As the cool of evening starts to set in on a parched October Friday downtown, Los Angeles city archivist Michael Holland is finishing up the harvest of grapes from the Viña Madre at the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street. This is the third harvest he’s undertaken here since he first decided to try to revive the old vines, which had turned into a bit of an overgrown mess. The vines are around 150 years old, and they represent a tangible link to the Spanish and Mexican eras of our past.
On the job, Holland oversees documents and relics that date back to pre-American L.A., but he is also a culinary tinkerer: He cures bacon and makes homemade wine. The wine he has been making from these grapes is the old regional style of fortified Angelica (yes, it seems that L.A. has its own signature style of wine). It is a rare treat for the historian/winemaker but also a way to glimpse into the past that the grapes represent. “The sight of a grape arbor is a surprise to most tourists, who can’t imagine L.A. having a past with vineyards and wineries,” he says.
Bertolt Brecht, the highly regarded Marxist dramatist, spent the 1940s in Los Angeles after fleeing the Nazis and wrote of the city, “Scratch the surface a little and the desert shows through.” He was perhaps pointing to one of the interesting issues of living here: the disconnection from the past. One could spend a whole lifetime in L.A. without encountering any signs of history. Some of it is extinct, much of it was paved over.
Today, Olvera Street still exists as the touristy marketplace of colorful serapes and combination-plate cantinas it was transformed into around 1930 — some say it’s L.A.’s first urban-renewal project. Nearby are Union Station and Philippe’s, icons of early–20th century L.A. The adobe predates them. This was the urban center, a small village in the heart of an agricultural region practicing the rancho lifestyle: raising cattle for trade and farming grapes, citrus and other crops at subsistence levels (and exploiting Native American labor in the process).
Amidst the bright buzz and bustle of Olvera Street, it is easy to walk right past the more muted Avila house, which will celebrate its 200th year in 2018. Entering the structure, which has been outfitted with the trappings of the rancho period, you can imagine life in the pueblo in the early 1800s. A leather saddle suggests the horses that would have been as important to the rancher as cars are to us; cooking and entertaining would have taken place outdoors on the interior patio. It is like an island, the last vestige of that era, in the shadow of the rapidly changing downtown skyline. Being part of a state park should ensure that it remains as such.
During much of the 1800s, the area surrounding the adobe featured vineyards. The source of the vines at the Avila Adobe was almost certainly the San Gabriel Mission, once home to one of the finest vineyards in California. Holland says that the vines at the adobe, which grow up and out over a pergola, probably were planted to provide shade, not for the fruit. But the vines, which are typical of those called “Mission,” are the same ones that were planted in many local vineyards. A hybrid of Spanish and native varietals, these vines are among the very few examples that still exist. Just like the California citrus orchards that came later, most of the vines were torn out and buried under new development long ago
“The fact that we have living vines to work with, within a living history project like this, is profound,” Holland says. The amount of fruit and the quality of the grapes has been improving little by little since the project was initiated, but the average visitor wouldn’t know it, though according to Holland they occasionally they sample the fruit. There is nothing to indicate the significance of the vines, though. They emerge from small patches of dirt, and they climb up above the roofline, just out of reach and nearly out of sight of those who amble past — anonymous evidence to an L.A. we cannot exactly comprehend but one that hasn’t been completely forgotten.
The Avila Adobe is an easily accessible example of L.A. history and is open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Entry is free. In addition, there have been a couple of recent books on the subject of winemaking in Los Angeles: The City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles by Thomas Pinney and Los Angeles Wine: A History From the Mission Era to the Present by Stuart Douglass Byles.