‘Near everyone drinks wine in Southern Utah’: A brief history of Dixie Wine

Artist rendering of early Mormon settlers tilling the rich Southern Utah soil for the cultivation of wine grapes. Location and date undefined | Photo Courtesy Washington County Historical Society, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — With limited serving quantities of strong spirits at restaurants, beer and wine cooler sales offered only in grocery stores and the ability to purchase hard liquor largely restricted to state-run outlet stores, people across the nation think Utah is a semi-dry state.

But a deeper dive into Utah’s history illustrates the vast dichotomy in sensibilities that existed toward alcohol when Brigham Young and the first settlers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ventured into the Utah Territory in 1847. Fast forward one generation and the consumption of alcohol – wine – in particular produced in Southern Utah had become one of the church’s largest cash crops, next to cotton.

The majority of this article is based on Dennis Lancaster’s 1972 Brigham Young University doctorate dissertation and interviews with Lindsay Hansen Park. See the hyperlinks below for more information.

Honoring Southern Utah Wine Mission

On April 1874, Young and Erastus Snow dedicated the southeast corner of the newly completed St. George Temple by placing a box encased in the stonework filled with coins, records, newspapers, a silver plate and a bottle of the region’s iconic adult beverage, Dixie Wine.

“There are a few reasons why the bottle was placed in the St. George Temple, but mostly it was pride,” said Lindsay Hansen Park, executive director of Sunstone Education Foundation, a Latter-day Saint non-profit academic open forum and host of the “Year of Polygamy” podcast.

This historic portrait of Brigham Young was taken in 1876 and reflective of what he looked like while he was a part-time resident of St. George, Utah. | Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society, St. George News

“Dixie Wine was seen as a crowning jewel of Southern Utah exports,” Park added. “Brigham Young sent saints there to really turn water into wine. And for them, it was a great honor to make this product. That’s how a bottle of Dixie Wine was placed in the temple’s cornerstone.”

Although beer, wine and other hard spirits – brought in from as far away as South Carolina – were plentiful throughout the region dating back to the early 1880s, the arrival of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marked a turning point.

It wasn’t long after Young, second church president, set up his mission in Salt Lake Valley that a lightbulb-moment arose. Young soon realized the economic potential Latter-day Saints would have to locally produce alcohol.

Young’s goal had always been for the Beehive State to become self-sufficient.

Convenient consumers included mountain men crisscrossing the land, trappers, settlers heading west and prospectors on their way to the mines at Silver Reef.

Young would call this practice “fleecing the gentiles.”

“Young had the practical need to control every aspect of alcohol throughout the Utah territory,” Park said. “From the very beginning, he was investing in breweries and in grains. One of the first establishments we can trace was in 1852 in Salt Lake City.”

Erastus Snow | Public domain photo, St. George News

Although wine was produced in the Salt Lake Valley, the bulk of it was made throughout the Dixie Wine Mission, mostly concentrated in towns from Toquerville to Santa Clara.

According to Dennis Lancaster’s 1972 Brigham Young University dissertation, territorial records indicated that in 1875 there were 544 acres of grapevines producing in Utah with an annual average of more than 3.4 million pounds grapes picket, with 6,260 bushels per acre.

While these are territorial figures and did not give county-by-county statistics, Washington County accounted for 3 million pounds of grapes.

Within four years of the initial planting, a farmer could expect up to 1,500 gallons of wine per acre depending on the number of vines cultivated.

“The church leaders saw wine not only to be used for the sacrament and medicine, but everything extra was expected to be exported, but it didn’t end up that way,” Park said. “Cultivating wine grapes probably caused more problems than the early church leaders expected. Not only were they growing a profitable cash crop in Southern Utah, but alcoholics as well.”

The History of The Dixie Wine Mission

Parley P. Pratt portrait. Location and date undefined | Public domain image, St. George News

The St. George area had been visited, mapped and inhabited since the mid-1770s by Spanish Catholic priests, European explorers, mountain men, the United States Army and as many as five indigenous American tribes. In 1849, Young, as governor of the territory, sent a group of 50 men including Parley P. Pratt to Southern Utah to scout for sites of future towns.

Pratt’s initial thoughts of the area were it’s a “wide expanse of chaotic matter … huge hills, sandy deserts, cheerless, grassless plains, lose barren rocks (and) dissolving buds of limestone laying in inconceivable confusion,” he wrote.

The men ventured as far as the Santa Clara River. During the trip south, they discovered the area surrounding – what is now Cedar City and Parowan – was rich in iron ore, ideal for growing crops such as cotton and grapes.

During the Latter-day Saint General Conference of 1851, John D. Lee was called to form a settlement at the confluence of the Rio River and the Santa Clara Creek with the idea to raise grapes, cotton, figs, flax, hemp, sweet potatoes, strawberries and anything else suitable to grow in the iron-rich soil.

