Abacela discovers 140-year-old Mission grape planting

By Eric Degerman on November 26, 2015

ROSEBURG, Ore. — Earl Jones moved to Southern Oregon from the Gulf Coast to begin planting Tempranillo in 1995, but he didn’t know century-old Listán Prieto grapes — a variety within the Mission family also native to Spain — already were growing at Abacela Ranch.

“We had this idea from when we were planting back 20 years ago that we were planting the first commercial wine grapes — we planted 4 acres in 1995 — and we thought that was probably the first Spanish grapes that had hit the soil,” Jones told Great Northwest Wine.

“Au contraire!” he continued. “Hidden in a blackberry thicket about a half mile from our original planting was a Spanish grape that probably came here in the 1500s — not to Oregon but the Western Hemisphere.”

Ironically, although Tempranillo translates to “the early one” in Spanish as a reference to its ability to ripen before many other grape varieties, it turns out the Cox family had the idea of planting wine grapes near Lookingglass Creek first when it settled in the Umpqua Valley during the 19th century.

The eyes of Jones, 75, sparkle when relating the history of his property — which he purchased in 1992 — and how it relates to this fascinating discovery of Listán Prieto. He named his original planting with Fault Line Vineyards as Cox’s Rock Parcel, a 12-acre tribute to John and Elizabeth Cox, homesteaders who patented their land claim in 1853. Research by Jones has led him to believe James Cox, their son, planted an orchard and small vineyard in 1873. It’s safe to assume the second-generation farmer dabbled in winemaking.

“It’s a gross guess based on deeds and local knowledge,” Jones said.

We recently visited Jones at Abacela, near the wildlife safari in Winston, Ore. Here’s the interview:

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Jones, a research dermatologist before becoming enchanted by Tempranillo, and his wife, Hilda, long have been fascinated by the heritage apple and pear trees on their estate, but they only found hints about the treasure chest of historic vines shrouded by brambleberries, occasionally seeing flares of grape leaves reaching for sunlight.

“The blackberry thicket was like a heavy fog, you couldn’t see what you were doing,” Jones said. “A bulldozer would have cleared it out in a morning, but we chose to try to identify what was in there.”

During the years, they busied themselves with developing other portions of their 400-acre estate, which has grown to 76 acres of commercial vineyard. When time permitted, Jones and his vineyard team carefully worked their way through the brier. Some of the trunks had grown to as large as a man’s thigh.

“At one time, there were five grape varieties,” Jones said. “Despite us trying to be careful, we think we’re down to three varieties now.”

Some of the vines in the tiny block produced clusters that took on an appearance different than anything he’d seen before. It prompted him last year to employ the services of the University of California-Davis.

“It was a grape that none of us had any idea what variety it represented,” Jones said. “It has large clusters that ripen rather slowly and turn a pale blue instead of a deep black color. … We realized we didn’t know, so we sent it to UC Davis for their genetic analysis. We didn’t have a suspicion they were a Spanish grape.”

Jones points out the history of Listán Prieto came to the Americas in the 1500s aboard Spanish ships carrying conquistadors and Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries.

“Listán Prieto is also known as Palomino Negra and Listán Negra,” Jones said. “Some of these grapes are collectively called the Criolla grapes or the Mission grapes. They have been used to make interesting wines in South America, in Mexico and in California, so it’s not beyond our trying to do the same thing with this Mission grape.”

Read full Great Northwest Wine article here.