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  • Equal Age for Age: The Growth, Death, and Rebirth of an Arizona Wine Industry, 1700–2000
  • Erik Berg (bio)

On January 20, 1989, Arizona wine was flowing in the nation’s capital. Newly elected president George H. W. Bush had just taken the oath of office, and all of Washington, D.C., was buzzing with the inauguration ceremonies. At the Commerce Department headquarters, members of Congress and officials from across the country gathered at a special luncheon as part of the celebrations. Among the beverages featured at the event were two Arizona wines (a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Fumé Blanc) from the Sonoita Vineyards Winery south of Tucson. For many of the East Coast attendees, it was the first time they had even heard of an Arizona wine, let alone tasted one. Rising from almost nothing in the 1970s, the Arizona wine industry had blossomed during the 1980s with the sudden appearance of new wineries, vineyards, and even a federally recognized viticulture area.1 [End Page 203]

On the other side of the country, Arizona’s potential had caught the attention of West Coast wine enthusiasts much earlier. James De Barth Shorb, one of the most successful winemakers in California history, had even admitted that Arizona wine was “equal age for age with California wine.” It was an impressive statement coming from someone in the nation’s most famous wine-producing state. But even more astonishing than what Shorb said is when he said it. Shorb made that claim in 1888—more than a century before the Bush inauguration—and he went on to predict that “age, care, and experience are all that is required for Arizona to make a table wine equal to the already famous Zinfandel [of California].” By the end of the twentieth century, Shorb’s predictions would finally begin to bear fruit but only after more age, care, and experience than he ever imagined.2

The notion of an Arizona wine industry is nothing new. Arizona’s wine history is surprisingly rich and well aged—the current iteration being just the latest budding of an ancient vine with roots that long predate the state, and probably even the territory. Its earliest origins are the subject of legends and misconceptions stemming from the fading twilight of the Spanish colonial empire. It evolved in the pioneering days of the Arizona Territory and helped inspire the agricultural revolution that would transform the Salt River Valley. Before Prohibition, locally made wine graced tables from Jerome to Bisbee and, after the ban, it continued—now under the table—in illegal basement wineries and family kitchens. Finally, in the late twentieth century, a revitalized American wine market inspired a new generation of winemakers to rediscover Arizona’s grape-growing potential. The current revival is the fruition of two centuries of struggles, false starts, forgotten successes, and lessons learned and relearned. Wine flows through every phase of Arizona’s history and binds the region to larger viticulture trends and traditions that have shaped America’s wine industry.

Priests and Settlers: Missions and Viticulture in the Spanish Colonial Era

Although Native Americans had been making fermented beverages since pre-colonial times, it was the Spanish who brought traditional [End Page 204] European winemaking to the Southwest with the introduction of the Old World wine grape (of the species Vitis vinifera). In many parts of the New World (and particularly the English colonies) Vitis vinifera struggled to survive as it encountered a host of new insects, animals, and plant diseases. Fortunately for the Spanish, much of Mexico was more conducive to grape growing. Equally important was their choice of grapes. Over the centuries, humans had cultivated many different varieties of Vitis vinifera (such as Merlot, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay) and one of these varieties brought by the Spanish soon proved hardier than its brethren. This vine did well in its new home and became the dominant grape. In Spain, this grape variety bore the name Listán Prieto, but in Mexico it was more frequently called Criolla. Years later in California, settlers would associate this grape with the gardens of missionary priests and refer to it as the Mission grape. Leveraging the advantages of the...


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