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Wine Production in El Paso and the Grapevine Inventory of 1775

Wine Production in El Paso and the Grapevine Inventory of 1755

by Rick Hendricks

Wine production in colonial El Paso had its roots farther north in New Mexico. Before he came to El Paso to found the mission Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe to serve the Manso Indians, fray García de San Francisco served in San Antonio de Senecú. In the 1630s the Senecú produced sufficient wine to supply all the other missions in New Mexico. In addition to locally produced wine, Franciscans serving in the New Mexico mission field received one hundred liters of wine transported in the tri-annual mission supply caravan from Mexico City. This imported Spanish wine was intended for use in the celebration of the Mass, but priests may have occasionally sold this more desirable wine to the wealthiest individuals in the province and substituted the local variety.

The Spanish crown had pursued different policies with regard to the production of wine in the Americas over time. In 1519 the Casa de Contratación, the Spanish House of Trade, had been directed by the king to have cuttings and roots of vine stock sent in every ship bound for the New World. A special effort was made to transport cuttings and vine stock to New Spain in 1531. The efforts to establish a wine industry in the New World was successful, and by the 1550s, viticulture was well established in Peru. In 1595 the Spanish crown forbade new plantings or replacements in New Spain for fear that the colonies would become self-sufficient in wine production, but it was already too late. Although American producers were not permitted to export their wine to any place that could be supplied from Spain, the ban was only sporadically enforced.

This prohibition dates from the seventeenth century, precisely the century during which planting of vines began in El Paso del Norte. Probably, the first cuttings were not planted in El Paso del Norte until 1659, when fray García de San Francisco founded the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de los Mansos. The exact origin of these cuttings in unknown but they probably came from New Spain. The vine introduced in New Mexico was of the species Vitis vinifera, the so-called Mission grape. This European grape is assumed to have come from the Mónica, a variety common in Spain. Vitis vinifera produces a grape with a high level of sugar, but it is deficient in acid and color, a fact noted by colonial observers who commented on its characteristics. The wine produced from the Mission grape is sweet. The vine is hardy even in harsh climates and is disease resistant.

Mid-seventeenth-century financial records from Parral, a silver mining area in the present-day Mexican state of Chihuahua, indicate that imported Spanish wine sold for six reales per cuartillo (approximately a half-liter). At the time Parral was the nearest population and commercial center to New Mexico where imported wines and spirits could be obtained. Wine from Parras, the center of an agricultural region located in the present-day Mexican state of Coahuila, sold for four reales per cuartillo. By the time freight charges to New Mexico were added, the price increased to one peso a cuartillo, making wine a luxury product.

The first detailed information on the spread of viticulture beyond the missions in the El Paso area comes from 1726. Antonio de Valverde Cosío owned a hacienda called San Antonio de Padua that was located two leagues from the Piro pueblo of Socorro. Although the hacienda was dedicated to the production of wheat, it had between 10,000 and 12,000 grape vines. Valverde also had another five thousand vines at his home in El Paso.

In 1744 fray Miguel de Menchero prepared a report on his ecclesiastical visitation of the missions of New Mexico. Speaking of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Paso he stated that "[the mission] is a half-league from the Rio Grande and at a distance of three-fourths of a league they take out acequias to irrigate the wheat and vineyards, which are very abundant, and they harvest fruit of good flavor and a rich wine that is in no way inferior to that of Spain." Compared to other observers, Menchero's claims were probably a considerable exaggeration. Eclesiastical authorities who were primarily interested in the financial aspect of wine production routinely complained about the poor quality of the wine and the low market prices it fetched.

A 1760 decree by the captain of the El Paso presidio, Manuel Antonio San Juan Santa Cruz, took note of recent problems with El Paso wine production. Some harvests had been fraudulently marketed: producers had blatantly engaged in tax evasion. In other years wine and brandy were watered down. Producers made secret deals to avoid official scrutiny. San Juan ordered that all future business had to be done during the day and in public. Producers should sell only unadulterated wine and brandy.

The Church was one of the principal participants in the viticulture industry in El Paso. Church officials acquired much of the local production in the form of tithe payments. Wine and brandy received this way was sold on the open market or to wholesalers in Chihuahua. The Diocese of Durango owned everything needed to produce wine and brandy. The Church owned a storehouse for agricultural products collected in payment of tithes. The vicar, the bishop's representative, had barrels, hide vats, wheelbarrows for gathering grapes, large copper funnels and copper skimmers, large copper kettles in which the grape syrup was prepared, large troughs for pressing grapes, stills, a branding iron for marking casks and barrels, and locks and key to the bodega. In addition to the bodega in El Paso, the Church owned storage facilities in other pueblos.

