Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Nearly-Lost French Vineyard Grows in the Glendale Foothills

California owes a certain debt to the Spanish for its current existence—and the conquistadors who held a certain fancy for the local indigenous women, which spawned generations of Mexicans to come.

We celebrate the Californios—or, those born in California of Spanish descent—who pioneered the creation of our pueblos.

In LA, we've got Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown, Thai Town, and Koreatown to remind us of the cultural (and financial) contributions of our neighbors to the East. There's the Byzantine-Latino Quarter with its annual Greek festival, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Little Osaka, Persian Square, and Little Bangladesh.

We've even got an Italian-American Museum.

But let's not forget about the French.

The French began to immigrate to El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles in 1827, despite the fact that it was, at the time, a tiny Mexican village—and it took them less than a quarter-century to rise to prominence here.

A French winemaker named Jean-Louis Vignes was one of the first—but the French vines he brought here and the wine-friendly climate lured many others of his kind to follow in his footsteps.



One of those immigrant French winemakers was Georges Le Mesnager, who arrived in 1885 and purchased land in the Dunsmore Canyon area of La Crescenta (now known as Deukmejian Wilderness Park). There, he planted vines and grew grapes for a winery he opened at Main and Mesnager Streets in Downtown Los Angeles.



At the time, the canyon was wild and steep, subject to runoff, flooding, and mudslides—but nevertheless, Mesnager tried to develop the land with the help of his son Louis, who, in 1905, began building a stone barn for their winemaking business. (Some reports say that the barn was built from 1914 to 1918, along with some other buildings that no longer exist.)



For a while, the barn was primarily used as a stable and a storage facility—not only for vineyard equipment but also for the grapes that would be shipped off to the family's winery in Downtown LA. That is, until Prohibition hit in 1920.



The ratification of the 18th Amendment of the Constitution pretty much put an end to the Le Mesnager winemaking business (and the winemaking industry in general, save for places like San Fernando Mission and San Antonio Winery that could continue to produce sacramental wine), although the Le Mesnagers sold table grapes and produced non-alcoholic, grape-based drinks like brandy (which is typically created by distilling wine).



When the 21st Amendment of the Constitution repealed Prohibition in 1933, as we learned on our guided tour, winemaking resumed in the barn. But by then, Le Mesnager and his wife had returned to France, and he'd passed away a decade before after suffering a stroke.



Also in 1933, a fire in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains (now known as Angeles National Forest) gutted the barn—destroying the equipment inside and leaving only the original stonework. And, as is typical after a fire clears a hillside of its vegetation (in this case, chaparral and sage scrub), the rains that followed brought massive flooding—and more devastation to the vineyard.



Still, the early families of the LA area were a hardy lot, so the remaining members of the Le Mesnager family rebuilt the stone barn with an arched roof instead of the original pitched roof, taking the opportunity to add living quarters on the second floor and moving in. They lived there from 1937 to 1960, which helped preserve that stone barn as a rare example of a two-story vernacular rock structure.



And fortunately, the non-profit group the Stone Barn Vineyard Conservancy—led by, in large part, local historian, author, and winemaker Stuart Byles—has preserved not only the barn itself, but also the legacy of winemaking in this area of the Crescenta Valley.



The vineyard now has 81 grapevines—none original, all planted since 2004 and regularly maintained by volunteers. But, after being sold to a developer in 1968, the 709-acre property almost became a housing development. Fortunately, the City of Glendale stepped in, purchased it, and turned it into a park in the 1980s.



Now, you can find both red and white cultivars growing on the vines there, from Alicante Bouschet and Red Flames to Early Burgundy (a.k.a. Abouriou).

How does it taste? Well, I've yet to find out. The Conservancy isn't legally allowed to sell the wine it makes from these grapes.

So, I may just have to join as a member to get my complimentary bottle. After all, I do love underdog wine country.

And despite how big winemaking once was in LA (and not yet Malibu), there's no bigger underdog than LA when it comes to California wine.

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