John D. Lee portrait. Location and date undefined | Photo courtesy United States National Park Service, St. George News

“The soil is of a lively alluvial nature and of dark chocolate color,” Lee said, reporting to Young. “It is easily irrigated … and the climate is of mild temperature,” ideal to raising many crops Lee added.

Breaking from Young’s site selection, Lee decided to settle the town of Harmony in 1852 approximately 40 miles south; however, because of a lack of funding and conflicts with Paiutes, the state legislature denied the request.

Breaking the Word of Wisdom

During the 1861 conference, Young gave a sermon on the economic aspects of “Breaking the Word of Wisdom.”

“In 1833, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote down the ‘Word of Wisdom.’ Initially they where were supposed to be a list of health code suggestions, and nothing like the orthodox revelations that the church sees it now,” Park said. “When it was written, it was a social idea, not a religious one. The interpretations were very, very different than they are now. This is the tension in modern-day Mormonism.”

No specific instruction for wine production is given during Young’s sermon, referring to tobacco, but he said, “If we use it, let us raise it here. We annually expend only $60,000 to break the Word of Wisdom, but we can save the money and still break it we break it.”

“Young saw the Word of Wisdom as a higher set of standards that did not frown on drinking a little wine socially,” Park said. “It was seen as a classy tradition rather than a sin. It was when you became drunk or an alcoholic that it was seen as a moral failing.”

The Rise of Agriculture in Utah’s Dixie

Herber C. Kimball. Location and date undefined | Photo Public Domain, St. George News

In a speech encouraging home industry on May 12, 1861, Heber C. Kimball said that the primary purpose why Brigham Young visited Southern Utah was to “ascertain if that country is capable of producing cotton, sugar, coffee and grapes.”

After years of obtaining choice varieties of vines – more than 100 types – by the late 1800s, Dixie Wine was well on its way to becoming something to be proud to produce.

“Grape-growing must be a sort specialty here,” said St. George resident, newspaper publisher, small business owner and prominent LDS church member Joseph Johnson.

“We have taken time by the fore lot and early as possible have imported the creme la cream of the world’s vineyards and hothouses,” Johnson added.

The Deseret Evening News reported in 1869, “In this wild broken desert land where once volcano and earthquakes reigned supreme until its whole face was marked by their terrible violence, the grape has found a home. In a few years hence, we shall enjoy as good wine as any people on the Earth.”

John Naegle

King of the winemakers’ John Naegle, who immigrated to the United States from Bavaria with his parents in 1832, lived in Nauvoo from 1844 to 1846 before being called to Southern Utah in 1866 to build up the fruit and grape culture.

John Naegle. portrait. Location and date undefined | Photo Courtesy Washington County Historical Society, St. George News

Naegle built a winery and a large two-story stone home in Toquerville. The basement was used as the wine cellar and distillery. Peach brandy was also made there.

After falling into disrepair, the home was restored and placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 20, 1980.

It was recorded Naegle would produce as much as 3,000 gallons of wine in Toquerville selling to mining camps throughout the southwest. His best products brought to market were 500-gallon barrels sold to eager consumers, including residents living in Utah’s Dixie.

From the common mission grape was produced at Toquerville last season which in alcoholic strength and saccharin properties surpassed the best Burgandy ever analyzed and lacked nothing but the aroma of being perfect wine” reported the Deseret Evening News in 1868.

Because wine had become a profitable cash crop, it was able to fund the growth of the predominant crop, cotton.

“The safest and profitable use of large crops of grapes is to manufacture into wine as the crop requires less favor and less care in transportation,” Johnson said. “Fine choice wines are always worth from $3 to $4 per gallon in New York. Many of our small vineyards may be made to produce wine that could compare with the rarest importations and become a source of income to the country.”

The Importance of the Grape – It’s Folklore and Reality

Some historians say that many who solely focused their attention on growing wine grapes, and not production, could only claw their way out of poverty and starvation by making Dixie Wine.

Naegle would become known as the best winemaker in Dixie. He produced was marketed under the name of “Nail’s Best,” probably after a derivative of his last name – Naile – that he used as a young man but changed back to its original spelling in 1873.

By the late 1880s, newspapers throughout the region reported, “pert near everyone drinks wine” in Southern Utah.

Park said, “Dixie Wine was consumed at every social gathering and was as popular as Coca-Cola or Pepsi today. In fact, vendors and musicians who played at events such as marriages were paid in wine. People just didn’t see it as sin.”

In her essay “Wine Making in Utah’s Dixie,” folklorist and author Olive Burt (1894 – 1981) said that her mother had a number of firm beliefs about drinking wine including that “no pregnant woman should be permitted to assist in the winemaking or her baby would be a drunkard, a wine glass should never be turned upside down, it would bring bad luck.”

Some beliefs were also expressed in folklore including “Spilling your wine before one swallow and bad luck will surely follow, but this bad luck could be averted by dipping the middle finder of the right hand into the spilled wine and rubbing it on your ear.”

