Guillermo Toro-Lira1, Karl Mendoza2 & Gustavo Aliquo3 🇺🇸 🇵🇪 🇦🇷 *
North American tradition tells that the Mission grape was brought to California from Mexico by Jesuit and Franciscan priests during the formation of a network of Catholic missions starting at the end of the 17th century.
However, there are official Russian reports and others that question that hypothesis. These suggest that the first grapes of today’s California Sonoma County were produced from vines brought from Peru, specifically from the city of Lima in 1817, and that from there they spread throughout Northern California.
The coasts of today’s California, United States were first explored by Spanish navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542.
The colonization of that territory was largely ignored by Spain, as no treasures were found comparable to those of the Aztec or Inca empires.
Spain’s lack of interest changed in 1741, when Russian expeditions crossed the Bering Strait of Alaska and began exploiting the lucrative Sea Otter fur trade, which were very abundant at that time on the North Pacific coasts of the American continent.
With the intention of preventing the Russian expansion towards America, the Spanish crown finally decided to colonize those territories, which they always considered theirs. For this, they ordered the establishment of a series of presidios (military establishments) and religious missions. The former with the aim of militarily deterring the possibility of any foreign interference and the latter to convert the Native people to the Catholic religion and to start a period of colonization and population of the territory.
Over the course of 54 years, four presidios were created: San Diego (1769), Monterrey (1770), San Francisco (1776), and Santa Bárbara (1782) — currently located in the Californian cities of the same name — and 21 missions: the first one was called Mission San Diego de Alcalá (1769), in the extreme south of the state, and the last Mission San Francisco Solano (1823), in the current city of Sonoma — 56 miles north of San Francisco.
In 1804, the Russo-American Company founded New Archangel, a permanent settlement in the island of Sitka, Alaska, near the current city of Juneau. This Russian colony was the center of operations of the company’s commercial activities.
During the following years, the company expanded its operations as far as Northern California, where in 1812 they founded Fort Ross, about 90 miles away from the mission San Francisco de Asís, the northenmost Spanish mission at that time (see map).
One of the objectives of Fort Ross was the procurement of food and other supplies to the colony of New Archangel. Its closeness to the missions, which undoubtedly made the Spanish authorities uncomfortable, facilitated a commercial exchange of mutual benefit. The remoteness of the region, considered the “end of the world” at that time,a left any geopolitical disagreements in second place in favor of a more pragmatic cooperative relationship.
It is in this context that the Russian colonists of Fort Ross imported and planted a variety of vegetables and foreign fruits, among them grapevines from Peru.
Khlebnikov’s Reports, 1817-1832
In September of 1816, Kyrill T. Khlebnikov set sail from Saint Petersburg, Russia on board the ship Kutozov, mastered by captain Leontil A. Hagemeister, destined to New Archangel in Alaska. It was a long trip, they sailed from the Gulf of Finland to the west, through the coasts of Northern Europe and Africa, and then crossing the Atlantic ocean towards South America. They bordered Cape Horn and after touching ports in Chile, Peru and Mexico, they anchored in New Archangel on November 20th, 1817 after a rough trip of fourteen months.
Khlebnikov stayed in America for almost seventeen years and returned to Saint Petersburg in 1833. He spent the next five years writing his memoirs and reports which he published in Russian in 1861, work that was translated to English for the first time in 1976 with the title of: Colonial Russian America – Kyrill T. Khlebnikov’s Reports – 1817-1832 (1).
First viticulture in Fort Ross
Khlebnikov wrote brief but telling notes regarding the introduction of viticulture in Fort Ross. He stated the following:
Captain Hagemeister, commanding the ship Kutosov, stopped at Fort Ross in September, 1817, en route to Sitka [New Archangel]…
In 1817 L. A. Hagemeister brought grape vines from Lima, and in 1818 peach trees from Monterey. In 1820 we sent 100 cuttings of apples, pears, cherries, peaches and bergamots aboard the brig Buldakov; these were small cuttings which produced their first fruit in 1828.
