Friday, March 14, 2008

Story Winery: The Mission Grape

I had a great trip last Friday visiting several wineries in California's Shenandoah Valley. Virginia has the more famous Shenandoah Valley, but Zinfandel has helped put California's on the map. According to Appelations America, it was a group from Virginia that first started making wine here during the Gold Rush. Though the valley produced wine in the late 1800s, it wasn't until the 1980s that a wine boom came to the area. The AVA, which covers parts of Amador and El Dorado counties, spreads over 10,000 acres, with over 2,000 acres under vine. There are now 16 local wineries, while many of the large California producers continue to access Shenandoah Valley grapes on contract.

Driving through the area was beautiful. It was a spring like day with trees budding, especially cherry trees and Bradford pear trees both with their white blossoms contrasting the dark fields of sleeping grapevines. Dafodils had sprung up lining the winery roads, their white and yellow heads craning to catch the warming sunlight. I didn't see any buds on the grapevines, but I'm sure they are almost ready to wake up!

Though Zinfandel is what the Shenandoah Valley is known for the Mission grape has been here just as long. This grape may have been the first grape grown for wine production in California. Spanish missionaries grew the grape as part of their attempt to be self sufficient. Wine was an important part of the mass and the Mission grape supplied it. The source of the Mission grape is unclear. Dr. Harold Olmo of the UCD Viticulture and Enology Department has a theory that the Mission grape is "a hybrid of Spanish Vinifera and the wild grapes of California (Olmo and Koyama, 31-41).

Whatever its history, it is still grown in some fields in the Shenandoah Valley. Deaver Winery in Plymouth had five acres of grapes dating from about 1855 were removed in 1997 due to old age. Around World War I, they gave some of the Mission stock to Story Winery who grafted it onto Zinfandel. Story still has 300 acres of Mission that it uses to produce a dry wine and a port style wine. This field is visible when you walk up to their tasting room. Off to the right, you see a slope containing some large, gnarly vines. They are planted on a south facing slope that cascades down a hill. If you could see their roots, they would probably fill the hill. Story Winery practices "dry farming" where they water new vines for only the first two years of their life. After that, they vines have to depend on rainfall and the water table.

The Story Winery Mission was my first sample of this wine. In color, it was light like a Pinot Noir. In flavor, it was earthy with lots of fruit, though not sweet. It almost tasted like a Zinfandel without the pepperiness. From what I had heard about Mission wine, I was surprised that I liked the Story Mission so much. I was expecting a weak, sour wine, but this was an interesting wine that would probably match with the same foods that Zinfandel does. If you ever have a chance to visit Story Winery you'll be greeted by very friendly tasting room staff. Though the winery is small and at the end of a long road, it seems to be a popular place. Their wine and their history make it that way.

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