Sake To Me Baby!

Deborah Fleig and Linda Tetrault’s warehouse looks like some sort of long-term art project. In a way, perhaps, that’s what it is—a shifting expression of the last 12 years of their lives, from the strings of paper origami globes that drape off the windows in their office, to the bakers racks packed to their wiry gills with fabric-covered boxes and multicolored scissors, to the walk-in cooler in the back stuffed with towering stacks of freshly imported sake bottles. It’s a place where Fleig walks barefoot over wood floors and Tetrault’s two boys come after their first day of school to play and wait for their mom. The Floating World warehouse is also a home to a breed of wine you may know nothing about.

Sake is a wine, after all—a rice wine—and the good stuff is made with not much more than rice, water and yeast. It’s a combination that leaves out the sulfites and tannins and, therefore, the headaches and other ornery byproducts of drinking. But we’re not talking about the sake you’ve sipped hot from a sushi bar, the kind that tastes and feels like nothing more than warm, astringent vapor. Fleig and Tetrault’s sake—soon to be your sake, too—is an entirely different beast, and it may make you turn your back on your beloved Beaujolais.

The stuff you find at most Japanese restaurants in the U.S. is called futsu-shu. This normal table sake corners 80 percent of the market. The differences between it and higher-grade sakes start with temperature—the premium beverages are served cold, not hot. Referred to as tokutei meishoushu collectively, higher grades are smooth, almost syrupy, but without any saccharine hints. Fleig likes to drink hers in a chilled glass with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these varieties is that their flavors range robustly, from airier, champagne-like sakes to those that resemble a good port.

Fleig and Tetrault, along with two other panelists, will be teaching people about this relatively unknown form of sake in a seminar at this year’s Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta. It’s the first time a sake seminar has been included in the Fiesta’s lineup of events, and it’s something Fleig and Tetrault have been lobbying for over the last few years. The hour-long course aims to expose people to the delicacies and complexities of sake through tastings, lessons on how sake is made, tips on how it should be drunk and advice how to order good sake at a restaurant.

Take, for instance, this little nugget: The thing that most determines a sake’s quality and flavor, as one might imagine, is the rice. There’s table rice, and then there’s sake rice. About 100 different varieties make up the latter. When rice is used to make sake, it’s first polished to rid it of the fats and proteins on its crust (the good stuff if you want to put it on your plate instead of in your glass), leaving a pure starchy center. The more polished the rice is, the higher quality sake you get. The really polished stuff, the rice that’s rubbed down to 50 percent of its original size, looks like slightly translucent pearls.

This rice range helps determine flavor, but the rest of a good sake’s taste comes from nuances in the local water at each brewer and the yeast used. “In old factories, the yeast occurs naturally,” says Fleig, adding that brewers leave vats open for a time to let the yeast in the air infuse them. “They’re living things.”

Unlike other kinds of wine, sake is meant to be drunk fresh, not aged, says Tetrault. “Sake is more about consistency,” she says. Therefore, much of the sake you drink may have been brewed within the last couple years. An interesting juxtaposition is the fact that sake keeps longer than other wines. “Sake doesn’t oxidize like wine,” says Tetrault. “You can keep it in the fridge for weeks or months.”

Fleig and Tetrault got into sake after starting their other business, the Ten Thousand Waves spa store, which they took over in 1999. The two have known each other much longer, though, since they both attended St. John’s College. Both were vegetarians when they were juniors, and the school let them take over the kitchen every Friday night to make veggie-friendly entrées for the whole student body. Perhaps that’s what led them to start their first business fresh out of college as caterers. That first venture was short-lived, and soon both went to the East Coast for graduate school, Fleig to earn an MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in NYC and Tetrault to get an MBA from Dartmouth.

In 1999, the two joined forces again at Ten Thousand Waves, and their new ownership of the store led them to take a series of trips to Japan to look for new spa products and antiques. It was during these trips that they both began to fall in love with sake, or the higher-quality forms of sake they hadn’t yet encountered in the U.S. Fleig would stuff as many bottles of the stuff as she could into suitcases to lug back, proudly claiming to have squeezed in 36 bottles into a single suitcase on one trip. Eventually, they decided that they wanted to bring the sake they loved back home legitimately and share it with others, so they began the arduous two-year process of becoming importers. That was two years ago, when The Floating World was born. Fleig and Tetrault acted as distributors while waiting for their federal importing license to come through, and this summer, it finally did. The two ladies got the first shipment of their own imports in July.