Burt and her family were pragmatists about the consumption of wine.

“My mother had no … restraints,” Burt said. “According to her yarns, wine-making in Dixie was a happy business with a wealth of anecdote and superstition. It is only through a study of available journals and through oral tradition that I have been able to garner a small portion of (knowledge) of this delightful harvest.”

Although folklorists would recall many stories, one common account noted that communion goblets were consistently emptied mid-way through the sacrament, much to the dismay of the parishioners down the line. But, to a person nobody was “apologetic or furtive in winemaking and it’s too bad that their decedents are not as proud of their ancestors’ skill as were the pioneers,” Burt said.

A Communal Effort

Winemaking was a communal process with every church member lending a hand where they could.

“The wives were part of it, the children were part of it. LDS membership recorded in their journals that when they would visit church families, they would always bring a jug of wine and some bread.” Park said. “Everyone was part of the communal united order. Dixie Wine was so important that a bottle was laid in the cornerstone of the St. George Temple.”

But there were growing concerns about alcohol consumption as early as the Kirtland Ohio Period (1831 – 1838) many church leaders began to embrace the temperance movement. By the Nauvoo, Ill., Period (1839 – 1846) there were many teetotalers who saw drinking as a moral weakness, Park added.

Although Southern Utah eventually became known for its Dixie Wine, early on during the establishment of the territory Brigham Young explored many economic ventures that turned out successful.

In 1873, at Young’s request, the territorial legislature granted him exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute whiskey and other liquor in Utah.

“Valley Tan,” was Young’s principal brand.

Mark Twain portrait. A connoisseur of fine whiskey and cigars. Twain took a particular liking to Valley Tan. Location and date undefined | Photo Public Domain, St. George News

Though Young reportedly never tasted his whiskey, there were many prominent witnesses to the character of the sprint including Mark Twain.

During a visit to Salt Lake City in 1871, Twain was offered a drink of Valley Tan and exclaimed it “unusually potent.”

“Valley Tan is a kind of whiskey or a first cousin to it; it is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah, but tradition says that it is made from fire and brimstone,” Twain added.

Latter-day Saints today have a concept of the early pioneers as stalwart, hardworking, faithful people – which they were – but they were also frontiersmen, carving out the west, Park said.

“It was rowdy, ruckus and a very violent place to live,” she added. “In general, alcohol played a huge part in making the West and its impact certainly didn’t escape Mormonism.”

The culture of wine wasn’t considered taboo like it is now in the modern-day church, but change came and can be attributed to Heber Jeddy Grant (Nov. 22, 1856 – May 14, 1945) who served as the seventh president of the church.

LDS journal entries reported that Grant was addicted to beer and went to an early form of rehab to dry out. This is what really changed the power and meaning behind the Word of Wisdom used in today’s church.

In increasing numbers, the LDS church was finding it had people struggling with alcohol, being drunk in public and becoming chronic alcoholics.

Although an abstinence pledge had been introduced by churches as early as 1800, the earliest temperance organizations seem to have been those founded at Saratoga, N.Y., in 1808 and in Massachusetts in 1813.

“Plenty of Mormon women get on board with the temperance movement,” Park said. “They believed it was the role of modern women then was to root out alcoholism because there were a lot of women who were being abused by their husbands, and drinking was a large factor in these actions.”

It took two generations of Latter-day Saints for temperance to take hold, but it really wasn’t until prohibition in 1920 that the church shut down their last brewery.

Still, consumption of alcohol lingered until 1990 when the state legislature began to impose stringent regulations.

Alcohol in Utah Today

State Liquor Store at 161 N. 900 East in St. George, Utah. March 29, 2019 | File photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

According to Mark Brown Malouf with the Salt Lake Magazine, “The Utah Legislature mandated metering devices on all liquor bottles in bars and restaurants and outlawed mini-bottles except in hotels and on airplanes. No cocktail could contain more than one ounce of liquor. Utah became known as the state with watered-down drinks, and a subsequent law took effect banning drink specials.”

Although there have been many unsuccessful attempts to ease restrictions since 1990, the sale of alcohol continues but has been strictly regulated.

The “watered-down” beer got stronger when the Utah Legislature passed a measure on Sept. 17, 2019 to drop 3.2% beer and allow for the sale of beer containing 4% alcohol by weight (5% by volume).

To this day, there are dry portions of the state that include Blanding, the gateway to Lake Powell, Natural Bridges National Monument, Edge of the Cedars State Park and the new Bears Ears National Monument.

Contributing to this article included Lindsay Hansen Park, Dennis Lancaster, Olive Burt, Jack Sullivan, Washington County Historical Society, LDSLiving, Salt Lake Magazine and the Utah History Encyclopedia. To access more information, click on the hyperlinks provided.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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