Over time, fruits of the vine increased in importance in comparison with other agricultural products. In a given year either maize or wine and brandy were worth more than any other product. The importance to the economy of El Paso can be clearly seen in the number of individuals growing grapes. Each year as many farmers––frequently hundreds––grew grapes to produce wine and brandy as did maize. In 1755 an inventory noted that there were some 250,000 vines or some fifty hectares under cultivation. As a point of comparison, in 1761, the Bishop of Durango, Pedro Tamarón y Romeral, stated that there were some three million vines in the Parras region.

In that year the largest vineyard belonged to Manuela García de Noriega. She had approximately 2.5 hectares in grapevines. Doña Manuela was the daughter of Lázaro García de Noriega and Bárbara Niño Ladrón de Guevara of El Paso, and the widow of Domingo Antonio García. A merchant and militia captain, García had purchased his extensive land holdings from the estate of the late José Valentín de Aganza, the son-in-law of Antonio de Valverde Cosío. Only twenty other growers dedicated as much as a half hectare to vines. The average amount of land cultivated by the 288 vineyard owners in 1755 was one-fourth of a hectare. Five years after the vine stock inventory, Manuela wed José Colarte, a merchant from Seville, Spain. Colarte had worked as a cashier for Manuela’s husband, beginning around 1753, and then continued in business for himself after García’s death.

By comparing inventories of eighteenth-century estates for individuals involved in the production of wine in the eighteenth-century and a detailed description of production methods recorded in the late nineteenth century, it seems certain that wine production in El Paso remained largely unchanged for centuries. Root stock in the fields was separated like small trees. Unlike modern vineyards, poles were not used to support the vines, which were pruned near the main stem and put out roots in the spring. During the winter months straw and layers of soil covered the vines. This protective covering was not removed until warm weather arrived. In the spring the vineyards were flooded with water from the Rio Grande. The grapes were usually ripe near the end of July. Ideally, they were left on the vine until October so that they could attain maximum sweetness. In fact, by law they could not be harvested until 15 September. At harvest time workers gathered the grapes in large flat baskets called chiquihuites. Twenty-four chiquihuites of grapes yielded one barrel of wine after processing.

To make the wine, the producer took a sufficient number of uncured hides and stretched them on a frame in the sun to dry. A bag was fashioned from the hides. In order to crush the grapes, a hide dried in the shape of a trough was used. In the hide, holes were made so that the must or juice could flow out as the grapes were crushed. The trough was placed over the bag, which was suspended from four poles, and the grapes were stomped. The resulting juice collected in the bag that was suspended from the frame made by the four poles.

The must was then put in barrels for ten days of fermentation. The must was then removed leaving the sediment in the barrel. The must was transferred to in another barrel where sat for sixty days. It was then removed and placed in yet another barrel. After thirty days the wine was considered ready to drink. The wine was stored in casks that typically had a capacity of fifteen barrels.

Aguardiente, or brandy, was distilled from wine in a copper still. Brandy production usually required three barrels of wine for each barrel of brandy distilled. Three months after the harvest, the distillation of the wine began. Some impurities were always left in the wine to give the brandy some character. From these elements and from the wood of the casks and barrels, the brandy derived its flavor. Because brandy was more expensive by volume, it made good economic sense to produce brandy. Moreover, if the entire grape harvest was sold as wine, the market was literally flooded and prices fell. By limiting the amount of wine on the market, producers positively influenced the prices they received. Producing brandy also yielded savings on freight charges because they shipped fewer barrels of brandy than wine.

In some years more brandy was produced and in others more wine, although brandy tended to dominate by about two to one over time, as it did elsewhere in the Spanish empire. Output varied widely according to the size of the annual grape harvest. In years of relatively small grape harvests, more than two hundred barrels, or 4,000 gallons, of brandy and wine were exported from El Paso to Chihuahua in the eighteenth century. In years of bountiful harvests, more than eight hundred barrels, or 16,000 gallons, were sent south down the Camino Real. As for local consumption and shipments north, there are no comparably accurate figures. Assuming a per capita annual consumption of twenty gallons (low average for wine-drinking countries such as France and Italy) then the greater El Paso area could easily have consumed 70,000 gallons out of an excellent years' harvest of some 84,000 gallons.