Over the last two years, Fleig and Tetrault also studied sake in New York City under John Gauntner in his Sake Professional Course and followed it with a round of sake exams in Tokyo. The two now have the highest level of sake sommelier education available, and they belong to a group of only about 80 people worldwide who can claim the same.

Another panelist is on her way to the same status, though. Ayame Fukuda is a general manager with the Shohko Café, her family’s business, and the vice president of sales at a sake distribution company run out of the restaurant. Fukuda has completed the NYC course and hopes to make it to Tokyo to complete her training in the future.

What she loves most about sake is how it makes her feel—or how it doesn’t make her feel. “I’m Asian, and a lot of Asian people can’t absorb alcohol very well,” she says. “Some of us get super, toxic red … I never enjoyed drinking because it made me feel red and icky.” Sake doesn’t give her that reaction, though. “It’s clean,” she says. “It’s not as acidic as wine; there are no sharp edges. It doesn’t have that bite.” She describes it as “harmonious” to drink, and she’s right, because it melds with so many things—from other beverages to a wide scope of cuisines. “I can drink it warm, cold, on the rocks, with juices,” she says. “It’s clean and it allows me to drink alcohol.”

Don Weston, regional sales manager for Vine Connections and the final panelist, likes sake because it’s so easy to pair with a variety of cuisines, he says, especially the lighter, fish-oriented fare he’s accustomed to where he lives in the Pacific Northwest. “In the seminar, I would like customers to take away that sake is not your parents’ or your grandparents’ sake,” he says. “It’s a whole different dimension.”

Fukuda echoes that sentiment. “I want people to walk away with their curiosity being piqued to learn even more about sake,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh my God, my whole world has been busted open … this is the drink of life.’”

Story by Christie Chisholm

Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits

You are stuck. You need to impress someone with the perfect bottle of wine–that first at-home dinner date that promises romance, a wine-geek friend about to celebrate the big five-o, the new job that seemed an impossible dream just days ago. It’s time to celebrate and you’ve been assigned to get a bottle of wine and it has to be the right bottle.  Who are you going to call?

If you head over to the southeast corner of Cerrillos and Saint Francis in Santa Fe, you’ll find your answer at Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits. The moment you walk in you’ll notice the huge variety of displays from Oregon, California, Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, and more. There will be wines you’ve never seen before. But most importantyl, there will be help. Before you get very far, you’re sure to  encounter Susan or one of her knowledgable sales staff who will offer assistance and guide you toward your purchase. You might walk out with a bottle you had not anticipated buying or even knew existed, but you know it’s just the right bottle. “That was easy” you tell yourself, but as with every successful retail businesses, there is a lot of planning, hard work and experience that made that transaction possible. This store thrives because they understand Santa Fe’s wine scene and instinctively know  what people want in their wine experience.

Santa Fe’s special wine culture starts with its restaurants.  In so many other markets when you go out to eat, you see the same nationally distributed wines on the wine list or by-the-glass. While many of them are excellent and reliable, they may sometimes feel overly familiar. When winery representatives come to Santa Fe, they are often surprised by the selections offered on premise, whether it’s a steakhouse, diner, sushi bar or upscale white-tablecloth restaurant. Our restaurants will experiment with a southern Oregon Tempranillo, a Portuguese red from Estremadura, an Apremont from Savoy, Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc or a Sicilian Fiano—and will have the food to pair with those offerings. It is not a big market, but the eating establishments display big-city sophistication when it comes to wine and food.

But what happens when you try and find one of those wines to take home? The restaurants often provide the initial exposure, but a store has to provide the opportunity to follow up, and as this magazine has shown in its series of stories on Santa Fe wine retailers, this town has an outstanding collection of retail establishments with very good buyers. Each store has unique strengths and assets to recommend it. What makes Susan’s different is the time the owner has spent in the industry here.

