by Fred McMillin
for October 31, 1997
Prologue: Since this is Halloween, today we recall one of wine's greatest trick and treats. It happened nearly 500 years ago.
The Trick: The scene is Mexico City. The year is 1522 A.D. Cortez's father, Martin, sent the vines from Spain that would make the first wine in the New World. However, Martin certainly tricked the world's vine scientists. They never have figured out where he found them.
The Treat: The treat was that Martin had made a marvelous choice. The particular varietal produced lots of red-wine grapes in all kinds of climates. It was used to make the first wine in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, New Mexico, Arizona and California. It was called the Pais in Chile, the Criolla in Argentina. The Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries also brought it north, building missions along the way. Hence, the grape in North America was known as the Mission. A hundred years ago the Mission still produced about 80% of all California wine. Martin's vines had dominated New World winemaking for over three centuries...quite a treat!
How Good Was the Wine?: In California, the Zinfandel was found to make a better red table wine, and gradually replaced the Mission. But how good were those Mission wines? A few years ago I took a collection of them to the Robert Mondavi winery and tasted them with the winemakers. Vintages ranged from 1967 to 1989. The conclusion was that with modern methods the Mission can produce a much better wine than it did when it fell from favor a century ago.
If you want to find out, contact the Story Winery in Amador County. Some years ago I hired them to make a red Mission for use in my wine history courses. It worked out so well that they now make several commercial versions.
For more about Story, see the June 19,1997 WineDay.
Postscript: Those European explorers brought much more than wine to the New World. Probably the most important to the native American Indians was a four-legged newcomer they had never seen before, the horse!
Read more articles by Fred McMillin in the eGGsf
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