400 Years of Romancing the Vine

Albuquerque is central to the oldest wine-making region in the US

Wine is a celebration. Wine is liquid romance. Wine is enchantment in a bottle.

But mostly, wine is back. Back in New Mexico, where it first got its start in North America, long before California and New York vintners popped their first corks.

The Rio Grande stretches from the highest mountain ranges of southern Colorado to the southernmost point of Texas. Its rich and fertile soil deposits, which agriculturalists compare favorably with those of the Nile, inspired the early Natives to cultivate its flatlands. In 1630, Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard at Senecu Pueblo (near present day Socorro) to make sacramental wine. One hundred years later, California friars would plant their first vineyards.

While production techniques were primitive—picture hollow rocks for crushing and dried oxhides for fermentation—New Mexico's earliest wine was of sufficient quality to prompt the Spanish King to forbid commercial plantings. He wanted no competition for Spain's own wines.

The King was roundly ignored. Vineyards sprouted all along the Rio Grande from El Paso to Santa Fe. Wine became plentiful, and of high quality. In his 1807 journal, Zebulon Pike reported extensive vineyards "from which were produced the finest wine ever drank [sic] in the country."

By 1880, New Mexico was outproducing New York with 908,000 gallons shipped East each year. Then from 1890 to 1920, overproduction, floods, drought, root rot, and failure to solve storing and shipping problems killed the New Mexico wine industry. Prohibition was the last nail in the coffin.

New Mexico was dead to Dionysus until 1934 when 12 wineries reopened after the repeal of Prohibition. Floods in 1943 wiped out the vineyards. Viticulture began reemerging in the 1960s until by 1998, 27 commercial wineries were producing 240,000 gallons per year on 580 acres. Multiple wine festivals began springing up every year.

Each winery is distinct and inspired by the personality and worldview of its owners. For example: Anasazi Fields Winery (Placitas), Anderson Valley Vineyards (Albuquerque), Blue Teal Vineyards (Deming), La Chiripada Winery (Dixon), Santa Rita Winery (Las Cruces), and Los Luceros Winery (Los Luceros) to name a few.

When building the extraordinary Casa Rondeña Winery six years ago, owner and Renaissance man John Calvin drew on his training as an architect and builder, and his love of antiquities and southern Spain, to recreate a Spanish villa and vineyard in the heart of Albuquerque's North Valley. Walk through the breezeway, delight at the authentic and unexpected Moorish, Asian and East Indian architectural details, stroll among the rows of sun-splashed grapevines, savor the wine, and drink in the palpable sense of place, history and culture.

With 2,000 cases shipped out each year, Casa Rondeña is already a top producer, as noted by USA Today. In April 2002, The Wine Spectator awarded Casa Rondeña's 2000 Cabernet Franc its highest rating of any New Mexico red wine. Calvin looks on winemaking as a metaphor for the history of western civilization. "The culture of wine," he offers, "is about people reaching for mystery, magic, and the highest refined aspects of culture in an effort to become conversant with their higher spiritual aspects." In a city now acknowledged as a national leader in creative equity, his approach to winemaking is quite natural.

Add to this mix the fact that New Mexico has the ideal climate and altitude for growing grapes. Its warm days promote sugar content, while the cool nights promote proper pH. The altitude supports these temperatures while aridity prevents disease and pests. Dams have vanquished floods as a threat, and irrigation is a hedge against drought. Technology rules and Zeus is obviously collaborating with the saints!

The Achilles Heel of this whole affair is the infamous New Mexico Spring Frost. Anyone who owns a fruit tree here has "been there, done that, got the t-shirt": warm days in February or March lure out the buds, then BAM! a flash freeze arrives overnight and all the buds drop.

What to do? The Gruet family is thrilled with New Mexico's ideal growing conditions. It's why they came all the way from France to produce a rack of award-winning sparkling wines. Yet one year they lost 15–20% of their harvest, so now their strategy is to prune the vines in the spring rather than in December. They also prune each vine much shorter than is normal. Eric Olsen is continuously experimenting with new grape varieties, and just about everyone buys some of their grapes from vineyards in southern New Mexico, where the Gruet Winery also grows its grapes.

New York discovered Gruet's Brut sparkling wine in 1992. In a New York Times piece, Howard G. Goldberg tells the story of Michael Skurnik, a Long Island wine importer and distributor who received a box of "two unfamiliar sparkling wines" from Gruet. "He recalls saying to himself: 'New Mexico? Forget it!' and putting both bottles aside," Goldberg writes. "Soon he received a telephone call from the producer. 'We had a very interesting technical conversation' Mr. Skurnik said. 'I got curious and tried the wines.' He ordered the Brut almost immediately."

Skurnik eventually bought 645 cases of the Gruet Brut. Ten years later, Gruet is the sparkling wine of choice in New York. New Mexico says Salud!

Casa Rondeña Winery
733 Chavez Road NW Albuquerque, NM 87107
www.casarondena.com remote

Gruet Winery
8400 Pan American Freeway NE Albuquerque, NM 87113
www.gruetwinery.com remote

New Mexico Wine Growers Association
PO Box 57060, Albuquerque, NM 87187
866-494-6366 Toll-free
www.nmwine.com remote

By Mary Montaño who is a writer on the arts and culture of New Mexico.

Her current book, Tradiciones Nuevomexicanas: Hispano Arts and Culture of New Mexico, is available from UNM Press remote

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 17


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