Three months out, and already I’m excited about California Wine Month in September.
It isn’t the tastings, dinners and tours that have me looking forward to this decade-old celebration so much as Gov. Jerry Brown’s proclamation to kick it off.
The governor likes to use these kinds of occasions as an opportunity for a teaching moment, and the more arcane the lesson the better.
Thus, his proclamation for California Wine Month last fall didn’t generate any buzz, and it wasn’t even in Latin.
For that occasion, Brown couldn’t have plucked from the dusty archives of California’s wine history a more obscure figure than the Italian Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, who never before may have warranted more than a footnote in texts about the state’s wine trade.
That’s because the padre’s work with grapevines and wines was in Mexico and what now is Arizona, where he is an immensely popular and revered figure. He’s even a candidate for sainthood for his good works over the 30 years he toiled on the Baja peninsula and in the Sonoran desert: He brokered peace among tribes, opposed slavery and the appropriation of lands occupied by the indigenous, cultivated gardens of European fruits and vegetables, established cattle ranches and the like.
More than 350 books have been written about Padre Kino, including a comic book. A tall statue of the priest welcomes visitors to Tijuana. He’s one of two Arizonans recognized with a statue at the U.S. Statuary Hall of the nation’s Capitol.
And the tributes continue. Just last year two marine biologists named a newly discovered shell-less gastropod mollusk after the padre – Marionia kinoi – in recognition of Kino’s role as the first Pacific coast conchologist.
The multitalented missionary also was a skilled cartographer, astronomer, surveyor, horseman and writer.
But he was never a California vineyardist and winemaker. As the governor was quick to note in his proclamation, however, Kino did plant the first grapevines in what ultimately was to become known as the Californias.
This was at the short-lived Mission San Bruno overlooking what he called on his maps the Mar de Las Californias o Carolinas, today variously known as the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf of California, just north of La Paz in Baja California Sur.
Kino arrived at San Bruno on Oct. 6, 1663, and reluctantly gave it up on May 7, 1665, beaten down by drought, scurvy, hostile neighbors and the challenges of getting supplies reliably. Given that at least two years customarily is needed to produce enough grapes for wine even in a benevolent climate, he probably didn’t succeed in making the first vintage along the west coast of North America.
In the principal biography of his life, and in his own writings, Kino did give at least grape growing a shot. In 1663, the supply ship Capitana delivered “the grapevines and young pomegranates and quinces” he had requested from the mainland. “And we planted them, trusting that in their time the Californias or Carolinas will produce wine for many masses,” he wrote.
Kino subsequently migrated north and east to the Pimeria Alta, the vast borderlands encompassing today’s southern Arizona and the northern reaches of the state of Sonora in Mexico. There, he industriously explored and mapped the region, built 24 missions, established ranches – and cultivated plots of vegetables, orchards and vineyards.
At his headquarters, Mission Nuestra Señora de los Dolores near Cosari in Sonora, where he lived and worked from the founding of the church in 1687 to his death in 1711, his green thumb yielded pomegranates, fig trees, peaches, quinces and “grapevines for wine for the Masses,” according to one early biography. In his own memoirs, the Jesuit raved of the fields of wheat, maize and beans, stands of European fruit trees, rows of vegetables, and vineyards “for Castilian wine for the missions” throughout Pimeria Alta.
The gardens of Kino’s churches were so abundant they helped provide missions back in Baja with provisions, presumably including grape cuttings or wine or both. Thus, while he had no direct involvement in creating California’s wine trade, he reasonably can be credited with showing the feasibility of cultivating grapes and making wine in a setting far more challenging than San Diego, where in 1769 the Franciscan friar Junipero Serra founded the first mission in what now is California.
There, or at the mission’s subsequent relocated nearby site, the state’s first grapevines are believed to have been cultivated.
Today, Serra is seen widely as the pivotal player in creating the California wine trade, though he likely was working with the types of vines introduced by Padre Kino. They produced the grape variety broadly called “mission,” now more properly identified as listan prieto, also known as criolla chica, negra peruana and pais. It’s a black Spanish grape long and widely cultivated on the Iberian peninsula and in the Canary Islands. (Spanish conqueror and missionary Francisco de Caravantes is credited with introducing listan prieto to Peru in the early 1600s, setting the stage for its slow drift north.)
Kino’s contributions to Southwestern and Mexican culture continue to be recognized most passionately by the Kino Heritage Society of Tucson, a busy focal point for publications, workshops, lectures and research about his effect on the Pimeria Alta ( www.padrekino.com).
Also, over the past decade officials of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the University of Arizona have gathered seeds and cuttings for a Kino tribute garden that includes 28 vines of the mission variety.
In Mexico, meanwhile, Kino is recognized in several ways, including as the name of what is believed to be the country’s best-selling wine. Two versions are sold in 1-liter clear-glass carafes with pop-off lids. They sell for between 45 pesos and 85 pesos each ($3.50 to $6.50). One’s a Vino Blanco, the other’s a Vino Tinto; both are nonvintage blends of unspecified varieties.
Stylistically, they aren’t far removed from the simple everyday jug wines that emerged from California’s San Joaquin Valley early in the evolution of the state’s modern wine trade. They are soft, sweet, viscous and quaffable, and while dismissed by some as best for cooking, they are embraced by others for a youthfulness and fruitiness suggestive of beaujolais nouveau. You aren’t likely to find them on restaurant wine lists, though they are available in most grocery stores in Mexico.
In California, their closest equivalent could be the jug wines of Carlo Rossi, which also are popular in Mexico.
Carlo Rossi – now there’s another character who could provide material for the governor.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.