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Socorro’s Vines and Vintners

Finest wine in the city –
40,000 gallons – at L & H
Huning and Goebel’


By Phyllis O. Reiche

            In April of 1884 the Socorro Daily Sun carried this advertisement:

                        Finest wine in the city –

                        40,000 gallons – at L & H

                        Huning and Goebel’s

Although this amounted to approximately ten gallons for every man, woman and child in Socorro, Huning and Goebel’s was only one of several establishments in town selling wine, and home winemaking was common.  Wine was not only a popular beverage but, by 1884, already an old New Mexico tradition.

The first grapes planted in the state were those brought to Senecu, near Socorro, by Fray Garcia de Zuniga around 1630.  Along with vines, the missionaries planted other fruits, vegetables and cereals, both for their own sustenance and as an incentive to the Indians to convert to Chistianity.  The grapes were the species Vitus Vinifera, European grapes, and the variety was probably the common Spanish Monica.  Here, however, they came to be known as Mission Grapes.  Along with adding variety to the diet, the grapes were also to provide wine for church use, and therefore a winery was built at Senecu.  It was undoubtedly primitive, but during its forty years of operation, the Spanish authorities were very pleased with the quality of the wine.

In 1675, however, the mission was attacked by Apaches who killed the priests and some of the Indians.  The survivors fled to Socorro, abandoning Senecu forever.  Five years later, in 1680, the Pueblo Revolt drove all the Spanish, along with their Indian converts, from New Mexico.  The refugees resettled in three villages in the valley of El Paso del Norte near modern El Paso, Texas.  Again grape vines were planted and flourished.

Although Cortez had encouraged the planting of vineyards and orchards, around 1595 the Spanish government officials became concerned about protecting revenues from their wine trade with the colonies and prohibited planting of any new vineyards or orchards in the New World.  Although the ban lasted 150 years, it did not affect the missionaries because the Church was strong enough to ignore it.  Consequently, vineyards grew wherever the missionaries went, and, when New Mexico was recaptured in 1693, vines were again planted.

When Nicholas de La Fora made his inspection trip of the area from 1766-68, he was impressed by the “very good grapes, in no way inferior to those of Spain.”  The wine was good enough to become an important export in the annual caravans that went south to Mexico during the Colonial Period.  The 1804 official report of the Vera Cruz Consulado placed it among the top three exports, along with wool and peltries.

By 1812, when Pedro Bautista Pino of Santa Fe compiled an economic report on the province, Indian raids were having such a drastic effect on trade that wine was the only revenue-producing product.  The quantity of that was small, but the quality impressed Pino: “In no other country in America can wine be found with the taste and bouquet of the wine of New Mexico.”

By mid-century, when New Mexico had become a United States territory, home-grown wines were frequently mentioned in reports and journals.  In 1855 a visitor to New Mexico wrote to the Evening Post of his travels through the territory.  He was favorably impressed by two things in Socorro.  While most of the towns along the Rio Grande had to depend on the river for their water, Socorro was fortunate to have what he called “the perpetual and abundant spring” of Socorro Mountain.  Although by the time the water reached the lower areas of town, it had watered crops and animals, had ground grain, washed clothes and bathed people, he still considered it one of the best supplies he had seen in New Mexico.

It also watered the grapes which he described as “most luscious, . . .  cultivated after the French and Italian mode, kept trimmed closely to the ground, not growing more than two or three feet high, supporting themselves by their own stocks when a few years old.”  This described the generally-practiced stump method of pruning.  The correspondent went on to describe the wine and brandy made from the grapes.  He was not otherwise impressed with the village, however, and added, “The country furnishes no evidence of the advantages of the grape culture, either on the morals or the temporal prosperity of the community.”

The grapes were also mentioned in a report on the mines of New Mexico prepared by Indiana State University personnel in 1865:

The vine thrives most luxuriantly in the southern part of the territory; and the wine of the region from Socorro, or even Albuquerque, to the Texas line at Franklin, or Mexican line at El Paso, is celebrated for its fine quality.  It sells at from four to five dollars per gallon.  The grapes are delicious and can be bought by the quantity for about three or four dollars a bushel.

In 1868 the governor urged New Mexicans to engage in the culture of grapes, and the next decade saw many new vineyards come into being.  It was also in 1868 that the Italian Jesuits, requested by Archbishop Lamy, arrived in New Mexico.  They planted a vineyard east of Albuquerque’s Old Town Plaza and encouraged others to do so.  They also built a winery and became leaders of the industry.  By 1880 New Mexico was the fifth largest wine producer in the United States, and expectations for the industry were high.  The dark, sweet Mission grapes were still the favorite, although some Muscatel, small, sweet and pale yellow in color, were also grown.  The Muscatel, however, were largely replaced by Muscat of Alexandria before the end of the century.

