The Franciscans and Viticulture in the Old World and the New
The Franciscans and Viticulture in the Old World and the New
In the late nineteenth century, the German artist and art critic Eduard von Grützner began working on a style of painting that would become his defining feature. Grützner was obsessed with painting monks who were drinking or in various states of intoxication. He often features rotund and jovial friars who have retired to a cellar for a snifter of wine, get completely smashed, or lie unconscious next to huge barrels of wine. At the same time, their religious brethren look on, appalled at this act of ungodliness.
While Grützner’s obsession with drunken monks was perhaps unusual, the depiction of the religious orders as being intimately connected with the world of wine was not outrageous. Grützner, after all, was living at a time when religions had been profoundly shaping the viticulture landscape of both the Old World and the New for centuries. In particular, the Franciscans had straddled the two worlds, influencing wine culture in both Europe and the Americas in profound ways.
Introduction to The Franciscans
The Franciscans were the followers of St Francis of Assisi, a Roman Catholic friar who was born at Assisi in Central Italy around 1181. In what was a relatively short life (he died in his mid-forties in 1226), Francis founded several orders of friars and also female religious orders such as the Order of St Clare. As a zealous Christian, he traveled across the Mediterranean in 1219 to Egypt, intending to convert the Muslim sultan, al-Kamil, to Christianity and bring the conflict between the Christian Crusaders in the Levant and the Muslim powers of the Middle East to an end. He sought to bring Jerusalem into Christian possession. He failed in this mission, but at least al-Kamil didn’t have him killed, and Francis lived on to return to Europe. He received stigmata which mirrored the wounds of Christ on the Cross.
He died shortly afterward, and his beatification was expedited; he became a saint in 1228. Francis was immensely influential in establishing a new type of religious order, which became known as the Franciscans. They emphasized taking a vow of poverty, even begging for food, and eventually, members split off over various issues. This, in turn, led to the formation of sub-denominations such as the Observant Franciscans, the Capuchins, and the Conventuals, each of which had their interpretation of Francis’s teachings and rules.
Involvement in the Wine Trade
In their early days, the Franciscans were wandering friars who had taken vows of poverty. This mode of life prevented the Franciscans from playing any significant role in the wine trade of Western and Central Europe. But, like all religious orders and groups, the Franciscans soon began acquiring property portfolios and the trappings of wealth. As they did, they started acquiring vineyards and leaving their indelible print on the wine culture of the Old World. For instance, in the early modern period, the small town of Santarcangelo di Romagna near Rimini in Central Italy became the center of a community of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, a branch of the Franciscans.
The monks here not only established significant vineyards and began producing high-quality wines, but they are generally credited with giving the name Sangiovese to the famous grape varietal with which this region has become synonymous. The name which the Franciscans here are believed to have bestowed effectively means ‘The Blood of Jove,’ Jove being an alternative name for Jupiter, the king of the gods in the ancient Roman pantheon.
Role in the New World
Despite this impact in the Old World, it was really in the New World that the followers of St Francis made their mark on the history of wine production. The Franciscans are known as one of the two major religious orders who played a pivotal role in transferring European viticulture to the Americas between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The other order was the Jesuits, who were highly influential in this respect in South America in countries like Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
The Franciscans were significant in their activity in the region of northern Mexico and the states of New Mexico and Texas today. This region formed part of the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain during the early modern era. It was here in 1626 that Franciscan missionaries planted the first vineyard in New Mexico at Socorro on the banks of the Rio Grande. The Franciscans were also the first Europeans to introduce grape-growing and winemaking to the region, now West Texas, when they arrived there in the 1660s. Viticulture is still practiced over 350 years later in the Texas High Plains.
Legacy and Wine
The most incredible legacy of the Franciscans in terms of New World viticulture was in California and completed by the work of one man, Junipero Serra, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest. In the 1760s, he led a Franciscan religious mission north from Baja in New Spain in what is now northwest Mexico towards southern California. The Spanish made contact with this part of western North America as early as the sixteenth century but had never settled there substantially.
