As the historic heart of Los Angeles, Olvera Street is a prime tourist attraction. While visitors may be charmed by the old-fashioned bricks below their feet, there’s a piece of history overhead that often goes unnoticed: grapevines from when this was known as “Wine Street.”
The most famous California grapes are grown about 400 miles north of here, in Napa Valley and Sonoma, but the West Coast wine industry actually started in LA in the 19th century. There were once more than 100 vineyards in the area, but over the years the Gold Rush, disease, Prohibition, and development nearly led to their extinction. Now, a group of young winemakers is reviving the tradition.
Founded in 2019, the Los Angeles Vintners Association is raising the profile of LA wine, growing grapes locally, and rediscovering historic vineyards. One of the three original members of the association, the Angeleno Wine Company, recently opened Downtown LA’s first new winery and tasting room since Prohibition, in the Mission Junction neighborhood. The company sources grapes from two small vineyards in northeast LA County, and makes zinfandel, grenache, syrah, and a variety of blends.
Another member, Cavaletti Vineyards owner Patrick Kelley, went to investigate some grapes growing in a schoolyard in Lake Hughes, about 60 miles from downtown. “It was hidden in plain sight,” he says. “Every child who attended that school snuck in to eat the grapes, and residents picked a bucket or two every year. It’s just that nobody recognized the vineyard’s historical importance.”
It turns out the vines were planted around 1899 but later abandoned, and the land was donated to the Hughes- Elizabeth Lakes Union Elementary School District in 1960. The Vintners Association is restoring the vineyard, and DNA testing revealed that it produces Mission grapes, a variety the Spanish brought here in the 16th century. (The association has also been cultivating the old vines at the San Gabriel Mission, with plans to release a special batch of wine later this year, to honor the settlement’s 250th anniversary.)
As for the Lake Hughes vines, Kelley hopes to harvest about 3,000 pounds of grapes and make about 900 bottles of wine this year. Proceeds will provide school funds, and he says the product “will give people a taste of the wine that made LA famous long ago, and will again today.”