Susan Eagan has had 18 years of experience working in restaurants back East and in New Mexico, plus 20 years in retail in Santa Fe. (She laughingly emphasizes that she started at a very young age.) Her Santa Fe résumé includes gaining management skills The Steaksmith, Santa Fe Trail Fine Wines and Kelly Liquors. Over the years, she eagerly associated herself with several knowledgeable people in the wine industry who became her mentors, names from the who’s who of New Mexico wine celebrities that long-time residents will recognize: Randy Breski, Ken Shoemaker, Pierre Seronde and Andy Lynch. She learned everything she could from them, constantly tasting wines and enriching that knowledge with travel to wineries in France, Italy, California and most recently Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

In addition to building a databank of comprehensive tasting notes compiled during her tenure as a long-time retailer in Santa Fe, Susan has also built up an extensive contact base in the industry. With this experience she can locate a wine or liqueur for her customers and sometimes have it in the store the next day. Unlike the national or regional chain grocery stores, she does business with all the wine and liquor wholesalers and does not need to go through a centralized corporate office to find and order a wine. Looking for a rare single malt Scotch or Crème de Violette for a recipe or special mixed drink? A prized Nigori sake? Perhaps a Treixadura from Ribeira, in northwest Spain, a txakoli from the Basque Country, a Banyuls dessert wine from southwest France, a Dolcetto di Dogliani from the Piedmont in northern Italy? Susan carries these products, and, if necessary, she will convince the wholesaler to bring it in or even inventory it for her. She recently succeeded in bringing in a line of French white Burgundies that had been discontinued by the wholesaler. “Because of our good working relationship, we can elicit a response from sales representatives and actually serve our customers needs… as they deserve.”

Few buyers spend more time with their wholesale representatives finding out what is available than she does. That investment of time requires support, and hers is outstanding. It starts with her partners. Susan co-owns the store, a family enterprise, with her first cousin Frank Bowlin, his wife, Nirmala Ganapathy, and Nirmala’s sister Prabha Ganapathy. Frank and Nirmala provide business and information technology expertise and work actively behind the scenes.

In the store itself, Susan has assembled an excellent staff. She met Michael Waddington when he came in shopping for what is now a rare bourbon, and he eventually became her assistant store manager. She describes him as a “voracious learner and the state’s go-to beer guy.”  He is also one of the city’s more knowledgeable Scotch aficionados and is rapidly reaching that level with fine wine.  Steve Dietz has worked for several restaurants in Santa Fe and has developed a great instinct for wine and food pairings. Kat Schilke (who loves to tell the customers “I am not Susan”) has had retail experience in Vail, Colorado, and is a passionate cook, because “it’s all about the food.” Rounding out the team are two energetic and enthusiastic Millennials who grew up in Santa Fe: Blas Ramirez, a specialist in single malts and sake, and Justin Boyes, who manages inventory and is also the resident artist for the wine displays. The staff lives and breathes Susan’s own brand of retail philosophy. As she puts it, “There is no shame in saying ‘I don’t know, but I can find out.’” She is also fond of telling her employees, “We don’t sell up; we sell to. Listen as closely to the person wanting a $20 gift as to the one wanting a $100 gift.”

Now in her sixth year in business with staff in place, ownership secure, and a solid customer base, Susan was ready for the  the next step. Where does a burgeoning business in a recovering economy go?  Physically, not far at all. While exploring the idea of growing, Susan discovered that her customers liked her existing location at the intersection of two of Santa Fe’s busiest thoroughfares, Cerrillos and St. Francis. When the larger space next door became available, committing to moving was an easy decision, and the extra room gave her the idea of including a bar to give customers a chance to sample new wines and old favorites. Susan’s Friday afternoon tastings, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., have always been well attended, and the new wine bar will bring the store to the absolute cutting edge.

Susan has been preparing to move since January, but, as is often the case in Santa Fe, commercial relocation has not been easy. With completion scheduled for mid-September, the new space will be ready for the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, will be more shop-able and will make the holiday season that much more enjoyable. For Susan, the future looks solid. She feels that her business niche is well established, “because chain stores have gotten more corporate and rigid in their buying habits and inventory control, and we can establish a creative environment and be responsive to customers’ needs and special orders. We can provide a level of service that is above and beyond.”

