Making Wine from Heritage Grapes at El Presidio SHP

by Michael Imwalle, with assistance from Gabe Smith

Gabe Smith inspecting the Presidio heritage grapes. Photo by Michael Imwalle.
Gabe Smith inspecting the Presidio heritage grapes. Photo by Michael Imwalle.

In May of 2013 SBTHP weekend interpreter Gabe Smith began working some extra hours in the Presidio Heritage Garden.  Gabe mentioned that his full-time job was working at Oreana Winery. He asked if he could try and make some wine with the Presidio grapes and we hatched a plan for the first vintage of Presidio Heritage Garden Red! The Presidio heritage grapevines are grown from cuttings taken from a Spanish Colonial period vine at San Gabriel Mission, so they are truly heritage fruits.  In September when the fruit had begun to ripen, Gabe returned to take samples of our grapes for their sugar and PH levels.  A small sample was taken and crushed by hand at Oreana Winery and tested for specific gravity. Since the sugar and PH levels were low, we decided to wait to harvest. In October 2013 Gabe retested the grapes and directed me to pick the fruit within the next week.

3On October 16th I picked more than 600 lbs of California Mission Grapes from three vines within the park and delivered them to Oreana Winery where winemaker Danny Miles and Gabe assisted us with crushing the fruit. SBTHP staffers Brittany Avila, Christa Clark Jones, Meredith Brockriede, and Gabe rinsed their feet and foot-crushed the grapes into 30 gallons of purplish pulp that will ferment in a large plastic bin for the next two months. Then the wine will be transferred to containers for storage in a cool, dry, place. We have identified the basement of the Alhecama Theatre as our new onsite “wine cave.”

Gabe drawings a sample of the wine to test alcohol and tannin levels. Photo by Michael Imwalle.
Gabe drawing a sample of the wine to test alcohol and tannin levels. Photo by Michael Imwalle.

On Thursday February 13th Gabe Smith came by to test the Presidio wine. Although it smelled somewhat fruity, the flavor was dominated by alcohol and tannins. Jerry and I both got to try it! Gabe suggested we add some oak chips to bring up the flavor of the fruit and smooth out the tannin and alcohol flavors.  On the following Friday Gabe brought “oak chip teabags” to add to the wine. He also brought a bag of SO4, or sulfate, to add to the wine in two to three weeks with instructions to remove the bags of oak chips in about five weeks.

On Monday March 2nd I added the sulfates to the wine in all three “carboys” and on March 21st I will remove the oak chips and leave the wine to rest until Gabe returns. Until then we will keep our fingers crossed and try the wine again in July. Stay tuned for a tasting update. Hopefully, we will have five to six cases of Presidio Heritage Garden Red for sharing with members at future SBTHP events!

A special thanks to Oreana Winery for the use of the crushing facility and to winemakers Danny Miles and Gabe Smith for their guidance and support during this inaugural crush. In the future we plan on partnering with a local craft distiller to make Brandy and Aguardiente both distilled from fermented Presidio Heritage Garden grapes!

Michael Imwalle is the archaeologist at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

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