California's OG Wine Grape Might Be Its Modern Day Savior

·3 min read
Scribe Mission
Scribe Mission

Mike Battey

Before Northern California became known as Cab country, it was all about Mission. This resilient, versatile red grape was planted across the state prior to the 1850s, and when winemaking brothers Andrew and Adam Mariani of Sonoma's beloved Scribe Winery discovered their estate's role in the grape's storied past, they wondered whether Mission vines could once again thrive and produce wines worth raving about.

"Mission was originally brought to California by the Spanish missionaries, and from what we can discern, it was widely planted until prohibition," Andrew explains. Six years ago, he and his brother found a copy of an 1872 newspaper article from the San Francisco Alta California and learned that Julius Dresel, one of the estate's previous growers, had sent a sampling of his bottles for a professional tasting panel review in Geisenheim, Germany. The feedback surrounding Dresel's Mission wines in particular was –– for a grape that most modern American drinkers have never heard of –– surprisingly glowing: "These wines of the Mission grape are pure of taste, ripe, and unctuous," the review reads. "Therefore, they may prove with their sweetness and high percentage of genuine alcohol, splendid cutwines for our pour, sour growths of the last three crops." The notes go on to liken still red Mission wine to the best wines of Burgundy. Such high praise coupled with the Scribe's penchant for playing with grapes that aren't typically associated with Sonoma (think Riesling and Sylvaner) was more than enough to convince the brothers that Mission was raring for a revival.

"As more Europeans started coming over [to California], they brought varietals from Germany, Italy, and France that got priority," Adam explains. "Mission had a strong presence, but when a lot of those vineyards started dying out in the 1890s due to phylloxera, they all had to be replanted, which begged the question of what should get planted." At the time, the American palate was looking for high-octane, high-alcohol wines that were rich and deep in color. "Mission is much more Pinot-esque, and so it got passed over for Zins and big, rich powerful high-alcohol wines," he says.

Scribe Mission
Scribe Mission

Clay Grier

2022 is a good time to dive back into Mission's potential for several reasons. With rising temperatures across the coast, the grape could be a lifesaver for vintners who need to plant grapes with thick skins that can stand up to heat and disease, and ripen slowly. "It really can handle those warmer climates where a Pinot Noir struggles," says Adam. Moreover, planting Mission using modern viticultural knowledge in a premier soil and climate location –– like Scribe's –– has the potential to produce wines of unparalleled quality. "This really is an exploration and a study, we're not going into this with an end goal as to what flavor profile we'll get, or where it's going to sit in our lineup," he says. "Mission had such an impactful role in California wine originally, so who knows what it could be like, now?"

The inaugural still red bottling lands somewhere between a Gamay and Pinot Noir, with an earthy yet floral finish; the sparkling is a Californian ode to Lambrusco. "The sparkling pairs nicely with oysters and chicken liver mousse," Andrew says. "We had dinner last Saturday with Bell's in Los Alamos, and they did a whole pairing menu for the two Mission Wines. [Food & Wine 2020 Best New Chef] Daisy Ryan paired the still with roasted smoked lamb in this delicious pasta with chevre tortellini." Nashville pitmaster Pat Martin also paired the sparkling with barbecue.

"It's really exciting for us to explore this varietal and see what happens as these wines mature and we get a few vintages of experience with them," Andrew says. "We're pretty excited and pleasantly surprised as to how they're turning out."

Scribe Viticultural Society Members can purchase the first Mission bottlings online, here.