This began to change in the second half of the eighteenth century. Serra and his followers established numerous religious missions from San Diego northwards to San Francisco to convert the natives. Eventually, Serra established nine presidios or missions in the area, and his followers founded another twelve. At one of these settlements, the mission San Juan Capistrano, Serra, and his fellow Franciscans planted the first European vineyards in California towards the end of the 1770s. From these, the first wine was produced in California in the 1780s for sacramental purposes. Serra was beatified by the Vatican in 1988 and has been termed ‘the Apostle of California’, but he might just as quickly be called the founder of Californian wine.
The California Wine Industry
The California wine industry, which the Franciscans had established, prospered in the years that followed for many reasons. One of the significant factors was the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in Europe in the early 1790s. These would continue for years, eventually becoming the Napoleonic Wars which dragged on until 1815. As Europe suffered through over two decades of almost constant war, the price of commodities imported from Europe to the Americas increased steeply.
One of these goods which rose very dramatically in price was wine, particularly between 1801 and 1805, as France’s connections with the New World declined following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Consequently, the Franciscan missions in California began increasing their level of wine production to meet their own needs and to sell the excess to pay for other commodities which were in short supply out on the frontier in California during the ongoing war.
The impact over the next thirty or so years was immense. By 1834, mission San Gabriel of the Franciscans had four vineyards producing 35,000 gallons of wine and brandy, making it California’s first mass-production winery. At the same time, the Franciscan missions had begun to pay for so much wine in excess that they began exporting wine from the region for the first time. This was the heyday of Franciscan wine production in California. The conquest of the area from Mexico by the United States in the mid-1840s signaled the end of the Franciscan missions in the region. As it did, California wine production was secularized in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The foundation of the California wine trade and production was the foremost accomplishment of the viticulture engaged in by the Franciscans. But the order left a much wider and indelible print on the wine culture of Europe and the Americas between the times of St Francis in the thirteenth century down to the twentieth century. Perhaps the greatest impact of the order in this respect was in the spread of the very concept of viticulture from the Old World to the New. They began producing sacramental wine from a vast expanse of land from California southwards and eastwards in ways that have changed the tradition of viticulture in America in lasting ways.
Steven W. Hackel, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father (Berkeley, California, 2013).
John Richard Humpidge Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order: From Its Origins to the Year 1517 (Rome, 1988).
Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley, California, 1989).
Desmond Seward, Monks and Wine (Second Edition, London, 2021).
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On this Day
October 3, 1226 –Francis of Assisi died while in his mid-forties. He was canonized as a saint by Pope Gregory IX just two years later. Francis developed a new type of religious order during his lifetime. Over the centuries that followed, the Franciscans would play a significant role in the development of viticulture in both the Old World and the New.
August 28, 1784 – Junipero Serra, the so-called Apostle of California, died at California’s Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Serra led the Franciscan mission to California between the late 1760s and the early 1780s. At the Mission San Juan Capistrano, Serra and his followers planted the first vineyards in California in the late 1770s.
 John Richard Humpidge Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order: From Its Origins to the Year 1517 (Rome, 1988); ‘Monks and Monasteries’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
https://llanowine.com/texas-winemaking/ [accessed 12/4/22]; Rick Hendricks, ‘Viticulture in El Paso del Norte During the Colonial Period’, in Agricultural History, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Spring, 2004), pp. 191–200; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley, California, 1989), chp. 9.
 Steven W. Hackel, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father (Berkeley, California, 2013); Irving McKee, ‘The Beginnings of California Winegrowing’, in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March, 1947), pp. 59–71; Ynez Violé O’Neill, ‘Father Serra Plans the Founding of Mission San Juan Capistrano’, in California Historical Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), pp. 46–51.
 Robert H. Jackson, From Savages to Subjects: Missions in the History of the American Southwest (London, 2019), p. 20; Irving McKee, ‘The Beginnings of California Winegrowing’, in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March, 1947), pp. 59–71, esp. p. 62.
 John Richard Humpidge Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order: From Its Origins to the Year 1517 (Rome, 1988).
 Steven W. Hackel, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father (Berkeley, California, 2013); Irving McKee, ‘The Beginnings of California Winegrowing’, in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March, 1947), pp. 59–71.