Her formula for success is deceptively simple. “You have to like people. It’s all about listening.”

Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits is located at 1005 Saint Francis Drive in the Crossroads Center at Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe. 505.984.1582.

Story by Philip de Give

Wines at the Market

Beginning in January of this year, localflavor has been featuring a different independent Northern New Mexico wine shop in each issue.  In part, this series was conceived as a way to showcase the personalities and unique qualities of these locally owned businesses—as well as highlight their strengths. But then it got more interesting. We discovered within this vigorously competitive field a collective championing of the same kind of sustainable, organic, farm-to-table standards for responsibly produced wine that are applied to our foodstuffs. This month, we pick up the series by shining a light on two small family-owned grocery stores with wine selections that are anything but small in scope or stature.

Rancho Viejo Village Market

One year ago Jane and Jay Winter opened Rancho Viejo Village Market, a pristine emporium nestled within a commercial center on curvy Rancho Viejo Boulevard, linking Highway 14 and Richards Road beyond Santa Fe Community College. For the Southside of Santa Fe it fills a niche. Smartly displayed on blonde-wood shelves in the corner of the market is an impressive, global sampling of well-made wines, including wares from important producers, popular brands and must-have spirits and beer. You’ll find beans from neighboring Aroma Coffee, fresh Plaza Bakery breads, gourmet food items, artisan olive oils, hand-made greeting cards, daily papers and general staples, all congenially purveyed. The Winters have created a country store in urban clothing.

      Jay Winter, a tall, dapper man of middle years, stands by the counter reflecting on the process of opening. “It’s been enlightening. I have newfound empathy for anyone in a start-up business, including us,” he says wryly. For the Winters, whose family has owned Blue Chip Insurance Agency in Santa Fe since 1966, the business at the foot of a picnic-perfect, tree-lined park was only meant to be an investment. But when a local grocer decided not to build across the street, Jane and Jay stepped in to provide a market. “There isn’t another store for miles,” says Jay, “and we’ve seen solid support from the residents. That’s key.”  What’s been tricky is being in a location not on the way to anywhere—unless it is. “Every day,” he tells me, “someone says, ‘I had no idea you were out here.’”

      Conspiratorially, to avoid embarrassing his wife standing nearby with a customer, Jay adds, “The real reason people come in here is Jane. They walk up to me and say, ‘Where’s Jane?  I need a bottle of wine.’  She remembers what wine they bought and what they were eating.”

      Since meeting the seemly Mrs. Winter more than a year ago when nothing stood in the store but her,I’ve learned she’s composed, humble and assiduous in her approach to business. The market is a reflection of her: tasteful, pleasantly appointed and elegant in a practical way. Adjusting a strand of well-cut hair behind her ear, Jane says evenly, “Some days are better than others, but we’ve seen our sales slowly increase. My goal is to move away from some of the convenience items and expand our wines and spirits. It’s so much more fun to sell Pinot Noir than potato chips.”

      What makes this small market stand out is their long suit of offerings.  If you want to ogle dozens of Cotes du Rhône, this isn’t your destination. But, if you’re comfortable with a smaller selection of say, a Sancerre, a Pinot Gris from Willamette Valley, a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Junmai Daiginjo sake without feeling like you need to be a sommelier to figure it out, this could be your place.

      Walk in on any given Friday from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m., and you’ll find the Winters pulling corks or putting out a flight of tequila. A recent tasting featured wines supplied by Crawford Malone, a local businessman who brokers wine from some of Napa Valley’s top producers, including Burgess Cellars, a second-generation winery in St. Helen founded by Tom Burgess, in 1972. Along with son, Steve, Burgess makes estate wines from grapes grown solely on the family property. The 2007 Merlot (a steal at $22) from the Triere Vineyard, near Yountville, is seamless: redolent of black cherry, plush as melted chocolate, with a firm tannic backbone. Despite the slander of Merlot by the movie Sideways, there are magnificent examples out there, and this is one. Jane and Jay dispensed tastes in small plastic cups, hailing many guests by name. The evening at Rancho Viejo Village Market had the ballyhoo and warmth of a community gathering.

 Rancho Viejo Village Market is at 55 Cañada del Rancho, Santa Fe, 505.474.2828. They’re open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.


