My friend Andy and I share a common antipathy toward Albuquerque. He used to work there; I went to grad school at UNM; neither of us seeks out Albuquerque experiences and we both have been known to use the word “Albuquerque” as a snarky adjective.
None of this kept us from attending an open house at the newly opened downtown Vara Vinoteca tasting room where we proceeded to eat—well, drink—our words.
Albuquerque-based Vara Winery & Distillery’s Santa Fe spot features locally made vermouths, aperitifs and wines, including Laurent Gruet’s two debut sparkling wines for the company. Gruet joined Vara as partner and winemaker two years ago, approximately six years after his family sold their company, which brought its winemaking from Champagne to New Mexico in the 1980s and put New Mexico wines on the map.
Vara Winery—which had its first release in 2016—also has been receiving national recognition (among other awards, it was named New Mexico Distillery of the Year at last year’s New York International Spirits Competition) for its blends of Old and New World wines. At Vara Vinoteca’s opening, I asked Gruet if Santa Fe seemed like a good fit for his new endeavor.
“Santa Fe is a great market,” he said, both because of its restaurant and tourist scene. “It’s the right place to show your wine. Albuquerque is harder, I would say, because it’s wider and maybe not as charming.”
Charmed we were at Vara Vinoteca, where we sampled both of Gruet’s new sparkling wines, which offered up a plethora of tiny bubbles, citrusy and delicious. The company recommends pairing the American Silverhead—blended with Spanish grapes (Xarel-lo/Macabe)—with crisped Manchego cheese straws with pickled summer pear compote. This delightful sounding combo was not on hand, but the tasting room does offer a small charcuterie and tapas menu—think papas bravas and mussels al diablo.
I enjoyed the sparkling wine, but wanted to sample some red. After a brief discussion of my wine proclivities, Jennie Thornton, Vara’s wine and spirits educator, led me toward the 2019 Tinto Especial—described as the “power of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon adorned with the grace of Garnacha and Cariñena,” which won best in class at the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. I will need more training to truly smell its purported aromas of cassis, black plums and dark chocolate, but I thought it was delicious and bought a bottle. Vara sells bottles on the spot; has a wine club for discounts; and Thornton offers wine classes from 11 am to 12:30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays (firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your spot).
Like several Vara folks with whom I spoke at the opening, Thornton boomeranged back to New Mexico—she grew up in Los Alamos—after working elsewhere; in her case: for wine companies in Napa and Europe.
“I came from a non-wine-drinking family,” Thornton said. “And when I first got into the wine trade, I thought it was the most arrogant, pretentious trade on the planet. Everyone would put their nose in a glass and say they smelled leather and pine shavings and persimmons from a winter tree. I didn’t get that at all.” So she set out to learn the science behind wine (essentially yeast feeding on sugars), and the brain science behind learning to recognize certain aromas. “Then I realized all the sommeliers I was drinking with weren’t being arrogant…they were actually smelling things that were there.”
I could have sat listening to Thornton all night (I’m going back for a class!), but there were spirits to try. Lead Mixologist Jared Reeder spotlights Vara’s award-winning High Desert Gin (best American signature botanical gin in the 2022 World Gin Awards) in his Lady Coley, along with Vermut Dulce, house bitters and grapefruit oil. I have been drifting away from craft cocktails of late, but Reeder has lured me back. It’s possible Andy and I even toasted Albuquerque toward the end of the evening after we sampled Reeder’s After the Gold Rush: Taylor Garrett Whiskey, lemon, ginger-honey syrup, egg white, red chile.
As many aromas and flavors as Vara Vinoteca’s wine and spirits boast, lavender was not among them. Not to worry. Another Albuquerque venture, Los Poblanos, has brought its lavender and botanical gin game to Santa Fe via the newly opened Bar Norte and Farm Shop Norte. The latter made my little Southside-living bougie-aspirational heart soar. The shop features Los Poblanos products galore (think floor-to-ceiling lavender everything from its Albuquerque-based lavender farm, but also blue corn body scrub; Chimayo salt; simple syrups and an array of local food stuffs from New Mexico vendors).
The tasting room is small and, based on my 5 pm Friday entrance, crowded. While we waited for a table to open up, my friends and I secured drinks, which we were allowed to carry while we walked around the store (having spent my entire adult life in Santa Fe being corralled into various beer gardens, I found this type of freedom borderline shocking).
As for the drinks, the bar’s Lavender ‘99 probably won’t suit someone who doesn’t like lavender (Lavender Gin, Créme de Violette, lavender simple syrup and sparkling wine), but it’s delicious and way too gulpable if you do. We liked the signature Three Guineas (New Western gin, chartreuse, aperitivo, sage, grapefruit) better than the margarita. My favorite was probably the No. 16 martini, which featured chamomile hydrosol and a lemon twist and which I wisely did not finish.
Bar Norte also has a small bites menu: cheese, olives and tinned fish, along with a tea service.
Neither new downtown spot has late hours. Both open at 11 am and close at 7 pm, except for Fridays and Saturdays when Vara Vinoteca stays open until 9 pm. Santa Fe hours, in other words.
11 am-7 pm, Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 am to 9 pm, Friday and Saturday
329 W San Francisco St., (505) 898-6280
Bar Norte and Farm Shop Norte
11 am to 7 pm, Tuesday through Saturday
201 Washington Ave., (505) 808-1713