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A Taste of Southwest Wine
Article first published in Vol. 25, 2006.
By Becky Brooks, Carmen Estrada, Elvi Nieto and Ruth Vise
Shards of wine-stained pottery found in Iran indicate that winemaking stretches as far back as 6000 B.C. Early tales surrounding the birth of wine run the gamut from tipsy birds flying around after sucking at fermented fruit to a Persian Princess who was so distraught with life that she attempted to kill herself by eating rotting grapes. Of course, not only did she not die, but she also forgot all her worries as a result! Regardless of the myths, wine is and has been a part of many cultures throughout the world, including our own.
Image caption: La Viña Winery entrance / exit sign. Photo by Carmen C. Estrada
Few of us are aware that the area we call home is actually the birthplace of viticulture in the United States. Vineyards were planted here about 140 years before the first grapes were planted in California.
When Don Juan de Oñate led his Spanish expedition through Paso Del Norte in 1598, the small group celebrated mass daily. Sacramental wine had to be shipped from Spain to Veracruz, Mexico. Wine was loaded onto oxcarts for a six-month, 1,000 mile journey to what is now New Mexico. Priests had to make 30 gallons of sacramental wine last for three years. The cost of labor and shipping of Spanish wine increased rapidly.
As a result, in 1629 the first grapevines were planted along the banks of the Rio Grande on a Piro Indian Mission at Senecu in central New Mexico. Sacramental wine production began there in 1633 and continued for the next 40 years. Meanwhile, vineyards spread along the Rio Grande Valley.
By the middle of the 18th century, a large dam and a chain of irrigation ditches made possible a prosperous agriculture, and by 1800, the New Mexico area had become winemaking country. The large number of vineyards along the Rio Grande from El Paso to Albuquerque produced wine and brandy said to have ranked with the very best in the world. In fact, upon passing through El Paso in 1807, Zebulon Pike, of Pike's Peak fame, wrote in his diary about “ numerous vineyards from which were produced the finest wines ever drank [sic].”
In 1826, the American James O. Pattie wrote, “I was struck with the magnificent vineyards of this place, from which are made great quantities of delicious wine.” After the Mexican-American War, Captain John T. Hughes described the El Paso area to the War Department, saying El Paso was “one continuous orchard and vineyard.” He wrote that “grapes were the most important product of the valley,” and that 200,000 gallons of rich wine were annually manufactured. This wine, worth $2 a gallon, comprised the principal revenue of the city.
By 1880, the census bureau noted 3,150 acres of New Mexico land was producing 905,000 barrels of wine per year. Unfortunately, in the early 1900s, Mother Nature and Prohibition would be the downfall of the Rio Grande Valley's prosperous vineyards. The river flooded frequently, and in 1904, such a flood killed many vineyards in this area. Some of the few surviving vineyards then succumbed to severe freezing during harsh winter months. Wine production decreased to only 1,684 gallons by 1910. Finally, all sales, manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages were prohibited in 1920 with the passage of the 18th Amendment. Though Prohibition was lifted in 1933, local wineries did not regain their previous glory.
Image caption: A view of La Viña Gift Shop featuring a display of oak barrels and a ribbon won at the Southern New Mexico State Fair and Rodeo for “Best of Lot.” Photo by Carmen C. Estrada.
Not until the 1970s did New Mexico see the statewide rebirth of the wine industry. In 1973, New Mexico's oldest continuously operating winery, La Viña, had its beginning. Dr. Clarence Cooper, an associate professor of physics at UTEP, planted some experimental grapevines in his front yard in the tiny village of Chamberino. The experiment produced a successful harvest. As a result, “Kiki” Cooper, as his friends knew him, increased the number of grapes he planted, and in 1977, the vineyard opened for business. Cooper owned the winery until 1992.
In 1993, the chief winemaker for Albuquerque's Anderson Valley Vineyards, Ken Stark, and his wife Denise purchased the winery and decided to move it from Chamberino to La Union, N. M. It took the Starks three years to establish the vineyard. The new La Viña sits on 45 acres, 24 of which are in production. Among wineries, it is considered medium sized, having produced 12,000 gallons of wine in 2005.
