Is Los Angeles the True Birthplace of American Wine?

In a new documentary special, SOMM TV explores the roots of California’s wine culture.

In a new documentary special, SOMM TV explores the roots of California’s wine culture.


Los Angeles: City of the Lakers and the Dodgers, heart of American cinema…and home of the oldest grape vine in the United States?

Astoundingly, yes.

It makes perfect sense, as the excellent new documentary special “The Oldest Vine,” by SOMM TV, makes clear: LA is “the birthplace of California wine,” as one of the wine producers points out in this under-half-hour deep dive into this largely forgotten and utterly fascinating history. “In our heyday, in the mid-1800s, Los Angeles was making 25 million bottles of wine a year,” the documentary stresses. “And that was before Napa and Sonoma were even on the map as wine country.”

“The Oldest Vine” seeks to not just explore the history of California’s original wine region, but also to understand what made it so special to begin with. And as with so much else in the world of wine, the answer has roots in the church.

Most of the history of Burgundy, for example, can be traced back the Cistercians and Benedectines who worked the land there and strived to understand the differences between one vineyard and another; today, much of that knowledge is reflected in the divisions between Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and so on. In Los Angeles, the wine culture traces its roots back to the missions that dotted the area in the 1700s.

One of them in particular, the San Gabriel Mission, was home to a thriving grape-growing and wine-producing culture before the United States was even an independent country. There, all these centuries later, one of the original vines can still be found. And more shockingly still, it remains productive.

The vine — which has lived through the signing of the Declaration of Independence, world wars, every single president in our history, floods, fires, droughts, and more — has a trunk like a tree, as Amy Luftig-Viste, co-founder of Angeleno Wine Co., points out. Grapes grow from above, along the pergola it’s supported by. After years and years of neglect, it only recently was enlisted for the purpose it was originally planted for: Producing wine.

In a new documentary special, SOMM TV explores the roots of California’s wine culture.


That’s when four pioneers in the up-and-coming Los Angeles wine-producing scene — Lustig-Viste, along with her partner Jasper Dickinson; Mark Byron Blatty, co-founder and winemaker of Bryon Blatty Vines; and Patrick Kelley of Cavaletti Vineyards — made the monumental decision to attempt to produce wine from the vine’s fruit. Having never worked with one another before, the group did what so many visionaries in the world of wine, the visual arts, fashion, music, and film have always done: They looked to the past for inspiration.

With this project, they banded together. Instead of producing a classic red from the grapes of this ancient vine, they learned about the kind of wine that was likely made at the mission in the 18th century. By blending the Mission grapes (the variety also goes by the name País) with brandy, they have been able to produce a fortified wine called Angelica that is likely very similar to what was crafted centuries ago.

"The reason to replicate the old style of making wine from here is really, again, to connect the past and the present of Los Angeles wine…,” explains Blatty. “This is actually an opportunity where we get to see, touch, and eventually taste history, and get to showcase that history that is so lost in LA that people aren’t aware of. So we want to do it in a way that is true to the old style to sort of honor that tradition of winemaking.”

Which is also what the documentary special does, and in the most vivid, fascinating, and thirsty-making way possible.

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