Hospitality to the weary traveler was an inviolable rule among the Franciscan missionaries in California. Because of the universal fear then of tainted water, their cordial reception of guests involved offering wine.
The missions and their vineyards are part of the “romance of California.” Long before the railroads and tourist industry seized on these themes, the Franciscan padres offered homegrown refreshments to thirsty visitors.
One of my favorite mission decorations was on a wall of the church at Mission San Fernando. It was an elaborate image of a grapevine. Unfortunately, the structure had to be demolished following the disastrous 1971 Sylmar earthquake .
The padres planted the first grapevines. At least two “Mother Vines” were raised from cuttings brought to Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Juan Capistrano during the mid-1770s. By 1798, 10 of the missions were raising grapes. During the 1820s, Father José Sanchez was producing four hundred barrels of wine a year at Mission San Gabriel.
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Meanwhile, Father Luis Antonío Martinez was making more than 100 barrels a year from the well-tended vineyards to the east of the mission church in San Luis Obispo. These stonefenced vineyards are clearly marked on early maps and are today referred to as the “Vineyard Tract” surrounding the Dallidet Adobe and abutting Mitchell Park.
Father Luis constructed a brandy still and sold the resulting beverage in great quantities to the Sitka, Alaska-based Russian-America Company. The Russians, in turn, supplied manufactured goods much needed by the mission community.
Ivan Kuskov, vice governor of the Russian-American company’s operations in California, sent Father Luis a few bottles of fine Napoléon Cognac, possibly left by the retreating French Grande Armée in 1812. Father Luis enjoyed serving this elegant French brandy to his guests.
Stories of the lavish hospitality of Franciscans such as Father Luis and the Mexican rancheros who acquired the mission lands were spread by Helen Hunt Jackson’s popular novel “Ramona,” published in 1883.
Much of the novel was based on impressions that Jackson learned through Don Antonio Coronel, the onetime mayor of Los Angeles.
Abbot Kinney, founder of Venice, Calif., introduced Jackson to Coronel at his Los Feliz Rancho in what is now Griffith Park. Coronel, well past middle age, fashioned himself as an idealized Californio don. There was Spanish-themed music and dancing among the grape arbors of his beautiful adobe.
Don Antonio drove Jackson to Don Ygnacio Del Valle’s Rancho Camulos in Ventura County to meet his widow, Doña Ysabel Del Valle. The author fell in love with the pastoral scene and used Rancho Camulos as the setting of her novel.
As a preschooler, I was fascinated by the missions. My grandmother would walk me to an oak tree that marked the border of the Dominguez Rancho in Compton. There she would open the large green book with the grapevine on the cover and bring Ramona, the half-Indian maiden, and her Allesandro to life.
You can share some of this romance of the mission and ranchero era at “La Mesa de las Padres,” “the table of the padres.” This elegant dinner, served in our newly restored San Luis Obispo Mission Hall, was begun in the 1990s to support the conservation of our mission’s historic features. Father Luis would approve of the menu combining Native American and Californio dishes with a pairing of wines from Tolosa and Salisbury Vineyards.
Come and support our mission Aug. 24 at 5:30 p.m. For tickets, call 781-8220.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.