Grapes Expectations

New Mexico’s wine industry readies for a historic celebration

I am a relatively new New Mexican, bidding adieu to the rolling wheat fields and lush vineyards of another adopted home, Walla Walla, Washington, just over two years ago. In Walla Walla, I wrote about winemakers and, unwittingly, even found myself growing wine grapes.

Upon moving to Santa Fe, a friend in the wine industry told me to be sure to visit Gruet Winery's then-new tasting room. I had always assumed, due to the wide distribution of its ubiquitous bubbles, that Gruet was produced in California. I had a little jaw-drop moment learning that not only is the winery in New Mexico, but that its NV Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine earned the #43 spot on Wine Spectator's 2011 "Top 100 Wines of the World" list and had been named "one of America's greatest wine buys" by renowned British wine critic Jancis Robinson.

"How is this possible?" I wondered. New Mexico didn't fit the picture of what I considered wine country. These days, it hovers toward the middle on the list of America's wine-producing states. But, at one time, it was number one, and thanks to industry frontrunners such as Gruet, New Mexico wine is blooming once again.

"No one in the wine world thinks they're missing out on anything from New Mexico because they're not really paying attention," says Chris Goblet,
executive director of nonprofit New Mexico Wine, an organization dedicated to promotion and education. "New Mexico wines may be our state's best-kept secret. But not for long."

While many are relatively unknown outside the state, New Mexico wines are as diverse as its landscape. As the state approaches its 400th anniversary of
viticulture, growers, producers and trade groups are preparing for their time in the spotlight.

California is, by far, the largest wine grape producer in the US, distantly followed by Washington State, New York, Pennsylvania and Oregon. But for the largesse of other states' production numbers, New Mexico boasts something no other state can: It was the first.

Nearly 400 years ago, in 1629, two monks accompanying a Spanish colonial constituent from Mexico planted the first grape vines in the country. These vines, imported from Spain, found their roots at the San Antonio de Padua Mission just south of Socorro—178 years before Thomas Jefferson sought to establish a vineyard in Monticello, Virginia, and 140 years before California saw its first plantings. Near the banks of the Rio Grande, the monks' vines thrived; by 1880, over 3,000 acres of grapes were growing in New Mexico's dry, rock-studded soil, and wineries were producing over a million gallons of wine.

But, as any wine lover, and especially any grape-grower knows, a good grape comes at the pleasure of Mother Nature. Just as the state's wine industry was
booming, she threw down her gauntlet: Between 1880 and 1910, there were seven droughts and seven floods of the Rio Grande. Just like that, 30 years of bad weather destroyed 250 years of viticultural diligence.

The few vines that survived were carefully tended to and, by the 1940s, New Mexico had bootstrapped itself back up to one of the top five wine-producing states. Until Mother Nature again intervened in the late 1940s with another massive flood. What remained of the commercial wine industry never recovered, and with one last gasp, New Mexico wine became another story for the history books.

What did recover was the unassailable spirit of determined farmers.

"Four hundred years of struggle is the inside joke of New Mexico's wine industry," says Goblet. "But growing wine is a struggle no matter what; we've just experienced a longer struggle than most."

Undeterred by history, in the mid-1970s, small, family-owned wineries began producing commercially.These included La Viña Winery, on our side of the El Paso area and the oldest continually operating winery in New Mexico, and La Chiripada Winery in Dixon, which planted cold-hardy French-hybrid vines in 1977. In 1978, the industry received a boost when a government-sponsored study deemed New Mexico's soil and climate favorable to these newly created hybrid grape varietals.

The successes of these brave producers and news of New Mexico's growing conditions traveled quickly. Crossing an ocean didn't take long, and suddenly, New Mexico found itself again in the game of wine.

European investors eager to put down roots in a place where an acre of land went for pennies on the dollar compared to California's had an ear out for news from New Mexico; its growing conditions were said to have much in common with the great old-world wine regions of Champagne, Chablis, Burgundy, Bordeaux and the southern Rhône valley: dry, with rocky, calcium-rich soil. Between 1982 and 1983, 2,200 acres of vineyards were planted around Las Cruces alone. As word of these investments spread, it turned the heads of two people who would change New Mexico's wine industry: Hervé Lescombes and Gilbert Gruet.

