Los Angeles city archivist plans to make wine with grapes from old vines at Olvera Street

A grapevine seems to float across the top of vendors' stalls in downtown Los Angeles at Olvera Street and the historic El Pueblo complex, its tendrils creeping this way and that, leaves healthy and green. The canopy covers almost 400 square feel, filling available space like kudzu. Follow its labyrinthine path over the roof of the Avila Adobe and back down into the newly restored Avila Adobe courtyard. There are actually three grapevines, two there, and one in front of a storefront down the street, each with massive roots that are more like tree trunks.

These are vines that are possibly older than California itself.

City Archivist Mike Holland, a home winemaker, has had his eye on the vines for a while, curious about their origin and how old they might be. He's an avid history buff and shares his obsession with his friend Wes Hagen, a third generation Angeleno and consulting winemaker for J. Wilkes Wines in Santa Maria Valley.

Last year Holland asked Hagen whom he could contact at UC Davis to get a DNA analysis done on the vines. He referred him to the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis, which keeps a database of all plant material it analyzes. "When I told the lab manager Jerry Dangl that I wanted to get an analysis of three vines on Olvera Street at the old Pueblo site, he offered to do the analysis at no cost," says Holland. They sent him a kit. He cut the leaves as requested and sent the whole thing off to the lab.

The results, when they came back three weeks later, were stunning.

"The three vines are identical to one another and they match what has become known as'Vina Madre.' This is the famous 'old Mission grape of California' growing at the San Gabriel Mission. We know from our analysis of samples from San Gabriel that this variety is a first-generation hybrid between a native Southern California grape (Vitis girdiana) and the European grape (Vitis vinifera) variety 'Mission,'" Dangl wrote in an email. The latter was introduced by the Spanish missionaries in 1769.

Think about it. Since the Avila Adobe dates from 1818, the vines could possibly be 150 years old _ or more.

"This is a vine that produced fruit in Los Angeles before wines were commercially made in California," says Hagen. "Before Napa. Before Sonoma. Before Monterey. Even before Santa Barbara. A vine that is older than the state of California itself. We're talking about the genesis of New World wine and a vine that represents a link to Junipero Serra, to the Mission era."

Of course, it still hasn't been established exactly how old the vines actually are _ or whether they were planted to make wine or to create a shady pergola. (The Mission grape is a particularly vigorous and leafy vine.) Because the genetic material is the same, we can assume that the vine cuttings originally came from Mission San Gabriel.

Over the last several weekends, with the permission of El Pueblo director Chris Espinosa, Holland has been picking the grapes in the early morning before anyone is around. His plan is to make some wine. By last week he'd harvested just 10 pounds of grapes and should pick up a few more on his last pass this weekend. It's not much _ and means that at most, he'll be able to produce less than a case. "The rule of thumb is 18 pounds per gallon and I have barely a thumb's worth," says Holland.

After a gentle pruning earlier in the year and the removal of a tree that had been blocking some light, the vines looked healthier and this year produced more grapes than before. Because the Avila Adobe is a historic site, Holland can't do anything to damage the integrity of the specific area. That means no trellising, and he can't use nails or hammers. He can't even tie down the vine. He can only suggest the vine grow in a certain way by slightly shifting a shoot in one direction or another with his hands _ but the vine has its own mind.

"What is there is there and I have to adapt to what the vines are doing. In a normal vineyard system, you have your trellis, your spacing, your canopy management," he explains. "Up there, it's literally a green carpet of leaves and tendrils with clusters here and there."

The only thing Holland did was to trim some leaves to give some clusters more light and air on his day off on Fridays. "It's really like a rooftop vineyard."

This first batch of wine will be a test run. He wanted to keep it small and simple. "I'll probably make it in my garage like I do my other wines," Holland says. But he's very curious to see what it will taste like. So is Hagen, who's standing by if Holland needs any advice. And also pestering him with questions via email about what style of wine he thinks he's going to make.

Dry? Or something semi-sweet like the original communion wines? The Mission grape, which thrives in Southern California's warm weather, was used to make sweet sacramental wine and may not be suited to make a great table (dry) wine. That's yet another reason why wine production eventually moved north.

So far Holland is playing it close to his vest. He'll know by spring what he's got.

But for a twist of fate, says Hagen, who often gives talks on the history of wine, Southern California would have been the locus of commercial winemaking in California. In fact, the Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes had a large-scale commercial winery as early as 1833 very close to the site of what is now Union Station. By the time California became a state in 1850, Los Angeles County had approximately 100 vineyards. And by 1860 was producing 162,980 gallons of wine, well over half of California's entire production of 246,518 gallons.

"Most people don't know that Los Angeles is the birthplace of commercial wine in the New World," says Hagen. "Two things drove grape production north: Anaheim disease (later known as Pierce's disease) which decimated vineyards in the Los Angeles basin in the 1880s, and the Gold Rush. Without those two factors, Los Angeles would have been the predominant wine-producing region throughout the 19th century and into the 20th."

That didn't happen. But we still have a little piece of history right here on Olvera Street to celebrate. And maybe, just maybe, we'll have some wine from a vine that goes back to the very beginning of California wine.