The coming of the railroad in 1880 brought rapid growth to Socorro, and many of the newcomers planted orchards and vineyards, sometimes experimenting with new varieties of grapes.  New methods in viticulture were also introduced by immigrants from Europe.  The Mission grape, however, retained its popularity.  The editor of the Socorro Sun considered them “the greatest product of the valley” and praised them for “delicacy of flavor, adaptation to soil and climate, and for abundant yield of fine wine.”  Michael Fischer, a German immigrant who lived on the west side of the plaza, had 2,000 of these vines growing behind his house.

At Polvadera, a ditch company was organized in 1883, bringing 3,000 more acres of land into production at a cost of $3,200.  Along with other crops, 100,000 new grape vines were planted.  In 1885 the Socorro Bullion ran this advertisement:

For Sale: A fine ranch of 45 acres at Polvadera with 7,000 bearing grape vines, a fine orchard . . . wine cellar, wine vats and press and all the apparatus for making wine.

No price was included in the ad, but good land in the Socorro area was reported to be available for $5 to $25 per acre.

Polvadera, however, was not the only scene of activity.  In the fall of 1885, Charles Davis planted 1,500 fruit trees and several thousand grape vines on his property just southeast of Socorro.  The Gordo Blanco Vineyard of Las Cruces advertised grape cuttings for sale in Socorro with prices per thousand of $4 for Mission grapes, $10 for Muscat of Alexandria and $20 for Black Hamburg.  The $10 premium for the best wine in the Socorro Fair that year was won by L & H Huning.  In 1887 Ambrosio Romero of San Antonio sold 4,000 pounds of grapes he had raised on 350 vines.

Expansion of the industry continued in the 1890s with good to excellent crops reported most years.  Juan Jose Lopez of Lemitar had several vineyards of Muscat, Muscatel, Flame Tokay and Mission.  In 1895 he harvested more than 20 tons which he said sold easily at good prices.  Other growers mentioned in the local papers around the turn of the century included Juan Jose Baca, Abraham Coon, M. A. Saylors, W. H. Byerts, Julius Campredon, Hubbard, Marcellino, and Yunkers of Lemitar. Julian Montoya of San Pedro advertised native vines for sale.  It was said that the favorite wine of Archbishop Lamy had been that from San Pedro.

Another Socorro winemaker was the flamboyant Giovanni Biavaschi.  He was a native of Valtellina, Italy, who had lived in the mining town of Kelly before establishing his large farm and vineyard in northwest Socorro.  By 1895 he had a distillery in operation and was making brandy from some of his wine.  He also made an unusual quince liqueur.  In 1896 he began construction of his new saloon building on the southeast corner of the plaza.  Like Biavaschi, the building was unique, with a stone-walled cellar that attracted a good deal of attention.  The building itself was made of pressed brick.  It is still in use as a saloon, the Capitol Bar [1985].  By the end of 1896, Biavaschi was adding a second building, and later he included a reading room with the country’s major newspapers and magazines.  In 1902 he remodeled a storeroom on the northeast corner of the plaza to serve as his wine room.  He also had a restaurant and rooms for rent.

Biavaschi is remembered as a rotund man with a large red mustache and a very red face.  He usually wore a huge belt buckle which was quite prominent on his expanded waistline.  He is variously described by those who remember him as a real entrepreneur, a colorful character or a con-man.  No doubt he was something of each.

Abraham Coon had a fifty-acre orchard and vineyard southeast of Socorro from which he shipped fruit yearly.  In 1899 he, too, began operating a distillery in the center of town.  His brandies were made from peaches, prunes, apples and grapes.  The Socorro Chieftain noted that the brandies from Coon’s and Biavaschi’s had all the headaches removed before bottling!

W. H. Byerts was another notable in Socorro’s fruit industry.  By 1900 he had planted 10,000 fruit trees west of town and was in the process of planting 10,000 more.  He continued until it was estimated, perhaps on the high side, that he had 50,000 trees.  He also had very fine strawberry beds.  He raised small, white seedless grapes which he gave to Mr. Hammel of the Illinois Brewery who made wine from them.  Although Byerts had a well, in 1908 he also called on the resources of Socorro Mountain when he drove a tunnel into the side of it to supplement his water supply.  At 300 feet it was reported he had sufficient flow to fill a five-inch pipe.

Land advertisements during this first decade of the 20th century included such extras as “228 fancy grape vines” or “1,000 grape vines,” apparently an attractive asset to any property.

In 1901 an annual report of the Department of Interior described New Mexico’s vineyard practices.  Using the stump method of pruning, vines were generally planted every six to eight feet, in rows eight feet apart, allowing over 1,000 plants per acre.  The vines were staked for the first two years and cut back to the strongest eye at the first pruning.  The second year all the buds were rubbed off to a height of fifteen to eighteen inches.  The third year the canes were pruned down to about eighteen inches, leaving two or three buds.  The vines were tied up in the fall and covered with earth after the first frost.  They were uncovered in March, a week or two before pruning.  Each acre under this practice produced an average of 12,774 pounds of grapes or 910 gallons of wine.