In one form or another, a Kaune’s (pronounced “connie’s”) has been around for nearly a quarter of the time Santa Fe has been a capitol. It’s the only family-owned, full-service grocery (they deliver) in this 400-year-old burg. Kurt and Cheryl Pick Sommer took ownership of the business—located at the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and Paseo de Peralta—eight years ago. Make no mistake: The store, now known as Kaune’s Neighborhood Market, is Cheryl’s. You’ll see her there all the time, working on displays, mopping spills, dashing to and from her suite of offices, housed in a separate building behind the store. Sharing credit for shaping Kaune’s spirited new vision is Vice President of Operations, major domo and wine director, Rick Hale.

      Six years ago Kaune’s invested in a full liquor license and waded into the shallow end of Santa Fe’s wine and spirits pool. It’s now doing swan dives. “It was a case of extreme exposure,” recalls Hale, a robust man with close-cropped red hair. “We took out the diaper section, built wood shelving and wine salespeople force-fed us samples. It’s amazing to look back,” he says. “Our offerings were completely different to what you’ll find now; we’ve a much better defined, well-rounded selection.”

      When they began, admittedly, Hale didn’t have an experienced palate. That has changed. He’s since earned a reputation as one of the most articulate and analytical buyers in Santa Fe. “One of my wine reps says I’m hard on wine, but I just don’t know any other way to do it,” says Hale, who estimates he tastes about 1000 wines a year. “My job is to take the risk away, to find wines representing the best value, whether its $10 or $200,” he continues. “Good wines share fundamental components. I look for a life force in the wine. Is it distinguished in some way? I want balance between the acid, tannin and fruit. Is the alcohol integrated?  With lower-end wines, is it a crowd pleaser? In the higher-end, I expect more complexity and expressive aromatics.”

      Even with the 500 wines he has on display, Hale knows there are stores with more space and ample choices. But Kaune’s is emblematic among Northern New Mexico’s elite markets, given its size, for noteworthy artisan wines such as Grower Champagne, white Burgundy and Riesling. “Sales may not fully justify some placements, but it encourages our customers to expand their frame of reference,” says Hale, pouring Riesling for guests in the room designated for wine tastings.

      It was a 2008 Dönnhoff (the producer) Schlossbockelheimer (the town, in this case “Schlossbockelheim” plus “er,” added to designate origin, in the same way you’d form “New Yorker” from “New York”) Kupfergrube (the vineyard) Riesling Spätlese (the grape/ripeness) from Nahe (the region) of Germany. (Now you can understand German labels. Stick with it.) At a retail price of $61, it’s not an everyday wine, though it’s a bargain compared to those of equal pedigree from Burgundy. “These aren’t chemists,” says Hale of the Dönnhoff family, who has made wine on the same 32 acres since 1750. “They’re in the fields, tasting from the vine. They know when it’s time.”

      Dan George, a floppy-haired young gentleman who represents the winery swirls the sheer platinum liquid, which shimmers in the glass, like dew. “This has lemon flower and yellow rose. There’s power, yet a multi-layered sophistication,” effuses George.  Indeed, the expressions in the wine change every second.  “Spätlese isn’t necessarily sweet,” he insists. “This isn’t. It’s ripeness you get, of nectarine and lime. The acid is bracing. This is electric acid!”

      Hale adds, “You can taste the provenance of the wine, as well, the slate it’s grown in, even copper, like the vineyard’s name.”

      Another guest remarks that they are learning new “vin vernacular.”

      At the front of the store, a retailer’s hot spot, are “stacks” of less expensive table wines. “They can’t just be cheap,” says Hale, “they have to represent the quality we offer.”  Bashfully, he continues, “The other day, a gentleman stopped me and said I did a great job. ‘You go into a lot of places,’ he told me, ‘they’ve got bottles everywhere, like a shotgun blast. Here, it’s like a rifle shot!  Bull’s-eye.’ That was the nicest compliment.”