In 1981, Lescombes, a fifth-generation winemaker, left the successful Domaine de Perignon winery in Burgundy, France, to plant vines in New Mexico. Lescombes was quick to find success, bottling his first vintage in 1984. Perfecting his craft over the next 25 years, the winery grew and, in 2009, his 2007 Lescombes Cabernet Franc won the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition's prestigious Red Sweepstake triple-gold award. The next generation of Lescombes, Emmanuel and Florent, now manage Southwest Wines, a 500,000-gallon capacity winery in Deming, producing DH Lescombes, St. Clair and five additional labels. These wines are distributed in over 40 states, adorning the racks of retail giants such as Costco.

Another Frenchman, Gruet, was hot on Lescombes' heels. In 1984, Gruet, whose Champagne house Gruet et Fils in Bethon, France, was founded in 1952, planted his first vineyard in New Mexico. As the vines flourished, two of his four children, Laurent and Nathalie, relocated to New Mexico, launching the family's "French roots, American dreams" adventure. Gruet is now known nationwide as a dependable producer of fine sparkling wine, made in traditional Methode Champenoise fashion. As Gruet's awards piled up, including a 2004 trophy at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London for its 1997 Blanc de Blancs, the larger wine world took notice. In 2014, Gruet formed a sales and marketing partnership with Seattle-based wine distribution powerhouse Precept Wines, ensuring its continued growth.

Back to the '80s, it wasn't just French vignerons taking note of New Mexico's ripe terroir and climate. Soon, the "wild Southwest" was flooded with Old World experts from Germany to Italy looking for opportunity in the New World of wine.

Far different from the tree-dotted, rolling hills of California's low-altitude wine regions, New Mexico's elevated landscapes are mostly bone-dry and, in places, seem to support little more than desert scrub and subterranean lairs of prairie dogs and tarantulas. But grape vines are hardy creatures, and many thrive in conditions disagreeable to other plants: a magic formula of elevation, soil and climate.

New Mexico's vineyards range from 400 to 6,700 feet in elevation. These altitudes force grapes to grow thicker skins, helping to concentrate flavor and
protecting the fruit from sunburn, enzyme attack and fungal diseases. New Mexico's rocky, sometimes sandy soils provide excellent drainage, safeguarding delicate root systems from rot. The dry climate also assists in deterring rot, as well as the pests that plague vineyards in more humid locales. A final ingredient in New Mexico's magic grapevine formula is the state's diurnal flux; hot days to cold nights, which affect growing regions from north to south. Such extreme fluctuations in temperatures promote sugar accumulation in fruit with daytime heat, while cool nights tame acidity.

Grape vines also thrive with careful restriction on the amount of water they receive. The more water, the larger the berry; the larger the berry, the less
intense the flavor. Over-watered grapes are considered flabby, so creative water restriction and yielding small, tight clusters of fruit is a bit of an art form in itself. This is the key to creating wines that reflect the nuances of the terroir and climate from which they are born.

New Mexico's unique history, geology and geography combine to nurse a stunning array of grape varietals. There are the usual favorites such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot, but also viognier, syrah, riesling, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, gewurztraminer, tempranillo, Norton, mourvedre, feteasca and chambourcin (informally called "New Mexico pinot").

Thanks to Paolo D'Andrea of Luna Rossa Winery in Deming, one of the largest grape growers and wineries in the state, Italian varietals are also common. D'Andrea originally came from Italy to New Mexico in 1986 to manage the vineyards of those early European investors. Now, as the largest supplier of grapes in New Mexico, he offers everything from the better-known sangiovese to less common fruit such as dolcetto, nebbiolo, refosco and aglianico. Case in point, Luna Rossa currently has in production a sparkling ribolla gialla. Grown most prominently in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeast Italy, bordering Slovenia, the white grape sees very little production in the US. Most regions don't have the climate to support it—but it, like many other grapes that don't grow well in colder, wetter states, has flourished in New Mexico.