Roses were brought from San Francisco and castor wood from the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii]. Sometimes the grapes are good; they were first harvested in 1823.
Grapevines from Lima were brought in September of 1817 and bore fruit six years later in 1823, which is a period of time that is compatible with the transplanting of cuttings, the probable method of transportation.
Khlebnikov was a witness of the vines being transported from Peru to Fort Ross because he traveled on the same ship to America.
When mentioning that “sometimes the grapes are good”, Khlebnikov most certainly was referring to the amount of grape harvested, as will be seen later.
Friar José Altamira
José Altamira was a Franciscan missionary born in Barcelona, Spain in 1787. In 1820 he was assigned to Mission San Francisco de Asís (also known as Mission Dolores, located in the current city of San Francisco, California). For three years the young Altamira dedicated himself to the Catholic conversion of the Natives of the area. But he noted that the geography of the location affected the health of the converts negatively. The weather, rainy and unpredictable, also did not allow the development of adequate agriculture to sustain the mission.
For these reasons, Altamira proposed relocating the settlement to the fertile and more favorable Sonoma Valley, less than 60 miles to the north. After some time, the Catholic clergy decided to create a new mission instead, which they called San Francisco Solano, in honor of the Spanish missionary saint who died in Peru in 1610 and was canonized in 1726.
The mission was founded by Altamira in April 1824. It was well furnished and decorated with various items gifted by the Russians from Fort Ross, which was located 60 miles west, near the coast.
At the end of 1824, the mission already had a 30-by-120-foot, seven-foot-tall adobe house with a tile roof and a large corridor. An orchard was planted with several fruit trees and a vineyard with 3,000 plants, surely born from cuttings taken from the vines of Fort Ross (2), which as already mentioned gave their first fruit in 1823, an important winemaking event that Altamira must have heard of when he was exploring the area in search of a more suitable place for his mission.
The enterprising friar continued in control of the mission until 1826, when he was replaced by Friar Buenaventura Fortuni, who in turn was succeeded by Friar José Gutierrez in 1830. Gutierrez expanded the mission considerably. In 1832 it already had more vineyards, orchards, gardens, wheat fields, a grain mill, houses for the soldiers and families of the Indians, a prison, a cemetery, and an infirmary.
This period of relative prosperity came to an end in 1833 when the Mexican government — which had taken control of California after its independence from Spain in 1821 — ordered the secularization of the missions and the expulsion of Spanish missionaries who did not adhere to the terms of the new Republic.
Another important person who contributed to the development of Sonoma’s viticulture was Egora J. Chernykh, an expert Russian farmer hired by the Russo-American Company to work at Fort Ross.
Born in 1813 on the Kamchatka peninsula, Siberia, the son of a Russian pastor and a woman native to the area, he was sent to study at the agriculture school of the Moscow Agricultural Society. He arrived at Fort Ross in 1836, where for the next five years, he devoted himself to developing agriculture in the area.
He built a ranch 30 miles east of Fort Ross, in the present city of Graton, near the city of Santa Rosa. In 1840, the ranch had a vineyard with 2,000 plants.
In a report written in 1841 for a Russian agricultural society (3), Chernykh writes the following about the viticulture of the region:
Orchard keeping in California is used on a small scale. Small orchards of fruit-bearing trees and vineyards are found only in the Missions.
Blue grapes are cultivated and yield good harvest and good taste. Vine slips are stuck into the ground, and some of them bear fruit in 3 to 4 years. Local grapes make good wine, but in small quantities and does not keep well.
Chernykh’s testimony allows to conclude that the grapevines brought from Lima by Hagemeister, twenty-five years earlier, were spread throughout the Northern California area.
He noted that there were small vines and only in the missions. Adds that the grapes were from the red type, of good harvest and flavor. Also, that they bore fruit three or four years after being planted on slips, the preferred method used, and that the wine was good, but it did not last well over time.
