In popular culture, beer and whiskey are the traditional drinks of the Old West. I have yet to see a western movie where the grizzled cowboy bellies up to the bar and asks the barkeep to recommend a nice bottle of wine – perhaps something French – that would pair well with venison and biscuits.
But wine was popular too on the western frontier and often promoted by establishments as a mark of quality and distinction. In Prescott, the numerous saloons and merchants advertising in the Weekly Arizona Miner frequently enticed readers with the popular refrain of “Wine, Liquor, and Cigars.”
Located on Gurley Street, the Arizona Brewery and Saloon started offering “Imported Wines” as early as 1868, but they were soon followed by the Montezuma, the Oriental, Kearney’s Sample Room, and many others.
Even then California was a major wine producer and dominated much of the western trade, but French wine (or at least, wine with French labels) was popular too.
Early California wine was usually made from Zinfandel or Mission grapes and the business was controlled by a handful of large companies (or “wine houses”) with little of today’s concern for the specific source vineyard or individual wine-maker. Wine drinkers typically ordered either a bottle of “claret” (a generic term for French-style red table wine) or a German-style white Riesling. Distilled wine drinks such as port, sherry, and brandy were popular too (in part because they traveled well). More discerning drinkers might also enjoy a glass of angelica – a brandy-like beverage that originated near Los Angeles during Spanish times.
Aside from a big night on the town, simple table wine was an important part of daily life for many European immigrants who considered it as much a staple of the dinner table as a loaf of bread. Prescott pioneers of French, Italian, German or Swiss heritage often brought their traditions and recipes for making wine at home. Those skills would prove useful in the camp’s first few years when wine (and almost everything else) was still scare and expensive. In 1867, the Miner reported a group of unnamed German immigrants making wine the previous fall using local wild grapes (of the species Vitis arizonica). This was likely the first wine ever made in northern Arizona.
Even after supply lines improved, the local native grapes continued to hold the interest of businessman Daniel Hatz. The son of a Swiss wine dealer, Hatz came to Prescott as a prospector, but eventually become one of the town’s leading citizens as the owner of the Pioneer Hotel, bakery, and saloon. Hatz was also an avid amateur botanist and spent much of his free time studying and collecting local plant specimens. He sent samples of the wild Arizona grape vines to noted California wine researcher Charles Wetmore who encouraged him to try making wine from them.
By early 1881, Hatz was offering his wild grape wine for sale. Although one reviewer described it as having a “fine flavor and pleasant aroma,” modern wine drinkers might have felt otherwise. Like most native grape species, Vitis arizonica has small seed-filled berries that often produce an overpoweringly-bitter flavor compared to Old World wine grapes. To counteract this, Hatz reported having to dilute his wine with large amounts of water and then add 20 to 30 pounds of sugar per 40-gallon barrel before it was drinkable enough to bring to market.
Join Erik Berg in the Sharlot Hall Museum’s Lawler Building West Gallery on Saturday, Aug. 19 at 11 a.m. as he traces the history of Arizona’s modern wine industry from its beginnings in the 1970s to today, with more than 50 wineries and vineyards across the state, plus the largely-forgotten early history of winemaking in Arizona dating back to the Spanish Colonial period. FREE admission.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at email@example.com for information.
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