Today, New Mexico has more than 45 wineries, and over 1,200 acres of vineyard, producing nearly 1.4 million cases of wine annually. The majority of these wineries are small-production, giving them the flexibility to work with the breadth of varietals at hand. Their deftness at doing so is attracting the attention of the broader industry, from wine critics to distributors, as is the creativity from which they approach growing business and community.

At Ruidoso's Noisy Water Winery, president and winemaker Jasper Riddle pays homage to the larger producers who set the stage for New Mexico's wine bloom.

"When I started 10 years ago, the New Mexico wine industry had a ton of potential, thanks to the 'big boys' that have been massive champions for our industry," says Riddle. "But back then, people were not working together as much as they could have been, and that has changed—there's a unity now, within the industry, to get New Mexico wines on the map versus fighting over whose wine is better, especially over the past three to four years. There are a lot of bridges being built, and that's super encouraging."

Riddle's insight into issues such as pricing have helped him grow Noisy
Water from 1,000 cases per year to 40,000.

"We were afraid to ask for a price point reflecting the value of the wine," he
explains of the early days. That's no longer the case.

Noisy Water is also growing thanks to out-of-state wine competition awards and a high score, 92, for his 2016 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from respected industry critic James Suckling.

The opening of various tasting rooms across New Mexico is another factor in Noisy Water's success. With six locations in four cities, Riddle understands what buyers in different areas prefer. Santa Fe, for example, has different needs than Cloudcroft or Ruidoso.

"People come to the Ruidoso location to buy wine as there's really no other place to do so, whereas in Santa Fe, people want to be able to sit, relax and enjoy it as sort of a hybrid wine bar," Riddle tells SFR. "Now that we've identified that, and had a chance to adjust to that style, we've had really strong growth."

Riddle is also working to grow the industry as a whole, serving on the board of New Mexico Wine and taking on additional efforts, including working with the governor's office to build programs for potential internships within New
Mexico's craft beverage industries.

"New Mexico talent will hopefully stay and help cultivate the craft industry as a whole—culinary, brewers, distillers, farmers. That's the next step we are working together to push: training and keeping people here to elevate New Mexico's food and beverage culture. There is tremendous momentum right now."

Riddle's efforts earned him recognition as the US Small Business Administration's 2018 New Mexico Small Business Person of the Year, and second runner-up for its national title.

Momentum within New Mexico's wine industry is also felt, and buoyed, by other boutique producers such as Jaramillo Vineyards in Belen. Started in 2003 as a hobby of wine-loving airline pilot Robert Jaramillo and his wife Barb, word of the quality of wine coming from their small vineyard quickly spread. With awards earned locally and in national competitions, including awards four years running at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the vineyard has grown from half an acre to 10 acres.

"Robert grows 95% of our grapes," Barb says, "giving him almost total control of the entire process."

In August 2018, the Jaramillos opened a tasting room in downtown Belen,
spurring further growth. Located on the ground floor of a historic 1909 hotel that was purchased and refurbished by a family member, locals and club members have enjoyed having a place to sample locally made wines.

"Our goal is to market the majority of our wine in New Mexico," Barb continues. "People like to eat local and drink local. They like to know who they are buying product from, and are willing to pay a couple of extra dollars to do so."

The opening of the tasting room has also been a study in how small business aids in community revitalization. Realizing most businesses weren't open on Sundays, Barb reached out to the mayor, city council and neighboring small businesses in Belen. Convincing them of the importance of Sunday drivers, some attractions, such as Belen's Harvey House Museum, are now open the entire weekend. Her persistence has paid off.

"Since opening the tasting room, we're going from 850 cases last year to 1,200 to 1,500 cases this year," Barb tells SFR, adding: "And this is before the Judy Chicago thing."

The "Judy Chicago thing" stems from the recent controversy which erupted over a proposal to open a museum dedicated to the art of iconic feminist artist Chicago, who has called Belen home for the past 27 years. Conservative members of the community rejected the idea of what they called "pornographic" art being displayed in their small town.