Chernykh’s writings, together with the aforementioned data and the results of molecular analysis (DNA) of current American vines, will allow us to deduce with a high probability the type of grapes brought from Lima and spread throughout Northern California at that time.
The grape variety planted at Fort Ross
A genetic study published in 2007 by the American Society for Enology and Viticulture presented the results of a DNA study of 79 different varieties of ancient American grapes. This scientific investigation proved that 52 of these varieties were identical and synonym to the red variety currently known as Listán Prieto (4).
Surprisingly, the study found that the current Peruvian Negra Criolla (formerly known simply as Negra or Negra Corriente) and the California Mission are both genetically identical varieties and synonym of Listán Prieto. On the other hand, recent historical discoveries have shown that this grape was the first to be planted in Peru — during the first half of the 16th century — , being the oldest and the ancestor of many current South American criollab varieties (5).
Known simply as Negra, this robust variety was one of the most popular and widespread in Peru in the mid-19th century (6) and it was with a high probability the one chosen by the Russian colonists to be taken to California.
The brief but important data provided by the historical records tend to validate this hypothesis. When Khlebnikov mentions that “sometimes the grapes are good” he undoubtedly was referring to the large amount of grapes harvested, a characteristic of the Negra Criolla, which is very productive, but sensitive to the climatic conditions of each season.
As already mentioned, Chernykh wrote that the grapes were of the red type, of good harvest and produced fine wine, although in small amounts, and that it did not keep well, other characteristics of the Negra Criolla, a resistant variety, productive but of somewhat rustic enological quality.
The Mission grape in California’s history
A Californian report from 1867, describes that the grape called Mission at that time consisted of two types: the Los Angeles grape, from southern California and the Sonoma grape, from the north. Similar physical characteristics were attributed to both (7). The Los Angeles variety was described as delivering “a strong wine, similar to port and sherry“, while Sonoma produced “a soft wine, similar to a claret” (8). Tellingly, this last characteristic is one of the classic descriptors of the wine produced from Negra Criolla.
Crisscrossing this information with the genetic data and the historical reports already mentioned, it can be concluded, with a high degree of certainty, that the Peruvian grape brought by Russian settlers to the area of Sonoma, California in 1817, was the variety currently known as Negra Criolla, where it took the local name of Sonoma grape and which, in the second half of the 19th century, was grouped under the generic name of Mission. Over the course of more than thirty years, the grapevines planted on the Sonoma mission by Father Altamira in 1824 spread throughout Northern California and took on the aforementioned nomenclature.
Historians of the early days of California viticulture have generally dismissed the notion that Russian settlers imported Peruvian grapes into California. They have erroneously assumed that the Russian colonization of Alaska and California was accomplished by sailing from Siberia across the Bering Strait, through the Pacific Ocean from west to east and from north to south. This assumption did not allow historians to accept in a logical way the idea that the first Northern California vines had come from far away South America (9).
However, as evidenced by Khlebnikov’s reports, the Russian ships sailed from Saint Petersburg to the Atlantic Ocean and after crossing the southern tip of South America, they headed north through the Pacific Ocean. The Russian expedition passed through Peru before arriving first to California and then to Alaska. This fact gives credible acceptance to the reports that the first vines came from Lima.
The Los Angeles and Rose of Peru grapes
As for the Los Angeles grape, it is assumed it came from the Jesuit missions established in the peninsula of Baja California and in the Sonora region since the 1680s, and that after the expulsion of that order in 1773, Franciscan friars spread them throughout the (Alta) California missions. It is postulated that the Jesuits grapevines came from continental Mexico, however, so far no scientific studies have been published that confirm a Mexican origin or any geographic region of provenance.
Currently, the Mission grape is grown and vinified in Mexico almost exclusively in the Santo Tomás wine region, in the state of Baja California (10), and it is considered a minority grape. In the United States, it is cultivated in California in the AVA (American Viticulture Area) regions of Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County), Mokelumne River (San Joaquin County), Sierra Foothills (El Dorado County), and Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara) among others, and is mainly used in making Angelica, a sweet wine fortified with brandy, whose name may have been derived from the Los Angeles grape.
