Alibi V.23 No.37 • Sept 11-17, 2014 

Food for Thought

A Tradition of Wine

A meditation on Rio Grande Valley viticulture

Laboring at Milagro Vineyard.
Laboring at Milagro Vineyard.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

The men with beards and metal skin came from the south and demanded allegiance to painted banners of fine cloth; they pointed at the sky to emphasize their divine agency. And they slaughtered those who did not accept what they said.

Among their rituals were rites involving submission to forces previously unknown in the Western lands. They bent down upon their knees and implored the sky to come to their aid. They left behind wooden crosses from which one might hang a person.

They drank a thin liquid they said was the blood of their god. Once among them, he had returned to the sun and stars, leaving his remains as symbols upon which their priests meditated.

The liquid was sweet and intoxicating. It was unlike blood, though its preciousness among their possessions was third only to gold and the impossibly sharp weapons they wielded. It was the fruit of the vine, they said.

So the knowledge of wine came to the people of Tiguex, where modern Albuquerque now stands. The Spaniards were careful not to spill this miraculous drink; there was no source of it for thousands of miles. They guarded it fastidiously; only those born to high positions and priests had access to it. Occasionally their soldiers were given a bit as reward for nobility in battle. On Sunday mornings those initiated in their religion were also offered a sip.

The wine came in wooden boats and clay jars from Andalusia before making its way to the large, mostly unexplored (by the Spanish) world that spread out to the north and west. It was carried overland by oxcart.

Coronado and his men came to the Rio Grande Valley in 1540, spreading their culture as they followed the river. While they left after one bitter winter, some of their priests remained. They tried to tell of the miraculous qualities of the wine but failed to persuade. They were set upon and dragged kicking and screaming away from the holy earthenware jugs filled with fermented grape juice.

So the knowledge of wine came to the people of Tiguex, where modern Albuquerque now stands. The Spaniards were careful not to spill this miraculous drink; there was no source of it for thousands of miles. They guarded it fastidiously; only those born to high positions and priests had access to it.

Nearly 50 years later—in the year of their lord 1598—the Spaniards returned in force. As they intended to stay this time, they brought plenty of wine. Though the Franciscans had a deep knowledge of viticulture, the mercantilist laws of Spain prevented them from sowing and harvesting their own grapes. So the stuff remained a rare, guarded treasure until the first part of the 17th century.

The supply train that provided for Oñate’s colonists arrived every three years, carrying 45 gallons of wine, mostly intended for use by priests and the upper class. The ban on native cultivation lasted nearly 150 years, but during that time local governments and the ubiquitous priesthood saw fit to break the law. They needed wine.

Monks and priests smuggled vine cuttings into colonial New Mexico. In 1629 Fray García de Zúñiga and his protégé Antonio de Arteaga began work on a vineyard south of Socorro, on the eastern banks of the Rio Grande. The cuttings they used were a variety of Vitis vinifera grown in Mexico under the aegis of the Spanish government. Production of wine began three years later. In 1675 the winery and its vineyards were abandoned after the Europeans at the San Antonio de Padua mission were killed by raiders from the Apache tribe.

The Pueblo Revolt followed in 1680, and the cultivation of grapes, seen as symbols of an evil malaise upon the land, stopped until the Spaniards returned again—this time for good—in 1692.

In less than a century, vineyards sprung up throughout the reestablished missions. In 1775 a representative of the Holy Church made a written report on the state of viticulture in the Rio Grande Valley, noting both its success and limitations due to things like cold weather. But by the beginning of the 19th century, wine, along with wool and animal pelts, was one of the region’s leading exports.

In the 1850s there was a change of the guard. Jesuits under the direction of French transplant Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy introduced new varieties, traditions and techniques to what was then an organized enterprise. The second half of the 19th century saw an explosive growth in New Mexican viticulture as other French immigrants, notably vintners Joseph Tondre and Louis Alary, got involved.

In 1880 more than 3,000 acres of land adjacent to the river had been planted with grapes. Within 10 years of this census, that figure doubled, and New Mexico wine was being shipped to places as far away as New York and Kentucky. And in New Mexico, wine—once a symbol of piety—had become gold, an economic force sharper than any Spanish sword would ever be.