The Greater Zion region of southwest Utah is well-known for outdoor adventure. It’s home to Zion National Park, four state parks, hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails and scenery ranging from snow-capped mountains to red rock canyons. The region isn’t typically one that’s associated with award-winning wines, though. After all, religious affiliations common in the area have made alcohol production and consumption difficult.
The state adopted strict laws around buying, selling and consuming alcohol in the early 1900s, a reflection of the religious tenets of many of its residents. More than half of Utahns are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), which prohibits the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It wasn’t always this way, though—the church has a history of viniculture and viticulture. Today, a few winemakers are working to bring back what once was.
Shane Tooke, owner and winemaker at natural wine specialist Water Canyon Winery, which opened in Hildale last year, is one of five wineries on the newly-formed Utah Wine Trail. “We’re on the ground floor of creating a whole new wine tourism thing in southern Utah that’s never existed,” he says.
The History of Alcohol in Utah
When church members settled in Utah in the 1840s to escape religious persecution, they sought a place to live and worship in peace. Settling in the region now known as Greater Zion, they grew numerous crops, including olives, tobacco, cotton and wine grapes.
As it turns out, southern Utah’s climate is suited for grape growing. It has the same latitude as parts of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece and sits at 4,500 feet above sea level. The altitude provides cool nights that complement its hot days. Coupled with an arid climate and volcanic soil, well-managed vines can get just the right amount of stress.
Early church members produced copious amounts of wine after importing vines from Europe’s best vintners. In 1875, the state had 544 acres of vines producing 6,260 bushels per acre. This could yield about 1,500 gallons per acre of what would be known as “Dixie wine” (named for the area along the Virgin River’s nickname, Utah’s Dixie), according to Brigham Young University’s scholarship archive.
Dixie wine was used for religious functions, was a popular drink among church members and perhaps most importantly, served as an important source of revenue for the community. The wine was sold to area trappers, settlers and prospectors, the Silver Reef mines being one of its biggest consumers.
After the mines closed in the mid-1880s, church leaders became aware of alcoholism among church members and began preaching abstinence from alcohol. At the same time, cheaper wine was being produced in California. The combination of moral pressure from the church and the drop-off in sales led to the shutting down of area wine presses.
“My ancestors go back five generations and were one of the early settlers here in St. George from the Brigham Young mission,” says Nicki Pace Richards, owner-operator of local pub George’s Corner Restaurant and former owner of The Painted Pony, a restaurant lauded for its wine list. “My grandma would tell me they were allowed to drink—it wasn’t always against the law. It wasn’t such a stigma. But at some point in my lifetime, even though I was very young, all of a sudden we weren’t allowed to drink anymore.”
Even decades after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Utah’s state government applied stringent teetotaling laws as late as the 1990s—some of which are still in practice today. Utah currently limits a beer’s alcohol by volume to 5% and requires bars to use measuring devices to limit each pour. Regulations also dictate that drinks should be poured out of customer view, behind a barrier called the “Zion curtain.”
However, although laws to curb consumption still exist and many church members still abstain, drinking has become much more accepted and is generally a more common occurrence than in previous decades.
“By the time the winemakers here started coming back into the area, I think there was enough of a diverse community that it wasn’t too much of a shock,” says Pace Richards. So far, she contends, local wines are on par with anything she’s sourced from Napa.
Making Wine in Modern-Day Utah
Certainly, wine is on the rise in Utah. Bottlings here span a wide range of varietals including Grenache, Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec, Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot and more. An annual Utah Wine Festival celebrating wineries across the state got up and running in 2019, and the official Utah Wine Trail launched in 2021. It features five wineries, all located an hour from Zion National Park and within a half-hour drive of each other.
Among the stops on the Utah Wine Trail is Chanela Vineyards, located in St. George, which has plantings of 12 grape varieties and bottled its first vintage in 2018. Another, Zion Vineyards in Leeds, opened its doors in 2013, while I/G Winery kick things off in downtown Cedar City in 2012. Bold & Delaney, run by a former sommelier, was established on a five-acre parcel in 2014.
Meanwhile, Water Canyon Winery’s location in Hildale—the former hub of the controversial Fundamentalist LDS church, a polygamous sect led by imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs—makes for a poignant backdrop. Jeffs’s former compound, with chimneys that still read “keep sweet” and “pray and obey,” is sandwiched between the winery and a collection of tiny homes Tooke built.
Wineries very much have a sense of being pioneers. “When IG Winery opened in 2012, we were a tiny new business in a region where there had been no wineries since the late 1800s,” reads I/G Winery’s website. “Wineries in Southern Utah were such a rarity that there were no zoning regulations, the financial community had no idea how to evaluate the business and the local city leaders weren’t sure how it should be licensed.”
The learning curve is steep for winemakers in Utah, too. “The biggest challenge for the winemakers here has been the learning process—how to grow grapes in such a challenging climate and make good wines from them, but we’re seeing an incredible amount of growth,” says Pace Richards. The wines are increasingly excellent, too. Every winery named in this article has taken home accolades at the Utah Wine Festival, now in its fifth year.
Though the area’s wine scene is still just emerging, it’s certainly an exciting time to be discovering it. “We’re in the infancy of being open as a winery, but the future’s so bright,” says Tooke.
Last Updated: July 13, 2023