New Mexico wineries allow visitors to get off the interstate and experience the agriculture, food and culture of the southwest. Local Flavor explores New Mexico Wine Trails for a taste of what our state’s wine growers have to offer.
In New Mexico we experience the full force of the elements: intense sun, inundating rains, sere desert air. When I explore our mountains, mesas, and valleys throughout the seasons, I’m amazed at the challenges farmers face growing crops within thee extremes. The drive from the Española valley to Taos is one time that I truly appreciate New Mexico’s incredible range of landscapes. One summer I dipped in a silty bend of the Rio Grande above Taos, then drove back through Dixon admiring the apple orchards. As a friend and I stopped in at Vivac Winery to taste some wines before returning south in a monsoon shower, the valley’s green, grey, pink and terra cotta shades intensified in the rain.
It’s just one of several memorable trips I’ve taken in search of culinary and cultural treasures. Now, New Mexico wineries are making it easier for me to discover fresh tastes and new landscapes. “Unless you get off the freeway, you don’t experience the magnitude of what’s here,” says Gordon Steel, President of the New Mexico Wine Growers Association. So they’ve developed the New Mexico Wine Trails maps, highlighting wineries all over the state.
The trails lure visitors into farming areas where they not only learn about wines but also experience the remarkable diversity of New Mexico agriculture: green chile and cotton down south, fruit orchards and alfalfa up north.
And they begin to appreciate the creativity and dedication of New Mexico vintners.
Rick Hobson, of Milagro Winery in Corrales, is frank about the challenges. “Our minus is the late spring frost,” he says. Sometimes temperatures drop as low as the 20s in the valley, threatening the new crop. At Milagro they’ve tried a variety of strategies to safeguard their vines, including spraying them with water to encase them in a protective layer of ice. But the pluses to grape cultivation in New Mexico are significant, too—the dry climate means no fungal issues and fewer insects. There’s plenty of sunlight year-round, and low precipitation means vintners can precisely control watering for optimal growth, Hobson says. So he’s enthusiastic. “We’ve shown we can make wines as good as anywhere here.” Milagro wines have garnered national awards, with their 2007 Chardonnay winning a Gold Medal from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Milagro is just one of many New Mexico wineries to receive accolades. The acclaimed sparkling wines of Gruet have taken top prizes, and small vineyards like Black Mesa in Velarde, Ponderosa Valley in the Jemez, and Guadalupe Vineyards near Grants have also been recognized in national competitions.
They’re all among the 50-plus wineries that participate in the Wine Trails. Because wineries are clustered in corridors throughout the state, New Mexico is “perfect” for wine trails, Steel says. Visitors can stop at vineyards within a few miles of each other in Albuquerque or Las Cruces, or link visits on longer scenic routes, like those in the Tularosa area.
The program started ten years ago, when the organization started providing free maps for visitors. Since then it has added a magazine and passport program. At each winery, guests receive a stamp after making a minimum purchase. Then they win prizes based on the number of wineries visited. Steel explains that the prizes are intended to entice new visitors. “At first they don’t know what’s here,” he says. “It becomes intriguing to them, and when they hit four or five wineries, they get hooked.”
Whether you’re a newbie wine enthusiast or hard-core oenophile, you can’t get much better than the intimate reception at a small vineyard. Hobson’s Corrales winery is vibrant with color and character. The tasting room doors are painted bright blue; head-high sunflowers and cosmos crowd the garden benches outside; and two little dogs nose up to greet you in the driveway. The Milagro label features a pig with a monocle, in homage to the winery’s pot-bellied mascot, Wilbur who made his home with the Hobsons. On a recent trip, Hobson tours us past stacked oak casks, then pours a sampling that ranges from a bright white wine to a collection of silky reds. After the tasting and a stop in the lush garden, I’m already dreaming of an autumn bike tour connecting Milagro, Corrales Winery and Acequia Vineyards and Winery, all of which are within a few miles of each other.
The Corrales wineries developed their own bike-friendly trail, which later was added to the statewide list. They’re great examples of the appeal of small vineyards, Steel says. “They bend over backwards to host you. You really have a great time.”
These young vineyards connect to a deep heritage of winemaking in the state. Catholic priests brought grapevines to the Rio Grande Valley in the 1600s for sacramental wine, flouting an official ban put in place after the cost of shipping wine from Spain became prohibitive. Despite floods, frosts and freezes, the wine industry grew steadily. By the late 1800s New Mexico was ranked fifth in the nation for wine production. Albuquerque’s Old Town was home to ten wineries, and production peaked at nearly a million gallons. Yet by 1910 barely 1700 gallons were produced, as flooding and competition from California wines decimated the wine industry. When the “flood of the century” hit the state in 1943, many historic vineyards were destroyed. It was only in the late 1970s that the industry began a rebirth.
At Milagro, Hobson says that an old Corrales family showed him a hand-drawn map of cultivated land labeled with vineyards, proof of their historic presence. His nephew David Hobson chimes in, “People say that during Prohibition, if you wanted wine you came to Corrales.” They’ve even found remnants of stills above the historic village.
Steel’s own Rio Grande Winery is in Las Cruces, near the historic production center of the Mesilla Valley. I ask him to tell me about the Las Cruces–El Paso area, which I have yet to visit. He extols the often-underappreciated beauty of the southern tier of the state. “We have huge pecan orchards. You drive through a forest for miles under a canopy.It’s so peaceful and tranquil, and people don’t realize it’s there.” East of Las Cruces, the peaks of the Organ Mountains rise steeply to nearly 9000 feet. To Steel, “they make the backdrop of Mesilla gorgeous, more spectacular than the Sandias.”
And, he tells me, each region has its own particular customs when it comes to celebrating. “We’re just getting into rodeo season down south, and people also come out to do wine tasting.” Steel says it’s all part of the “Southwest flavor” of enjoying the fullness of life.
I’ve found those flavors change with every season, storm and sip. It’s the sweet celebrations and unexpected challenges that make life in New Mexico so unpredictable—and so exhilarating.
by Sara Van Note
Go to the website www.nmwine.com for information on New Mexico’s wonderful wineries and plan your own tour!