What makes something local? We think of green chile as being quintessentially New Mexican, and yet tons of the chile we eat is actually grown in California, Mexico and beyond. Is it the stuff or is it the people that’s important? If your mom makes the red chile sauce she learned from her grandmother—but uses chiles from California—does that make it any less New Mexican? These are some of the questions I’ve been chewing on since I stumbled across Vara, a wine company born in New Mexico, making and selling wine with the history of New Mexico winemaking as its theme—but not actually growing grapes or making wine here.
It was at a pop-up dinner cooked by chef Jonathan Perno of Albuquerque's Los Poblanos Inn that I discovered Vara. The back of the bottle mentioned New Mexico but the wine was from the Rioja region of Spain. It clearly said IMPORTED and bore the little Rioja sticker, but the label talked about the Pueblos. What? Why? How? Huh?
So I called the number listed on the website and a few days later I met with Doug Diefenthaler and his partner Xavier Zamarripa. Both are super-passionate about wine. Diefenthaler has worked in the wine business for decades, since studying agricultural economics in college. Diefenthaler sold wine across the West before eventually settling here in the late '80s. In 1989 he co-founded the New Mexico Wine Patrol, a fine wine distributor that grew through the 1990s until it was swallowed by Southern Wine and Spirits in 2001. After that Diefenthaler became more interested in exploring how to connect American buyers online with wineries across the world.
Through a mutual friend he met a mosaic artist named Xavier Zamarripa, a transplanted Texan with Basque family roots. Zamarripa studied the art of mosaics in Italy, where he fell in love with wine—and a New Mexican girl. You might have heard something about his efforts to open a vineyard and winery in the rural valley just north of Albuquerque. That plan was thwarted by neighborhood opposition, but Zamarripa was intent on making wine. Diefenthaler had seen the success of Gruet—but also the failure of so many other dreams of making great wine here. "I said to him: 'We don't want to be another New Mexico winery,'" Diefenthaler recalls. The two talked about the great, long history of wine in the Rio Grande valley, stretching back to Spanish colonists. "What can we do to build on that?" Diefenthaler wondered. "We can make Spanish wine in Spain and import it. And we can source the best Spanish varietals here in the United States and make wines from that. We can connect the past to the present."
Vara is named for the Spanish word for "cane," which refers to "canes of sovereignty" given to Pueblo governors by the King of Spain in 1620—and similar canes given by President Abraham Lincoln to the governors in 1863. The company sells six wines, four made in Spain and two made in California. The Spanish wines are each 100 percent varietals that express the character of Rioja.
The Viura ($12) is a fresh, floral white with a tropical nose and a clean finish. A rosé made with 100 percent Garnacha ($12) has a dark raspberry color and the aroma and flavor of ripe strawberries. It's not a sweet wine but it's on the fruitier, sweeter side of good rosés. The Tempranillo ($27) is a dark, intense red with ripe cherry flavors made more complex by spending a few months in American oak barrels. The Silverhead Brut ($16) is a traditional cava: Fruity, fun, irresistible and inexpensive. The American wines include the Blanco Especial ($27), a blend of Albariño, Viognier, Marsanne and a touch of Chardonnay. It's big, soft, floral, fruity and luscious. The red, called Tinto Especial ($27), is mostly Tempranillo with Garnacha, Syrah and Monastrell. It's a full, rich red with dark fruit and enough tannin to stand up to a steak.
You can buy Vara wines at Susan's Fine Wine and Spirits, Kaune's Neighborhood Market, Kokoman Fine Wines and Liquor, Arroyo Vino and the Rancho Viejo Village Market. Some of them are by the glass or bottle at Arroyo Vino, the Eldorado Hotel, Eloisa, Midtown Bistro, the Santa Fe Bar and Grill and Hotel Chimayó de Santa Fe.
Diefenthaler and Zamarripa have big dreams for the company, and they expect to have a local tasting room and some kind of locally made product in the future. But exactly how those plans will ripen is, for now, a mystery.