’s Vineyard, there are around 120 Mission grape vines dating back to 1889, a small vestige of a once-common varietal that dominated winemaking in the Americas for almost 300 years.
“In the 1880s, that road was a tourist destination with a nice hotel on a stream and a hot springs nearby,” said Jeffrey Fadness, owner of La Vie Dansante Wines in Gilroy. “They also had the water and the climate for what was an excellent little 12-acre vineyard, which developers later cut down to two acres.”
Interested in the vineyard’s 300 Carignan vines, Fadness took over the maintenance of the property in 2017, trying to bring it back to life and working to replant missing vines.
“Doing all the maintenance in an older vineyard and getting the grapes for free is actually not a very good deal,” he said. “But I love the Carignan and the story of the vineyard, and the woman is a friend, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll work for that.’”
Until the pandemic began, the vineyard had a buyer in Saratoga for the Mission grapes. The following year, a buyer in LA took them, feeding a brief hipster fad for the varietal that died out quickly.
“After that, we didn’t really give them all that much attention,” he said. “The drought was very hard on them, and we kind of thought, ‘Please just die.’ I felt really bad and was talking to a friend who said, ‘Why don’t we just pick it and make wine?’ Well… because nobody wants Mission wine anymore.”
Mission wine is close to forgotten, with only around six wineries in California producing it, but centuries before the pinot noirs and chardonnays of the Cienega Valley or the zinfandels and cabernets of Napa and Sonoma took over the vineyards, the lowly Mission grape totally dominated winemaking in the Americas, with tens of thousands of acres planted from Oregon to Chile.
It is not known when the Spanish brought Mission grapes to the Americas, and for the better part of a century, winemakers have debated exactly where the grapes first came from. But in 2006, researchers at El Centro Nacional de Biotecnología in Madrid were able to use DNA technology to match the grape to a Castilian varietal called “Listan Prieto.” It is commonly found in the Canary Islands, a common departure point for the New World used by both Hernán Cortés and Father Junipero Serra, and was known in California as the “Rose of Peru.”
By 1524, the year after he was named Governor of New Spain, Cortés ordered landowners to plant 1,000 feet of vines for every 100 native Indians. Jesuit missionary Juan de Ugarte brought the grape to Baja California in 1701, and Serra followed his lead, planting California’s first vineyard in 1779.
The wine, ostensibly made for sacramental purposes, was a serious moneymaker for the missionaries and Mission grapes continued to be the most important varietal in California until winemaking pioneer Jean-Louis Vignes imported higher quality vines like cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc from Bordeaux to Los Angeles in 1837—the beginning of the end for Mission wine.
Fadness’s first harvest of Mission grapes at Pamela’s Vineyard produced 660 pounds of the fruit, from which he produced three different wines that speak to the tastes of early California wine drinkers: 15 gallons of Mission rosé, 15 cases of Mission wine, and five cases of Angelica, a traditional fortified version of Mission wine that is half Mission wine and half 175-proof brandy.
“We de-stemmed it and put it in open-top plastic bins to ferment. I think they are the best fermenters at this level because it forces the winemakers to stick their heads into the wine every single day. You’re looking at it, you’re smelling it, and I think that makes better wine.”
Ultimately, was it worth the effort? A fuller review is below, but after trying the Mission rosé and Mission grape, they came off as light, fruity and pleasant enough to bring along on a picnic but much less substantial than the other wines La Vie Dansante makes—which should not be a surprise.
What is a surprise is that making the Mission grape wines has been a wildly successful experiment for Fadness.
“We had the wine in the fermentor,” he said, “and we thought we would bottle it to make it easier to throw out later if it didn’t work out. I thought, as a joke, I would pour it for our wine club members, and it turned out everyone liked it.”
With such a limited supply, Fadness decided to sell the rosé through his tasting room and by the glass only. The Mission wine was available in bottles but also sold fast.
“It’s almost gone,” he said,” but that’s OK. I hoped it would be something that would bring people in, that if you wanted it, you have to come here. I want people to come back every weekend, have a glass, listen to music, and just enjoy it here.”