 Kaune’s is located at 511 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, 505.982.2629,

Story by James Selby

At The Table with The Gorge Bar & Grill

My history with Taos goes back to the late 1980’s, when I was living in Sydney and working for a company that set up American-themed restaurants in that beautiful Australian city. Hearing of the popular new culinary trend that was sweeping the states called Southwestern cooking, we ventured to hop on the bandwagon and introduce the cuisine and concept Down Under. I found a chef consultant named Dan Hoyer who headed down to assist us in establishing the authenticity of the food, and Dan was from Taos.
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Sweat and Miracles

Gardening requires lots of water—most of it in the form of perspiration. –Lou Erickson

Milagro is Spanish for “miracle” because it takes a miracle to grow grapes here. –Mitzi Hobson

If, perchance, you are interested in making wine, whether commercially or for a hobby, Milagro Vineyards owners, Rick and Mitzi Hobson have three rules to abide by: keep your day job, keep your day job, keep your day job.

The Hobsons lived in Albuquerque’s North Valley until 1985; Mitzi was an educator, and Rick was an engineer who sold mechanical equipment. They moved to Corrales in ’85 and began growing grapes as an “experiment.”

“We liked to drink and eat, and it was totally to be the fun part of our life,” Mitzi explains when I inquire as to how one comes to oversee ten acres of grapes in the little village of Corrales. “It was about getting family together to mark the seasons and celebrate.”

Then the (unpaid) work began. Their land was a field of alfalfa and Christmas trees, so the initial task was to dig them up and haul them to local parks to be donated. The next task was the primary planting of the grape vines, another rigorous ordeal that required long hours and a lot of assistance from family and friends. “We kept wondering, ‘This is what we’re doing for fun?’” Mitzi laughs in recollection.

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With last month’s issue, localflavor began a series featuring Northern New Mexico’s independent wine merchants. Why these? Being neighbors proffering things to taste, they fit the mission of the magazine. Specifically, attention is being paid because we observed something distinct occurring. In addition to being a small business struggling to keep the lights on, each shop, grand or modest, is guided by individuals in lockstep with consumers concerned with husbandry of fields and waterways, who revere craft and have high regard for natural process, vineyard to table. The indistinguishable industrial choices are still available anywhere, aut more than ever, in your neighborhood retail outlet, they share the shelves with wines made in the artisanal spirit. We wanted to explore this community and introduce local merchants, one by one, who have journeyed to wine country, walked rows of vines, and met the farmer who grew the grapes. If not the farmer, then the winemaker; if not the winemaker, the importer or supplier—all of them intent on putting hands-on wine at your table.

      I was invited to the home of a family newly relocated from Europe to Tesuque, and my eye went to some Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Crozes-Hermitage by a good producer in the Côtes du Rhône. The host was asked where he liked to shop for his wine selections locally. “Oh,” he said, “I buy them online.” When told he had fortuitously plunked down a couple of miles from Kokoman Fine Wine and Liquor, one of the great wine shops in New Mexico—indeed, the U.S.—he looked askance. “Oh, you mean the place that looks like a warehouse for kegs?”  Well, yes, they have those. But take note: Big red letters on the building say BURGUNDY.

      Now walk through the doors of Kokoman and meet owner Keith Obermaier. A dash of salt peppers Keith Obermaier’s thick, cayenne-colored hair, not much gray for a guy who came from Chicago to attend the University of New Mexico thirty-odd years ago to matriculate in engineering, a path that left him unfulfilled. Leaving college, he took work in Durango as a carpenter and, subsequently, in Central Oregon, on a cattle ranch. “It was fun,” he says, “but it was very hard work.”  By this time, he had started a family and begun to rethink life after a nightmarish encounter with a chainsaw left the side of his face nearly paralyzed. As it so often will, New Mexico had gotten under his skin and he re-settled in Santa Fe. Using brains rather than brawn, Obermaier found success working “hedges” for Smith-Barney but, again, not satisfaction.