Along with progress in Socorro’s grape industry there were also problems.  The town’s population grew in the 1880s and reached a peak in the early 90s.  In fact, it was reported to be the largest town in the territory at one time during this decade.  Then, due to mine closings, its population declined rapidly to only 1515 people by 1900.  There were also weather problems.  In 1895 a severe hail storm did quite a lot of damage, only to be followed a month later by a flash flood which took its toll on the vineyards.

In the early 1900s a flood destroyed vineyards, farms and homes in the Polvadera area, including those of Paul Jean Frassinet whose family had emigrated from France in 1876.  He moved to a ranch west of Magdalena, but later retired in Socorro where he established a small vineyard and made wine for his own use.  His expertise was much in demand by local vintners during the spring pruning season.

In 1909 Biavaschi was in the news again.  The sheriff had closed his saloon for failure to pay his license fee.  Being resilient, however, by 1912 he was again in business, this time in the mining town of Carthage.  The vineyard he had owned in Socorro was destroyed some years later when the area flooded and water stood among the vines for several weeks. 

The Tafoya family operated a winery in San Pedro for a number of years. It was located at their home, which stood at the southwest corner of the church.  The walls of the house still stand, but there are no signs of the winery, which included some large partially covered wooden vats.  The vineyard was south of the house and winery.  It was destroyed by a 1926 flood.  The area covered by the vineyard is now distinguishable only by a difference in the flora from that of the surrounding area.

Another flood, in 1943, destroyed a winery in Polvadera which had existed from the late 19th century.  Heavy rains in the Polvadera Mountains were responsible for this flood.

Another major problem encountered in commercial grape production was the late and short ripening season of the Mission grapes, from late August through September.  An experimental vineyard was planted in 1900 at the Agricultural Experiment Station near Las Cruces in the hope of finding new vinifera varieties which ripened earlier and later to extend the shipping season.  Horticulturalist Fabian Garcia was in charge of the project and planted 52 varieties, of which more than half came from California.  Although severe spring frosts in 1904 caused damage, Garcia was able to draw conclusions and recommend varieties for commercial and home use when the project was concluded in 1905.  When they dug up the vineyard, however, it was discovered that many of the vines were infected with Crown-gall disease which would have eventually proved fatal.  The only treatment was destruction of the vines.  The California grapes were primarily the infected ones, but the disease was transmitted by flood irrigation, and any Mission or Muscat grapes nearby became infected too.

Garcia recommended the stump-pruning method and the traditional winter covering on all but a few varieties.  Without this treatment the vines were extremely vulnerable to the cold winter winds, but with it labor costs became prohibitive as it required hills three to four feet high with most of the labor done by hand.  Picking the grapes was also very labor-intensive due to the short vines. 

Another problem that arose was alkali buildup, due to the continued irrigation.  This caused the vines to become chlorotic and lowered the quality of the grapes.  When the damage to the vines became severe, they were removed and replaced by other crops. 

By around 1910, the Socorro papers had replaced their coverage of the local grape industry with articles on activities of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  Prohibition followed from 1919 until 1933, and that undoubtedly took its toll on the commercial operations.  Grape growing continued in private vineyards, though.  In fact, the number of vines throughout the state more than doubled between 1920 and 1930.  During the 40s and 50s, however, there was a sharp decline.  The last winery in the Socorro area was one in San Acacia operated by Joe Sarlonque under a grower’s license until mid-1962.  Apparently the major problem he faced during the last few years of operation was winterkill.

The greatest portion of wine made, however, was probably that of the home vintners.  The methods were diverse, but, in general, sophisticated equipment was unknown.  Barefoot stomping seems to have been the rule, even in many of the commercial operations.  Frequently this was done in a saddle-shaped device of hardened, perforated cowhide, with the juice collected in skins.  In some cases the grapes were stored in buildings with earthen floors for a week before the wine was started.  Then the fermentation of the juice was done in wooden barrels for a period of forty days.  After this the barrels were sealed and the wine drawn off as desired.  Concrete vats were also frequently used, and some can still be found in adobe sheds in the valley.  Sometimes these were lined with fine clay which was fired in place.  Vats under trapdoors in the floors of houses were also common.  Wooden barrels or cowhide bags were generally used for storage.  Although the wine was generally praised, undoubtedly the quality varied considerably.

Occasionally a very old vine can be found surviving in the valley near a ditch bank, but most have disappeared, as has most of the equipment.  Many of those vines have been dug in recent years by local people wanting to revive the old grapes.  New grapes, too, are being planted in increasing numbers.  With this resurgence of interest, we seem to have come full circle.  In 1883 the editor of the Socorro Bulletin made this prediction:

We see in the present attention given to grape culture in this section an important and growing industry which, in a few years, will assume the proportions of no ordinary nature.

With our increased knowledge and technology, perhaps that prophecy is more appropriate a century later.

[La Crónica de Nuevo México 22 (1985): 2-3.  Published by the Historical Society of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission.]