Ken Stark is quite proud that his family owned and operated winery is one of a handful of estate bottled wineries in New Mexico. La Viña grows all the grapes it uses – 22 varieties. The Starks sell about 98 percent of their award winning wines at the winery itself.
Wine festivals are vital to the success of New Mexico wineries, providing vintners direct outlets to the public for their wines. In 1982, Cooper hosted the first of many wine festivals. The Starks continued this annual event when they bought La Viña. In April 2006, their Jazz and Blues Festival drew 9,000 people to the winery over two days. Several thousand also attend the Harvest and Wine Stomp Festival in October.
La Viña offers a wide variety of wines. The Rojo Loco (a blend of Ruby Cabernet and Zinfandel similar to Sangria), La Dolce Viña (a sparkling Muscat) and La Piñata (a sparkling White Zinfandel blend) remain among their bestsellers. Because quality is their chief concern, the Starks invested in French oak barrels for aging their Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays.
While La Viña hosts its own festivals, other wineries present their wines at the Southern New Mexico Wine Festival during Memorial Day weekend and the Harvest Festival during Labor Day weekend at the Southern New Mexico Fairgrounds, west of Las Cruces. One of those is St. Clair Vineyards.
St. Clair is located in Deming, about 100 miles from El Paso on Old Highway 49 at 1325 De Baca Road. There you can taste several award winning wines, including its sparkling dessert wine, Bellisimo, which won the 2006 Chairman's Award, a unanimous gold medal, in the Riverside, Calif. International Wine Competition and the 2006 Silver Medal in the Los Angeles Wines of the World Competition.
The family owned St. Clair Winery has 120 acres of grapes with plans to add 180 more, making it the largest winery in New Mexico. It produces wine under its own label, plus wines under the Blue Teal and DH Lescombes labels and two others. As a fifth generation winemaker from Burgundy, France, Herve Lescombes came to the United States in 1970. Lescombes established the Blue Teal vineyard in 1983. In 1999, the DH Lescombes label was added to the list of wines. Today, Lescombes' son Emmanuel is the viticulturist, and son Florent is the chief winemaker for Blue Teal.
The tasting room for Blue Teal wines is run by Danielle Lescombes at 1720 Avenida de Mesilla in Las Cruces. While in the neighborhood, you can sample the wines of two other Lescombes labels, Mademoiselle and Santa Rita Cellars, at Wines of the Southwest, next to the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla. St. Clair Vineyards has also opened St. Clair's Bistro and tasting room in Albuquerque, serving lunch and dinner.
One of the newest entries into southern New Mexico wine making is Luna Rossa Winery, at 3710 W. Pine St., also in Deming. Proprietors Paolo and Sylvia D'Andrea come from four generations of winemakers in Italy. Their wine tasting room opened in summer 2005.
Wineries are not only having a rebirth in New Mexico, but also in southwestern Texas. In 2000, Victor and Kathi Poulos purchased 10 acres in Canutillo, Texas, and established Zin Valle Vineyards. Enclosed on three sides by New Mexico, this family owned and operated vineyard began producing wine in 2004.
One of the motivators for the Poulos' venture was an article in Texas Monthly magazine which told of the poor quality of wines produced in Texas. Eager to prove them wrong, Poulos planted quality grapes in excellent soil, which in turn produced quality wine. The Zin Valle tasting room now sits where an old, beat-up barn once stood, and rows of grapes, mostly zinfandel, grace the land where a sole pecan tree grew among brush and weeds. Because Zin Valle is a small winery, it focuses on distribution sales. The Poulos family distributes their award winning wine to about 30 area restaurants. The Barrel Room, located off the tasting room, is a beautiful, intimate venue for parties or private receptions, accommodating from 12 to 30 persons.
These wineries are proving that the borderland area is more than able to hold its own when it comes to fruit of the vine. Whether you want to enjoy a little Dolce Viña while listening to jazz, sip some Rising Star Pinot Noir with dinner or celebrate with Bellisimo, these area wineries are bringing this part of the Southwest to its rightful place as a nationally recognized winemaking region.
“Winemaking is a labor of love. We have really committed ourselves to this business,” said Denise Stark. This rings true for all of these family owned wineries.