A Taste of Grapes in SB County

By R Lawson Gamble

After Father Juniper Serra planted California’s first known vineyard in 1769 in the San Diego area, each mission that followed planted vines to grow grapes for sacramental (and sometimes other) purposes. According to wine historian Victor Geraci of the University of California, Berkeley, when explorer Gaspar de Portola visited the Santa Ynez Valley in 1789 he noted the rolling hills, good soil and plentiful water supplies from lakes and streams. Subsequent observers’ reports led to the arrival of grapevine cuttings to support the three missions that had been built in the area: La Purisima Concepcion, Santa Ines and Santa Barbara. The grapevines would insure that the missions’ fathers had a steady supply of sacramental wine.

No land is more suited to growing a greater variety of grapes than the many faceted hills and steep arroyos of North Santa Barbara County, carved and articulated by the draining waters of an ancient inland sea. These hills offer every possible exposure to the strong, bright sun. Here the waters of the Pacific stay cold all year round and keep the air temperature that moves into the valleys quite cool, an average 75 degrees even during the warmest months. Here fog rolls into the east and west facing valleys each morning. Here, too, the long and narrow north and south facing valleys benefit from maximum sun exposure and the cool Pacific breezes.

It is no surprise, then, that the mission La Purisima Concepcion became famous for its fruits and wines. There were vineyards of green and red grapes, tended by the native inhabitants under the supervision of Father Fermin Lasuen. They made “aguardiete”, so named in the mission era for distilled spirits made from the wine of the Mission Grape. Known for its hospitality, La Purisima Mission became a destination for travelers by land and by sea who departed feeling blessed and fulfilled in multiple ways.

Over time, more settlers from Europe came to the region, bringing with them the more established European traditions of winemaking. Settlers of Swiss and Portuguese descent were among the earliest in the Guadalupe region. While they are credited with establishing the area’s earliest dairies and beet farm operations, both peoples also brought with them an appreciation for wine. Most settlers of European descent were accustomed to wine with their meals and fostered the growth of grapes.

In 1837 the Spanish governor of Alta California granted 8,900 acres of land to José Tomás Antonia Olivera, former superintendent of the missions La Purisima, Santa Barbara, and Santa Inez. The ranch stretched across the Santa Maria Mesa, northeast to the San Rafael Mountains, and skirted the Sisquoc and Cuyama rivers. A creek called “Tepusquet” generously watered it. In 1855, Olivera’s heirs sold Rancho Tepusquet to Olivera’s stepdaughter, Martina, and her husband, Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros. The couple built an adobe on the ranch and moved in three years later. Ontiveros and his wife raised horses, cattle, sheep, and grain crops, and planted the property’s first vineyard around 1856. Over the years, portions of the original acreage were sold, but the original adobe still stands today amid the vines of Bien Nacido Vineyards and remains as one of the few privately maintained adobes in California.

Ontiveros Adobe

More on grape history in SB County in future articles.

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