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Warm Up: Pre-Prohibition Texas Wine

By Erin Scala

In Texas you’ll find many different species of grape varieties, some of which are indigenous to the area and have been instrumental in breeding rootstocks that have saved the post-phylloxera production of Vitis vinifera wine. But though grapes have been growing there for millennia, Texas’ wine trade begins much later when Spanish missionaries and colonists brought vines to the region.

Texas enjoyed a thriving, centuries-old period of wine production when the area was New Spain. Wine economics of the Spanish colonial era were quite different than the secular wine trade we are used to today. In the early days of New Spain, one of the primary objectives of the colonizers was to convert Native American populations to Christianity, and they needed missionaries and sacramental wine to accomplish this goal. The Casa de Contratacion, a trade house established by Queen Isabela I, collected taxes on all goods entering Spain from New Spain; and the Casa also helped control goods that went in the other direction. In 1519 it was Casa policy to have cuttings sent in every ship that sailed to New Spain to ensure there would be enough sacramental wine. Well, it worked. The spread of vine plantings, in fact, was so successful, that in 1595 — just 76 years later — Spain reversed their policy because they didn’t want New Spain to be too independent with their own wine supply.

Vinifera vines made their way to what is now New Mexico — most likely these were Mission/Pais grapes from farther down south — and later, it was probably cuttings from these New Mexican mission grapes that were planted in El Paso del Norte in 1659.

Garcia de San Francisco, a friar in a wine-producing New Mexican mission, had much experience with winemaking, and he probably brought cuttings with him to El Paso del Norte, where he founded the mission Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de los Mansos. Technically, Garcia de San Francisco’s Mission and vineyards were in what is today Ciudad Juarez, in modern-day Mexico. It wasn’t until 1848 that the border between the US & Mexico was fixed at the Rio Grande, and eventually, the south side of the city became Ciudad Juarez while the city north of the Rio Grande became El Paso. Still, Garcia’s influence on wine and culture in the region was one of the first viticultural impacts in what is today, Texas.

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What did his wine taste like? Well, in Garcia’s day, they probably used hides during the fermentation process. Hides were used as stomp troughs, and juice would flow from small holes in the hide to a hide bag, where, eventually, the wine would be transferred to barrels. Also, grapes would be harvested at extreme ripeness: after September 15th but usually later, in October. So depending on how strong the yeast was, the wine was either sweet, or very high in alcohol.

In 1680, hundreds of Spaniards fled New Mexico after Popé’s Rebellion, a situation in which repressed indigenous groups banded together and revolted against the Spanish. They succeeded in re-taking New Mexico from the Spanish. Many of those who fled came to El Paso, and settled north of the Rio Grande, in what is today, Texas. Later, in the 1800s, population increased again as the area attracted gold rush travelers. As the population increased, so did the amount of personal vines. Many farmers had tiny vineyards used for personal consumption.

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The 1880s were an important decade for Texas wine. Three key things happened:

(1) Val Verde winery was established, a winery that has been in continuous operation since 1883, thanks to a Prohibition pass for making sacramental wine.

(2) In 1888, Thomas Munson sent phylloxera resistant rootstocks from Texas to Europe, which, ultimately, provided some extreme relief for the phylloxera epidemic.

(3) Railroad infrastructure was laid down, which helped create routes for getting product to market.

In the early 1900s, the Texas wine industry was amping up with extreme growth… But, as with every other state’s story in the US, Texas’ wine industry was cut short with Prohibition, and for the most part, vineyards fizzled out. What’s happened in Texas since Prohibition was repealed? Come back next week to find out.

This warm-up appeared in Episode 295 of I’ll Drink to That.

About Erin Scala: Originally from Virginia’s wine country, Erin Scala’s earliest memories of wine include picking and crushing grapes as a child. Scala moved to Manhattan in 2008 and had fun working at PUBLIC, a one-Michelin star restaurant in Nolita, and their adjacent bar, The Daily. She was inspired by the restaurant’s Australian and New Zealand-focused wine list, and in 2013, was honored by Wine Enthusiast in their “40 Under 40” feature for the depth of her selections from the region. After a stint at The Musket Room, Erin moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to run the wine program at Fleurie Restaurant and Petit Pois Bistro. When she’s not working on a Warm Up for the podcast, Scala is off in search of a vineyard, drumming, or writing her blog www.Thinking-Drinking.com. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.