Fray Junípero Serra
Miquel Josep Serra I Ferrer (Catalan), which translates into Miguel José Serra Ferrer in Castilian, was born in Petra (a village on Mallorca Island) off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. He was born to the family of Antonio Nadal Serra and Margarita Rosa Ferrer, who tied the knot in 1707. He became a member of the Franciscan Order at a young age and founded Mission San Diego, the first within the present state of California. Under Serra’s direction, the mission planted California’s early sustainable vineyard. Therefore, he is known as the “Father of California Wine.”
At a very tender age, he joined his father to work on the fields and helped cultivate beans and wheat — while also tending the cattle. However, he was particularly fascinated with the Franciscan Friary that was close to his family home in San Bernardino.
He went to join the Friars’ primary school, where he learned how to write and read. He also learned liturgical songs, mathematics, Latin, and religion at the school. Miguel was gifted with a great voice, and he made the most of it by taking on vocal music. His intelligence made him stand out in all he set out to do, and it didn’t take long before the friars noticed him — They allowed him to join the choir and perform at special occasions like the church feasts.
Following up on his passion and in the bid to give their child the best, his parents enrolled him in a Franciscan school in the capital at the age of 16. He studied philosophy and joined the Franciscan order as a novice.
Joining the Franciscan Order
A few months before his 17th birthday, Serra joined the Franciscan order at the Alcantarine branch. This marked the beginning of his landmark journey to becoming an official member of the order. His hard work and commitment earned him the religious name Junipero in honor of Brother Junipero. After getting a position in the order, he dreamed of becoming a Catholic priest. In the next seven years, Serra buried himself in studies — he spent most of his time studying logic, theology, metaphysics, and cosmology. 
His years of following the strict routine and schedule set by the Friars paid off as he became a priest in 1737. Three years later, Serra was awarded the ecclesiastical license to teach philosophy at the Convento de San Francisco. From that point on, he led the Franciscan mission and established missionaries in the Americas, and he also became the president of missions in California and planted the first sustainable grape garden in California.
Fray Junípero Serra in California Wine History
Regarded as the father of wine in California, Father Junípero Serra made his mark in the wine history of the region as the first to plant a Vineyard in California at San Diego de Alcala in 1769. The grapes he planted (in 1779) were among the first Mexican variety that was relocated to the United States and is named the mission grape. Serra’s Mission grapes remained at the top of California’s grapes until the mid1800s when the European settlers in Los Angeles introduced European varietals to the region.
Because of the immense contributions and influence of Junípero Serra on California wine-making history, it is almost impossible to describe California wine history without mentioning the role of the Spanish Franciscan Missionaries. Joining the dots to understand how the San Diego de Alcalá mission influenced California wine is a no-brainer because just as they (speaking of the missionaries) needed palm trees to produce palm branches for Palm Sunday, they equally needed vineyards to make wine for communion in all the nine missions he founded during his tenure.
While the mission grapes didn’t fare well in Mission San Jose and the San Francisco Bay because of the much colder climate, they flourished at the missions in Southern California. They ramped up wine production from what was non-existent to 50,000 gallons per year — From a winery that is barely 14 by 20 feet.
In addition to the stunning wine production from these vineyards, other fascinating topics about the mission vineyards are the types of wines they make from their grape variety (a Spanish variety of Vitis Vinifera) and how they made their wines?
The Franciscan Mission wine-making practices
Regarding the former, the Padres were known to make four types of wines from their single Spanish grape variety. They made sweet white wine (by fermenting the grapes without the skin). They also made two red wines by fermenting both the skin and juice together. Then there is a wine made from a blend of Brandy and sweet wine.
Moving to the technique or wine-making method, the grapes were most likely harvested by hand (as in pulling the grapes off the vines) and placed into woven baskets. Many wineries at the time featured sloping floors where the grapes were placed and danced on to crush them. The juice would drain into a well from where it will be scooped into hiding bags.
While the mission grapes got recognition and thumbs up from wine critics around, the mission’s wine-making technique (though at the frontier) was not exactly the best or most effective at the time; as such; they didn’t enjoy as much applause as the wines themselves. If there is anything that made Fray Junípero Serra grapes stand out, it is that they changed the narrative about grapes not being able to grow in coastal areas of California.
The San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Mission, founded in 1772, was completed in 1804 after suffering many fires. Following the mission of San Luis Obispo de Tolos’s establishment, San Miguel Archangel was created in 1797. Combined, both missions had a large expanse of land where animals were bred alongside mission grape vines catered to by the Padres.
On this day in history
September 14, 1730 — Young Junípero Serra joined the Franciscan order at the age of 17 in Palma, Spain. He became a priest in 1737 and got a license to teach philosophy at Convento de San Francisco. His course lasted three years (it ended in 1743) and with 60 students. His students included famous names like Juan Crespi and Francisco Palóu.
August 28, 1784 — Aged 70, Junípero Serra lost his battle with tuberculosis at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. He was succeeded by Fermín Lasuén. Over 20,000 people attended his beatification ceremony on September 25, 1988. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican City.
Want to read more about California wines? Try reading these books!
- “Junipero Serra.” 2022. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=eXFSAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA40.
- Agran, Libbie. 2022. “The First Father Of California Wine: Fray Junípero Serra.” Wine History Project Of San Luis Obispo County. https://winehistoryproject.org/the-first-father-of-california-wine-fray-junipero-serra/.