Another synonym for the Listán Prieto is the accession known in California and Mexico with the name of Rose of Peru or Rosa del Perú, respectively (11). This grape, also considered a minority today, is grown mainly in the states of Baja California (Tanama area) and Coahuila. In Peru this term is almost unknown, but in California it has been reported since the middle of the 19th century as coming from Peru and described morphologically similar to the Sonoma grape (12, 13).
When this accession arrived to California and Mexico from Peru is not known. It can be speculated that it could have been simply a synonym of the Sonoma grape brought by the Russian colonists, or that it may have been already present in North America, imported to California by Franciscan priests, or before them by Jesuit missionaries of Baja California. Regardless, by the mid 1800s it was considered, although erroneously, a separate and unique variety since today we know Rose of Peru or Rosa del Perú is genetically identical to the Spanish Listán Prieto, Peruvian Negra Criolla and Californian Sonoma, Los Angeles, or Mission grapes.
1. Colonial Russian America – Kyrill T. Khlebnikov’s Reports – 1817-1832, Basil Dmytryshyn & E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan (translation and introduction), Oregon Historical Society, Portland, 1976. Pgs. iii, 14, 60, 62, 106-107, 121.
2. Memorial and Biographical History of Northern California, The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, 1891. Pg. 15.
3. “Agriculture of Upper California – A long lost account of farming in California as recorded by a Russian observer at Fort Ross in 1841″, E. L. Chernykh, In: The Pacific Historian, 1967 Winter Issue/Vol. XI, No. 1,, California History Foundation of the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California. Pgs. 10-28.
4. “Determining the Spanish Origin of Representative Ancient American Grapevine Varieties”, Milla Tapia, Alejandra, et. al., American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. 58:2. Davis, California, 2007. Pgs. 242–251.
5. Las viñas de Lima: Inicios de la vitivinicultura sudamericana, 1539-1551, G. Toro-Lira, Editorial Universitaria Ricardo Palma, Lima, 2018. Pg. 36.
6. “Informe sobre la vid y sus productos”, Evaristo D’Ornellas, In: La Revista de Lima, Tomo VII, Tipografía Nacional, Lima, 1863. Pg. 55.
7. Hyatt’s Hand-Book of Grape Culture…,T. H. Hyatt, H. H. Bancroft and Company, San Francisco, 1867. Pgs. 162-163.
8. The Resources of California, John Hittell, A. Roman & Co., San Francisco, 1867. Pg. 195.
9. A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Steve Heimoff, University of California Press, 2005. Pg. 139.
10. “Conoce las siete regiones vitivinícolas en México”, http://elheraldoslp.com.mx/2015/12/19/conoce-las-cuatro-regiones-vitivinicolas-en-mexico/ Accessed: March 10, 2020.
11. Ibid. Milla Tapia, 2007. Pg. 244.
12. Ibid. Hyatt, 1867. Pgs. 153-154, 163.
13. The California Vine Disease, Newton B. Pierce, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1892. Pg. 48.
Author Associations: 1Private Research Initiative, Sunnyvale California 94086, U.S. Author in ResearchGate 2Instituto Regional de Desarrollo de Costa, Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (UNALM), Lima, Perú. 3Estación Experimental Agropecuaria Mendoza (EEA), Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA), Luján de Cuyo (5507), Mendoza, Argentina.
*This article was originally published in Spanish here
aFrancisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a Lima-born navigator who explored Alaska in 1775, titled his memories: El descubrimiento del fin del mundo (The Discovery of the End of the World) (Madrid, 1990) because of the remoteness of the unchartered territory.
bCreole, or native with a foreign ancestry.
We thank Brenda A. Melvin for proofreading this article and for her support during the research phase of this work. 🇺🇾
© G. Toro-Lira, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Total or partial reproduction of this article is not allowed without a prior written permission, except for properly cited summaries in academic journals.