Kokoman

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 kokoman@cybermesa.com. 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 


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