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HISTORY - Cerocaui: The Jesuits and the Wine the Left Behind

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Seated on the edge of the Urique Canyon, which connects with the major canyons famed as Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon), is an idyllic village called Cerocahui. First contacted by outsiders in 1679, Jesuit Padre Pecoro arrived and quickly realized the Raramuri peoples were not interested in the Christian faith. That didn’t stop Father Juan Maria de Salvatierra from pushing forward with his ambitious plans within the year. Arriving on November 23, 1680, (four years before he set-off for Urique), Father Salvatierra not only began his religious teachings of Christ, but also began construction of the Mission church. He remained in the Urique Canyon region for ten years before leaving to found the Church at Loreto – the first mission of Baja California.

Local wine may not be what one expects, when arriving in the village of Cerocahui, Chihuahua, and yet we owe thanks to 17th century Jesuits for introducing grapevines to the region, among other European plants they brought with them. Grapevines had already been successfully grown in Mexico, with Hernan de Cortes first introducing Vitis Vinifera, and by 1524, signing a decree that all land-owners with native slaves be required to plant 1000 Spanish grapevines per year, for every 100 slaves they owned. In 1530, King Charles I of Spain ordered all ships heading to the New World import grapes and olives, for crop expansion in the Americas. Meanwhile, native grapes were discovered in Coahuila, and by 1574, the first American wine was produced there. Hacienda San Lorenzo was the first winery to be established in Mexico, which later became known as Casa Madero (and which remains a producer of wine today). It's interesting that in 1595, King Philip II of Spain prohibited the expansion of wine-making and growing in Mexico, as it was a perceived threat to Spanish wine producers at home, yet in 1597, he gave Hacienda San Lorenzo his blessing, for the production of wine made from native grapes.

For hundreds of years following the prohibition for expansion, the only vineyards to produce wine, outside of Hacienda San Lorenzo, were on church properties. As wine was required for mass, it was the priests who dabbled in wine-making, and of course, their supplies were limited and reserved for their congregations.

Founded by Ignatius of Loyola of Spain in 1534, the Jesuits were perfectly positioned to attain wealth and power quickly, due to their emergence coinciding with the advancement of the Protestant Church. With the promise of chastity, poverty and the self-sacrificing and unconditional vow to obey the Pope’s orders, along with a membership that was comprised of the intellectual and elite, the Jesuits were entrusted by the Roman Catholic Church to evangelize the colonies.

As society moved forward, and Monarchs worked to modernize, centralize and secularize society, the Jesuits became a threat and obstacle to progress due to their worldwide presence in correlation with autonomy through the papacy. Across Europe, following the French Revolution, the Jesuits began to endure widespread suppression, which included not only their expulsion from the colonies – but also the confiscation of their estates and possessions.

On March 27, 1767, King Charles III of Spain issued an edict, expelling the Jesuits from Mexico. He wrote: “Motivated by grave causes related to my obligation to maintain my people in subordination, tranquility and justice, as well as other urgent, just and necessary reasons that I reserve to my Royal self: I have decided to order removed from all my dominions in Spain and the Indies, and the Philippine Islands and adjacent dominions, all members of the Company of Jesus…”

As the forlorn but obedient Jesuits embarked on their arduous and difficult journey to the port of Veracruz, where they would set sail for exile in Italy, the grapevines of Cerocahui were ordered destroyed. With a spring-like climate maintaining perfect conditions for the health of grape-vines, it’s a blessing that someone from the Jose Maria Sanchez family saved some cuttings and secretly planted them behind the family casa. These vines were protected for centuries until the last Sanchez passed on 25 years ago, leaving behind no descendants.

As fate would have it, the gardener who had worked for Sanchez and the Mission Hotel in Cerocahui knew the red grape had an important history, and was dying. Planting cuttings, the gardener saved the vine, and The Mission has been producing wine ever since.

When one tastes the Mission wine of Cerocahui, one tastes the mountains, the rivers, the flora and fauna of the Canyons. The wine is part of the history, mystery and magic of the region infused with memories of Old Spain, Jesuit missionaries, Tarahumara Indians and generations of Jose Maria’s familia who preserved this bouquet of life for us to enjoy today.” - The Mission Hotel

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