California wine 246 years ago – California Pacific International Exposition Silver Half Dollar Coin

Today, the California Pacific International Exposition Silver Half Dollar Coin with its view of San Diego shares the early days of the grape and the wine in California.

The Bulletin written by the US Department of Agriculture in 1891 discussed the Mission Vine in Mexico and California.

First, they provided a letter from the US Consulate in La Paz, Mexico which told of the Mission Vine in Mexico:


In answer to the questions contained therein, I would state that the missionaries who emigrated to this peninsula from Spain, in 1642, introduced this species of vine from said country. It is now cultivated throughout most all the old missions established by them and also in many other places, with perfect success.

It is all of the same variety, but in some missions it seems to be produced more successfully than at others, as, for instance, at a place called Patrocinio, near the old mission of San Ignacio; the wine made from the grape produced at said place is very similar to superior Madeira wine, while the wine made at the Purisima mission is a wine that if left for two years it is quite equal to Spanish sherry, it being an excellent dry wine.

The vines in this Territory are considered to produce the finest grapes of any part of the Republic.


Next, the Bulletin went on to describe how those vines in Lower California (Mexico) made their way into Upper California:



Upper California remained unoccupied, except by the Indians, until 1769, although several brief visits to its shores by various navigators gave to the world prior to that date many facts relative to its physical features and natural resources. Bancroft says:

“Cabrillo entered Upper Californian waters, never before disturbed by other craft than the Indian canoes, and anchored in San Diego Bay in September, 1542. If we suppose this port to have been his San Miguel, he remained six days. … Sebastian Vicaino, commanding a Spanish exploring fleet of three vessels, anchored in San Diego Bay on November 10, 1603. … After a stay of ten days they set sail on the 20th of November.”

After the brief visit of Sebastian Vizcaino, in 1603, the region about San Diego remained unexplored for more than one hundred and sixty years, or until about 1768, when material was brought together in Mexico and Lower California to found a mission on its shores. Expeditions were undertaken by land and by sea, most of the property going by water. The land expedition visited each of the missions of Lower California on its journey northward.

Father Rivera, in charge of this division, took from each mission “such live stock and other needed supplies as he and the different friars thought could be spared.” Palou gives a list of some of the articles sent, and among other things are bottles and jugs of wine, thus establishing the existence of vineyards at some of the points whence goods were consigned.

The president of the missions, Father Junipero Serra, had been located at Loreto in the early part of the winter of 1769, where he had been busily “engaged in preparations, forwarding such articles as he could get to La Paz or to Santa Maria, according as they were to go by water or by land.”

The first vessel to arrive at San Diego was the San Antonio, on April 11, 1769. The second vessel was the San Cárlos, on April 29 of the same year. The cargo contained, among other things, “6 jars of Cal. wine” and “5 jars of brandy.” We have here another record of wine making in Lower California, at the points furnishing the supplies. It is stated in Palou’s Life of Junipero Serra, that the ships were provided with “all kinds of orchard and other seeds.” Other consignments of supplies reached the new missions by water within the two following years.

The first part of the land expedition reached San Diego May 14, 1769, while the body of the second division arrived on July 1. The mission was formally founded on July 16, 1769. The lists of articles brought to this mission are by no means complete, and it is not strange that vine cuttings, if present in the supplies, are not enumerated. Bancroft says that “many varieties of fruit, including probably grapes, were introduced from the peninsula by the earliest expeditions between 1769 and 1773.” In evidence of this he says: “Vallejo has heard from his father and others of the fundadores that vines were brought up in 1769, and planted at San Diego.”

Mr. A. Haraszthy, in writing in 1858 of the early history of vine culture in California, says the vine “was brought to California by the Catholic priests in the year 1740 or thereabouts, and was planted at the Mission San Diego and Mission Viecho, situated about 60 miles from San Diego, in Lower California.” No references are given by Mr. Haraszthy, and this view of the matter may have been gathered from hearsay, for he continues:

“Tradition says that said grape vines and olive trees were brought at one and the same time from Spain.”

There are other facts which lead us to believe the vine was brought to San Diego from Lower California, chief among which is the uniformity of variety of the vine in the two regions. There was, in fact, an entire absence of any other variety in early days, so far as we have learned, in both districts. On this subject Mr. Haraszthy writes:

“Our modern California grapes were, to all appearances, multiplied from these vines [the Mission vines], set out originally in the above-named places [San Diego and mission Viecho]. It is certain that no other quality than this can be discovered among the native vines at the present age, and it is almost impossible that if several varieties had been imported at that period, they would have so completely run out as to leave no marks of distinction whatever.”

It seems to me that the conclusion cannot be avoided that the Mission vine of Upper California was brought from the missions of Lower California, where only this variety was known to have existed. The missions had full possession of the first vineyards in Upper California. They were founded by expeditions from the missions of Lower California; and wine had been made at these missions for over sixty years, and was supplied by them directly to the new missions.

Five of these missions are known to have had vineyards when contributions were drawn from them for the northern missions. The Church was the only power having the confidence to stand up against the Mother Country, Spain, in the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of the crop, and spreading of the vine in new regions; and we find this church, as a matter of fact, in full possession of this production in both Californias.

Any doubts remaining as to the immediate source of this vine should be dispelled by the following clear statement of Francisco Palou. Palou was writing of the life and times of Padre Junipero Serra. Juni pero Serra died in 1784, hence the facts given about California relate to the period between the founding of mission San Diego, in 1769, and the death of the venerable father in 1784, a period of some fifteen years. Palou was personally familiar with the situation in California at that time. He says:

“Having observed from the very beginning [of the mission] that all this earth was adorned with wild vines that had the aspect of vineyards, they began to set cultivated shoots brought from old California, and they already obtain wine, not only for masses, but also for drinking, together with fruits of Castile, such as pomegranates, peaches, apricots, quinces, etc., and also very good pot herbs.”


California Pacific International Exposition Silver Half Dollar Coin shows against a view of the Mission San Diego, circa 1904.

California Pacific International Exposition Silver Half Dollar Coin