Said one Californian visiting Santa Fe for the first time to another woman, “Did you hear there are wineries in New Mexico?”
Move over, Napa. Little do these ladies know; our state is the oldest wine-producing region in the US. For over 400 years, New Mexico's warm days and cool nights have made it an ideal place for growing (and drinking) wine.
When the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries made their way to the region in the 16th century, lo and behold, they grew thirsty. (And some needed and wanted wine for the Catholic Communion ritual.) So they did what any rational wine-loving European would do: They planted grapes! Today, that legacy lives on in the many wineries and vineyards across New Mexico. Within 30 minutes from Santa Fe, you can find yourself sipping, sampling and smiling to your heart's content.
Estrella Del Norte Vineyard is in Nambé on the high road to Taos, close to the turnoff from US 84/285. Its tasting room is situated in a renovated barn in the middle of an idyllic vineyard, and a patio adorned with roses, wisteria and fruit trees is a great place to enjoy a glass. Owners Richard and Eileen Reinders bought the property, which had been an abandoned vineyard, in 2007. "My husband said, 'Wouldn't it be great to reclaim the vineyard?' That's how we got into the business," Eileen recounts.
Now, the location boasts about 3.5 acres planted with pinot noir vines. The Reinders own two additional vineyards, making them the largest planted grape-grower in Northern New Mexico, and the only vineyard-winery in Santa Fe County. "The nice thing about having our own vineyards is we can control the process, from planting, growing and harvesting the grapes; to vinting and making the wine; to bottling and retail," Eileen says. The grapes they don't harvest that go into their wine are sourced from the southern part of the state—a provider for most local wineries, plus many out-of-state wineries.
Estrella Del Norte's 2009 pinot noir vintage won a gold medal in the 2011 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. The Holy Molé is another popular bottle, a red blend infused with chocolate and red chile. Last year, they introduced the eminently drinkable Zozobra Red, in collaboration with the Kiwanis Club. Educational events include a regular open-to-the-public "Sip and Learn," at which the different vines and wines are discussed, along with vertical tastings that introduce various years of the same blend.
Head northwest from Santa Fe toward Bandelier and Los Alamos to the Don Quixote Distillery and Winery, which offers a tasting room in Pojoaque, just past the Nambé turnoff on the west side of US 84/285 (make a U-turn at the next light to get to the driveway). Olha Dolin is a third-generation distiller from Ukraine, and together with her husband Ron, they opened Don Quixote as New Mexico's first distillery in 2001. In the lengthy bureaucratic process, they also acquired a wine license, adding wine-making to their repertoire. During the three-year rigmarole getting licensed by the state, Ron came home one evening and told Olha he felt like he was tilting at windmills. Hence, the name Don Quixote.
Out of their 10 spirits and 19 wines, the distillery-winery is particularly well regarded for their port. Don Quixote claims to be the only port producer in the country that makes both the brandy and wine that go into the dark and strong beverage. "We're probably best known for our Angelica, which is a very sweet dessert port," Ron says. "It was actually invented by New Mexican missionaries in the 1500s. It predates Portuguese port; New Mexico missionaries were the first wine-makers ever to fortify a wine. No one until that time knew how to stop fermentation once it started, so all the wines in the world were dry wines. They figured out if they dumped a bunch of brandy in it, it would stop the yeast."
Should you not feel like straying from Santa Fe, Vino del Corazón's wine room is right on the corner of Don Gaspar Avenue and East Alameda Street. Owners Erica and Richard Hart opened their doors in 2009. Erica previously managed Anderson Valley Vineyards in Los Ranchos, which had been New Mexico's oldest winery before closing in 2009. Vino del Corazón features their own labels and offers wines from Acequia (in Corrales) and Rio Grande (in Las Cruces) wineries. "I love promoting the New Mexico wine industry," Erica says. "Visitors don't know our culture and history, and they're shocked by how good the wines are."
Some of the little winery's most popular pours include a stainless-steel-aged chardonnay, with subtle citrusy notes, and a shiraz that works well as both a sipping and a pairing wine. Erica particularly enjoys educating visitors with tips about getting the most out of a wine tasting, like letting the wine breathe upon opening it, swirling it in your glass to release its bouquet, and allowing the wine to coat the tongue on first sip. "I want people to feel confident in sampling and tasting it," she explains.
Although turistas comprise the bulk of winery foot traffic, there's no reason us locals shouldn't enjoy the fruits of our land. Whether it's heading up to one of these local wineries or trekking out to visit one of the more than 40 wineries around the state, the culture of wine is as embedded in New Mexico culture as chile or turquoise, so there's no reason not to raise a homegrown glass now and then.