      “My father was a concert violinist,” says Keith. “He gave up what he loved to make a career as a physicist and do the ‘right’ thing. I didn’t want to make that mistake.” One of Keith’s customers at the brokerage had a floundering liquor and beer mart north of Santa Fe up for sale. It was called Kokoman (named for the mythic boogeyman parents call up to keep young children in check.) It sat at the crossroads to Taos and Los Alamos in a community called Pojoaque (“watering hole” in Tewa) in what had been a converted gas station. In 1984, the keys were passed to Keith and “Fine Wine” was officially added to the business name. In the beginning, it was one bottle at a time. “We didn’t even have shelves,” says Keith. “All the product sat on boxes. Half the space was blocked off.” Seeing the space today, it’s difficult to imagine. The first room you enter, the size of a high-school gym, has a long wall of beer coolers and a bank of microbrews, 800 of them. What doesn’t fit on the shelf is stacked on the floor. An aisle is given to bulk wine in large formats, and two more are set with aperitifs, liqueurs and spirits. “If the product is distributed in New Mexico,” says General Manager Jerome Valdez, who started working there as a teenager and has been there longer than Keith, “it’s in Kokoman. Or we can get it.”

      The real oasis is in the adjoining room, where a maze of racks, shoulder-high, is encompassed by even taller shelves lining the walls, all jam-full of wine. Stacked on top of these are crates from the châteaux of Bordeaux, their august names burned into the wood: Margaux, Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion. Then there are the Grand Cru Domaines of Burgundy: La Tâche, Romanée-Conti, Clos de Vougeot. All empty chests that tell the tale of treasures come and gone.  Actually, some are still there, in one of two enclosed wine cellars kept at proper temperature and humidity and protected from too much ardent fondling. But all you need do to peruse them is ask a friendly clerk.

      The rest of us walk among a select offering of 3500 wines in all price categories. There is a $10 rack, a $5 bin, a discount shelf for remainders of discontinued bottles and stacks of wines purchased in volume and priced accordingly. Or meander with a shopping cart (10% is taken off any mixed case of twelve bottles) through the regions of the world. Say you’re looking for a Pinot Noir. Oregon? Over there. California? There. Burgundy? Voilà.  Or Riesling.  German, Alsatian, Austrian, Australian. Domestic?  More than you know.

      Most customers prefer to wander on their own.  But if you’re looking for something specific, or dare chance a wine you haven’t tried, Wine Director Phil Hemberger is likely to pop up from behind a wine rack to be of assistance. Hemberger moved to New Mexico to work as a chemist at Los Alamos. “Twenty-five years ago, Kokoman was the first place I stopped on my way up to the lab,” says Phil. “Been coming here ever since.” Happily retired, he took a job there helping in the wine department a couple of days a week to increase his knowledge. (Really, to get the employee discount.) Not without some reluctance at giving up his free time, Phil stepped into the full-time position of manager. Asked if he misses mixing things in test tubes, he pauses and says, “I wasn’t that kind of chemist.” That humor and graciousness, a scientist’s efficiency and an earnest predilection toward fine achievements in all endeavors mark his new tenure.

      Free public tastings occur, without fail, every Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m., featuring a guest winemaker or distributor, frequently providing food to enhance the experience. Martine Saunier, an importer with offices in the San Francisco Bay Area and a home in France, made her annual trek in early February to appear at the Taos Winter Wine Festival and conduct an event at Kokoman. One of the holdings in Martine’s portfolio is Domaine Morey-Coffinet, a small producer in Chassagne-Montrachet, among the great communes of Côtes d’Or.

      While a “chateau” in Bordeaux denotes a house surrounded by its vineyards, in Burgundy following the French Revolution, these valuable properties were broken up into “domaines,” in some cases with only a row or two of vines, resulting in hundreds of small family wineries. Wines from these sites can be heart-stoppingly expensive, but most families bottle simple “Bourgogne” appellated wine as well, from grapes sourced from outside their own vineyards. As the 2009 Morey-Coffinet Bourgogne Rouge is sampled, it is telling to watch Keith, known for his take-no-prisoners palate, look at the color, inhale and sip. Graceful and silky, the youthful, regional wine, with classic Pinot Noir flavors of grenadine, tart cranberry and a finish of cinnamon over delivered for its modest price. Paradoxically, it was elegant and powerful, evoking a musky scent of earth and of the human body. “That is just wonderful,” says Keith putting down his glass, clearly happy with what he has discovered.

Kokoman Fine Wine & Liquor is located at 34 Cities of Gold Road off of NM 285 North. 505.455.2219 They are open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and from noon to 8 p.m. on Sunday.

 Story by James Selby