Fadness promises to produce both wines again next year, but in the meantime, it is very much worth the journey to his Gilroy tasting room to try his more sophisticated wines, some of which are reviewed below.
The Wines of La Vie Dansante
2022 LVD Mission Rosé (by the glass only, $12) – “The day after we put it in the fermentors, I thought that we could at least pull some of it off to make a rosé,” Fadness said. “I wanted something to sell to people who say that they just don’t drink sweet wines. And if we pulled off some of the wine for rosé, it would make the Mission wine darker.” The wine has a sprightly aroma that reminded me of Fruity Pebbles, and the flavor is of sweet raspberry and sunshine. Very lightly carbonated, it is charming, buoyant and eminently joyful. I really liked this one and I understand why it sold so quickly.
2022 LVD Mission Wine ($30) – “It was a very surprising success,” Fadness said. “I thought it was going to be awful, but people liked it. But now I have a problem. With the limited amount of grapes, I can’t make 80 gallons of the rosé and 30 cases of Mission. It’s gonna be a one or another kind of a thing.” Far from being awful, the Mission wine is a great entry-level wine with lots of fruit, next to no tannins, very mild acidity and a smooth, bright finish. It could easily be everybody’s grandmother’s favorite wine, but it is also perfectly drinkable as a light red to have with grilled meats or fish or served alongside a cheese board on a lazy afternoon. The total lack of pretense is perhaps its best quality, making it just a fun and refreshing wine.
2022 Grenache Blanc ($34) – “Everybody thinks, because we trained them or just from human nature, they want the biggest, boldest, most complex, fanciest wine,” Fadness said. “And yet, when we just sit down and drink, we want something that clears the palate and works with food. We want simplicity.” That is a bit of an underestimation of this light summer wine, which has its own subtle complexity: refreshing, with a nice minerality, a delicate aroma of pears, and marked citrus acidity in the finish. More of a food wine than a sipping wine, Fadness suggests serving it with a Greek salad but it would be great with just some aged cheddar or roasted almonds.
2021 Grenache Rosé ($32) – 100% grenache with a pretty salmon color and an aroma of cherry candy and cinnamon, this wine hits the palate with a dash of rhubarb and strawberries and an elusive taste of watermelon. The finish has a pleasing cranberry acidity that fades to the back of the throat and helps keep the profile from being too cloyingly sweet. I give this one the edge over the grenache blanc just because of its swirling fruitness and gorgeous aroma.
2017 Grenache ($38) – “This is grenache in your face,” said Fadness. “I can see the grapes when I smell it.” The aroma is indeed gorgeous, tending towards dark fruit with some dark chocolate, and the color is an invitingly brilliant red. Fadness shies away from too much exposure to oak to avoid heaviness and the result is an elegant wine with a floral fruity flavor and the peppery finish of a cabernet pfeffer. This is an absolutely superb grenache that could be paired with anything you would like to serve it with or just enjoyed on its own. This is my pick of the wines I tried that day.
2017 Syrah ($38) – “It reminds me of what I grew up with in Southern Oregon,” Fadness said. “I can smell the heat and I can smell the summer.” There is a dry grasslands aroma to the wine that gives way to a smooth taste of red fruits tinged with dark caramel. A step above the grenache in terms of complexity, it is a finely balanced wine that defines Fadness’s approach to the art. A must-try.
2019 Pamela’s Vineyard Carignan ($44) – The dry-farmed old vines are the companion to the Mission grape vines at Pamela’s, but this wine is a polar opposite in terms of refinement and complexity. With an floral aroma of clover honey, the wine has a concentrated dark fruit taste, with notes of blackberries or currents. If you have a palate that is quick enough, you can pick up a little pepper, but it fades quickly. The distinct tannins make this a definite food wine that would be excellent with barbecue. A very good expression of this varietal, this one is worth seeking out.
La Vie Dansante
6500 Brem Lane, Gilroy, CA 95020
Phone: (408) 852-0779
Tasting room hours:
Monday – Noon to 5 p.m.
Friday – Noon to 5 p.m.
Saturday – Noon to 6 p.m
Sunday – Noon to 5 p.m
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