"What we realized," Barb says, "is that we didn't need permission to open anything, we just needed money. This museum could be an amazing thing for Belen, so we just went for it."

The Jaramillos helped to organize a community fundraiser, raising $35,000 for Chicago's Through the Flower nonprofit, which will manage an art space dedicated to the work of Chicago, her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, and other New Mexico artists. Inspired, Barb approached Chicago with the idea of creating a Judy Chicago-branded wine, a portion of the proceeds of which would also support Through the Flower Art Space. Chicago agreed and, come July, the Jaramillos plan to release two wines, a white and a red, their bottles and labels designed by the artist.

"It's going to help the whole New Mexico wine industry because it's so big and new and different," says Barb. "I think it's going to help Belen, too."

As these smaller producers continue to push forward and the big ones keep growing, there is one person in New Mexico with a long-term plan to make sure the state's wines find their place in a crowded market. Goblet, at New Mexico Wine, assists members and the industry through education, legislation and marketing.

Under the tagline "Viva Vino," Goblet harnesses his previous experience as head of the New Mexico Brewers Guild to leverage the accessibility of and attention to New Mexico wine, especially as he kicks off the countdown to the 400-year celebration.

"I like the idea of dreaming big for what should be the biggest celebration of wine in the Southwest," says Goblet.

To prepare, he's working with the state to ensure legislation that benefits the industry, which generates an estimated $100 million a year for the state's economy and supports more than 7,000 jobs.

These have included establishing a "reciprocity law," allowing wineries to serve cider and beer (and vice versa); lobbying for the approval of private celebration permits, allowing wineries to host private events such as weddings; and bottle service which, beginning July 1, allows bottles purchased in a winery or tasting room to be re-corked and taken home.

Despite such successes, all agree there are still hurdles to overcome before the big 400-year anniversary. One of the biggest is highway signage.

"New Mexico is a big, rural state," Goblet points out. "We depend on signage to get people to the front doors of wineries."

Barb Jaramillo agrees. "There are many places that could benefit from it, especially directional signage in small towns where GPS might not work as well," she says. Until that time, she's working to get her own billboard placed on I-25, hoping to attract some of the thousands of drivers passing through Belen each day.

Another issue is the reluctance of restaurants to adopt New Mexico wines on their menus.

"Our main focus now is to gain the attention and respect of New Mexico's own tourism and culinary scene," says Goblet. "The restaurant market and Santa Fe market are two of our biggest obstacles. If we can prove ourselves to them, we can prove ourselves to a national market. We have a 'wow' factor outside of our own tiny universe; we just need to be able to get out there."

Noisy Water's Riddle agrees, and points out that "New Mexico is doing a good job of embracing craft in our state by starting to put it on menus where, three to five years ago, it was a much harder fight. Product quality has a lot to do with that, and ours has improved exponentially in the past decade."

It's a reciprocity thing, Goblet explains.

"The more we can do to support the industry, the more our industry can do to support tourism, the culinary scene, and all of the other things that make visiting New Mexico such a beautiful experience," he says. "What's nice about being under the radar is our winemakers can take the time to get to know people. We can sit down and have a conversation here, there is still a human quality to the craft."

But, as down-home as it may be, Goblet and the winemakers of New Mexico are looking forward to using the upcoming anniversary as a vehicle to expand the industry beyond its current mom-and-pop perception.

Unencumbered by the affectations of better-known viticulture regions and with a historic celebration on the horizon, New Mexico wine is poised to once again come into its prime.


Festivals are likely the best way to taste your way through New Mexico's unique viticultural offerings:

Albuquerque Wine Festival:
May 25-27
Balloon Fiesta Park

Las Cruces Wine Festival:
May 25-27
Southern New Mexico
State Fair and Rodeo

Santa Fe Wine Festival:
July 6-7
El Rancho de las Golondrinas

Silver City Wine Festival:
July 13-14
Gough Park

Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta
September 22-29
Various locations

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