We had arrived at the third vineyard when the words really started to get interesting. Now 45 miles north of Santa Fe, our tour group stood before another long row of bottles, the ruby colored liquid from Vivác Winery swirling in our glasses.
“That one tastes like nature,” says Lori Lucero, who earlier in the day taken careful notes about each variety. “Or wood.” In a good way, she means.
In Nambé, at the Estrella Del Norte Vineyard, she scrolled “juicy” beneath the names of two wines. We all laughed when one list talked about “velvety mouth feel.” Then there’s “spicy,” (not just the red chile finish of Estrella’s Holy Mole) and of course, “smooth,” the most common thing anyone would say all day.
“We’re no wine experts, that’s for sure,” Cynthia Quintana says, though she was more likely than her companion to quietly look toward the ceiling while she mulled a wine’s flavor. “I’ve always wanted to do that kind of thing in Napa, but we never got to Napa.”
So, when Lucero’s birthday rolled around, the Albuquerque women planned a weekend trip with a wine tour Friday and a round of golf Saturday. “Have you even seen Sideways?” Quintana asks. It was nothing like that.
Cindy Capelli keeps her New Mexico wine tours low-key and fun. She relies on tasting room attendants to tell the stories of particular varietals and blends, and she focuses on getting everyone from point A to B with smiles on their faces. She offers curbside service from home and hotels, driving guests along a scenic loop with up to five stops at homesteads where grapes are growing and wine is fermenting.
At one stop, she serves a lunch fit for queens—meats and cheeses, fruit, crackers, breads and spreads. She repeatedly slides cold water in front of guests without them paying her mind. She’s full service, but out of the way.
“When you are on one of Cindy’s tours, we start you off with a sparkling wine,” says the woman behind the counter at Black Mesa Winery’s tasting room in Velarde.
There, Capelli parks the van alongside the vineyard, inviting us to take a closer look at the bright green leaves and tiny clusters of grapes. Four years ago, she was the one behind the counter. Having spent some time in wine country herself, she enjoyed working in the tasting room. But she spotted a problem. The winery is always on the way to somewhere.
It was a challenge for a visitor to safely make the rounds of all the Northern New Mexico wineries and to soak in the sites. A business was born.
“I feel good about it because no one has to drink and drive,” says Capelli, who also does beer tours, balloon tours, guided wildlife photography, regular cab service in Los Alamos and more. (Lynda Burd, owner of Black Mesa Winery, says the workers in the winery tasting room work hard to abide by the state's laws that prevent over-serving and are always on the lookout for patrons who appear too intoxicated to drive.)
The history of wine in New Mexico goes back to 14th century priests who made it for communion, yet most of the wineries now in our region are small family operations. All of the stops on the tour are places that use 100 percent state-grown grapes, but none grow all of their fruit on site. Rather, most of the state’s grape production happens further south near Deming, and those growers ship grapes up north where vintners blend them with local grapes in a great fall crush. At La Chiripada Winery, for example, three brothers who have been harvesting since the 1970s grow about half their grapes in the Embudo Valley vineyard and buy the rest from the Mimbres Valley in southern New Mexico.
Further north, Vivác, run by two sons of a Dixon dentist and their wives (all certified sommeliers), sits at about 6,000 feet, tipping into the upper limits of suitable grape cultivation. The family grows Italian, Spanish and French varietals.
"Have you even seen Sideways? It was nothing like that"
Tasting fees along the tour vary: from free if you buy at bottle at La Chiripada to $2 per reserve at Black Mesa or a flat $5 for your own selection of wine, port and spirits at the Don Quixote tasting room at the NM 502 turnoff to Los Alamos (whose distillery and winemaking facility is further up the hill.)
Most tasting rooms also sell way more than wine. You’ll find Black Mesa infused olive oils along with wine chocolate sauce and soap made from wine. At Vivác and Don Quixote, artistic chocolates glisten in display cases.
Though my far-from-delicate palate wasn’t able to distinguish much by the end of the tour, the experiential tourism in my hometown and a day away from the computer was all kinds of fun. Whether it’s for your mom visiting from Alabama, your BFF from high school who’s cruising through town or a getaway for people you see much more often, a wine tour could be just what the doctor ordered this summer. ¡Salúd!