California can claim many firsts with regard to viticulture and winemaking, but the antiquity of wine and grape production in the Southwest is not one of them. It appears that the first cultivation and fermentation of grapes occurred in present-day Arizona at least 75 years before they took root in “Alta California,” and that vine crops had arrived even earlier in what we now know as New Mexico and West Texas. Nevertheless, the early history of wine in all of these states has one common thread—the Mission grape, the oldest and most widespread grape to be introduced to the New World.
Although Columbus may have ordered the first planting of grapes in the New World in 1493, no one is sure what became of the grapevines his ships brought to Haiti. What we do know is that the progenitor of the Mission grape was among the varieties first introduced into Mexico in 1540, and has stayed ever since. That original transplant to the North American continent was a “slip” of the variety then known as Palomino Negro in Moorish Spain and Listan Prieto in the Canary Islands. It took root as early as 1620 in the shadows of the Jesuit and Franciscan missions scattered across the northern Mexican deserts, and soon became the first vinifera type to be grown in the present day United States. It reached New Mexico and West Texas by the late 1620s, Arizona and Sonora by 1690, and California by 1769. Since the missionaries had control of the stock, the formal varietal name of Listan Prieto was gradually forgotten and replaced by a nickname: the “Mission” grape.
That nickname somehow stuck, as did the grape itself. Its tight clusters of purplish grapes and green unlobed leaves rose from deep, hardy roots, from thick, vigorous trunks and from sturdy canes. Vintners found that these vines could endure the climatic extremes of the Desert Southwest just as they had endured the more arid climes of the Canary Islands and Andalusia.
Mission grapes quickly fit into a range of southwestern landscapes, from hillside springs to gorge-like barrancas and broad, fertile foodplains. Not coincidentally, these were the very places where native canyon grapes already grew wild, for there was plenty of water, richer soils and more human presence there. Mission grapes not only found an ecological niche in which to thrive, but a comfortable cultural niche as well. They became the first cultivated grape to be made into altar wines by Catholic missionaries in North America, and their use in Holy Communion has continued until this day. The instable pigments in the dark skins of Mission grapes typically lent little richness to color and favor of the homemade wines fermented from them, which were low in acidity and high in sugars.
Nevertheless, brandies fortifed with Mission grape juices and infused with a medicinal herb known as angelica seemed to keep the priests happy. They called this first distinctive homemade wine in the region vino generoso, a name which is still used around the Spanish missions of Baja California to this day. They’d take a pound of leaves from the perennial herb angelica, mince them, add sugar, cloves, cinnamon sticks and grape juice, and add this to whatever brandy they had on hand, then close it up in a pot for two months. It would stabilize into a potent cordial that they could share with visitors homesick for their motherland.
Although the region’s indigenous populations were already fermenting maize and mezcal into mildly alcoholic drinks when Spanish missionaries arrived in their midst, angelica-flavored vino generoso, dessert wines and brandies from Mission grapes became the first potent alcoholic beverages to be transplanted from the Mediterranean to the arid northern fringes of Mesoamerica. By 1705, the Jesuit missionary to Arizona and Sonora reported to his superiors in Rome that “We already have very good huertas [orchard-gardens] and vid [grape vineyards] to make wine for the masses.” Kino may have also introduced to Arizona the soft bread wheat now known as White Sonora, in order to make communion wafers, as well.
Over the last four centuries, you might say that Mission grapes have become “semi-natives,” since they’ve adapted so well to the nature and culture of the borderlands over the last three centuries. A few ancient Spanish-introduced vines persisted around old homesteads and haciendas in Arizona, Southern California, Sonora and Baja California well into the 1970s, surviving decades without much human care.
About thirty years ago, Gordon Dutt, a pioneering vintner, as well as a former teacher of mine, was shown some gnarly old trunks of their vines on a hilltop by rancher Blake Brophy, on the old Babocamori Spanish Land Grant that sprawled across the Sonoita Plains of Southern Arizona. Those vines had somehow kept growing even when settlers had abandoned their rancherias and farmsteads during the Apache raids of the 19th century and the Dust Bowl of the 20th century. When settlers returned to the despoblado of the Sonoita Plains, the tough old vines were still putting out whorls of dark green leaves and clusters of grapes.
Dutt and Brophy re-established viticulture on the Sonoita Plains in 1979. Remembering what Blake Brophy had shown him, Dutt planted some Mission grape slips that he found in Dateland, Arizona a few years later. After another decade, Gordon and his winemaker Fran Lightly had fermented enough Mission grapes to blend them into an altar wine called Angel Wings. Today, Mission grapes are but one of two dozen grape varieties grown at Sonoita Vineyards on the plains of the same name. They do not take up much acreage around Elgin, Arizona, but as one of Gordon’s friends, Father Greg Adolf, has argued, they deserve a special, even sacred place amidst all the other varietals: “When you taste Angel Wings wine from Mission grapes,” Father Greg asserts, “you are tasting three hundred years of American history.”
Gary Nabhan is an orchards-keeper and food historian from Patagonia, Arizona. He is also the Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona, and author or editor of 25 award-winning books. He grows Mission grapes and 70 other fruit and nut varieties from the borderlands.