Incomplete records for many years in the eighteenth century make it difficult to study production and prices of brandy and wine produced in the El Paso area. The common use of casks of varying sizes and three barrel sizes, commonly the quintaleño, parreño, and the jalapeño, further complicates production-price analysis and price comparison. Evidence suggests that production and prices varied greatly in the1700s. Generally, brandy was worth from more than half again to almost twice as much as wine. From 1750s through the 1790s El Paso wine sold in Chihuahua for as little as 11 pesos a barrel to as much as 30 pesos a barrel, brandy for as little as 20 and as much as 45 pesos a barrel.

Brandy and wine were items of exchange in two ways in the El Paso economy. Financial records distinguish between items that were exchanged through barter--the more common method--and those sold for credit secured by future production of wine or brandy. Because almost no coins circulated in colonial New Mexico, it appears that El Paso commerce operated largely on barter and credit based on annual brandy and wine production. Merchants issued personal loans and credit at local businesses to be repaid with the proceeds from sales of wine and brandy. Traders in Chihuahua with ties to El Paso merchants recorded the number of barrels of wine or brandy received and credited them to their colleagues in El Paso. Even real estate transactions were conducted on the basis of wine or brandy futures.

Wagons and mule trains transported wine, brandy, vinegar, and raisins to the markets both south and north. Barrels were assembled and filled in El Paso for shipping. Wagons departed from El Paso for the south by way of the Camino Real choosing between two routes. The lighter wagons usually went due south to the Ojo de Samalayuca. Heavier wagons took the branch of the Camino Real that followed the Rio Grande southeast, passing through the valley communities: San Lorenzo, Senecú, Ysleta, and Socorro. At the ranch of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Los Tiburcios, present-day San Elizario, Texas, they followed the Camino Real as it turned sharply to the southwest, eventually rejoining the principal route at Samalauyuca. After the fruits of the vine were sold the barrels were disassembled and returned to El Paso.

When the Prussian scientist Barón Alexander Von Humbolt visited the El Paso area early in the nineteenth century, he observed the similarity in climate to southern Spain. He noted that El Paso vintners produced excellent sweet wines, which he preferred to the wines of Parras. With Mexican Independence in 1821, El Paso ceased to be part of New Mexico and became part of Chihuahua. Producers continued to export wine and brandy to Albuquerque and Santa Fe until the arrival of United States troops in 1846. Wine production continued in what had been the greater El Paso area on both sides of the Rio Grande until the first decades of the twentieth century. A combination of population growth, Prohibition, and salination of the soil essentially ended viticulture in the area after two and a half centuries.

Sources Used:

Brown, Kendall W. Bourbons and Brandy: Imperial Reform in Eighteenth-Century Arequipa. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

Churruca Peláez, Agustín, Héctor Barraza, Jesús Gutiérrez, Patricio Borja, and Manuel Sakanassi. Before the Thundering Hordes: Historia Antigua de Parras. Ed. Glen P. Willeford y Ellen A. Kelley, trans. Al Kinsall, Occasional Papers, 4. Alpine, Texas: Center for Big Bend Studies, 2000.

Hendricks, Rick. "Camino Real at the Pass: Economy and Political Structure of the Paso del Norte Area in the Eighteenth Century," in coords. José de la Cruz Pacheco and Joseph P. Sánchez. Memorias del Coloquio Internacional El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2000), 126.

_____. "Faces of the Camino Real: People in El Paso del Norte in the Spanish Era." In Proceedings: Speakers Series: El Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe, 1999, Chamizal National Memorial, El Paso, Texas. El Paso: United States Department of the Interior-National Park Service, 1999.

_____. "Viticulture in El Paso del Norte During the Colonial Period," Agricultural History, 78 (Spring 2004): 191-200.

Hendricks, Rick, ed., and John B. Colligan, comp. New Mexico Prenuptial Investigations From the Archivos Históricos del Arzobispado de Durango, Vol. 1, 1760-99. (Las Cruces: Rio Grande Historical Collections, New Mexico State University Library, 1996).

Pérez López, David. Historias cercanas (relatos ignorados de la frontera). Chihuahua: Instituto Chihuahuense de la Cultura, 2002.

Pierson, William M. "Report to the Secretary of State, number 101, 30 Nov. 1872," University of Texas at El Paso, microfilm.

Timmons, W.H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1990.