“Henry Street was good at growing grapes, good at making wine, and good at selling wine,” Ponderosa Valley Vineyards and Winery Winemaker Mark Matheson says. “Each one of those is difficult, and it’s rare for one man to possess all those skills.” Though Henry, who co-founded the winery with his wife Mary, passed away two and a half years ago, it’s fair to say his spirit of joie-de-vivre lives on in every bottle of hand-crafted, award-winning wine the winery produces—about 2,500 cases a year. Their two-dozen or so wines—reds, rosés and whites—are made from New Mexico grapes, largely grown on the eight-and-a-half acres of their vineyards in the Ponderosa Valley.
Though not on the official wine trail, the winery is accessed via N.M. 4, a route that’s been designated a “National Scenic Byway,” and with good reason. Any way you approach, either from the timeless Jemez Pueblo or the charming hamlet of Jemez Springs, the mountainous landscape with its old conifer forests, red rocks and outcroppings, holds an almost spiritual beauty. When they first decided on the location, Henry told Mary that if only one out of 100 cars making the drive for the sheer drama and magnificence of the scenery stopped to sample their offerings, their enterprise would be successful.
With two children apiece from prior marriages, Henry and Mary hitched up in 1974, bought the land for the winery in 1975, and planted the first grapevines in 1976. They were witnesses and participants in the resurgence of winemaking in New Mexico that recommenced in 1978.
“Henry got the initial vines from the Cannon winery in California,” Mary says. “In those days, Riesling was making a comeback, people were moving away from red to white. He brought the cuttings back on the airplane, something Homeland Security would never let you do nowadays.”
They harvested their first commercial crop in 1982, and sold the grapes to La Chiripada Winery in Dixon. “It was a stroke of luck,” Mary says. “They were two brothers, new in the industry.”
They also sold grapes to Sandia Shadows (no longer in business), until they threw their own vine-festooned hat into the ring and became a winery in 1993. Modestly, Henry did not enter that event into the dateline in a slim but highly informative pamphlet he compiled in 2012: The History of Wine in New Mexico: 400 Years of Struggle. But his comments about 1993 show him to be an astute observer of the industry as an ecosystem: “By 1993, many of the large wineries that were over-extended either closed or greatly reduced their size. The growers and wineries regrouped, slowly developing a solid market for their wine. They began planting vines better adapted to the area on disease-resistant rootstock, in areas better suited for good vine growth.”
Though grapes have been cultivated in New Mexico since 1629 to provide sacramental wine to the Catholic missions and priests during the Colonial period, Mary says it’s still hard to grow grapes here, especially in their particular micro-climate surrounded by the Jemez mountains. “The weather’s the biggest thing. In 1996, a hailstorm came through and in 15 minutes took a thousand pounds of grapes. We have to deal with early spring frosts, drought and wind. If the wind blows when the vines are blooming, there’s an effect from the static electricity, it looks like someone took a blowtorch to the plants. We hold our breath until the end of April.”
Mark, who’s been making wine in New Mexico since his first crush in 1987, says the challenges are what make New Mexico wines distinctive. “We have a lot of sun and solar radiation, very little water for irrigation—the vines have to suffer; our vines are always a little stressed out and it makes the fruit’s flavor more concentrated. We have sandy soils and high levels of potassium and calcium. The land expresses its own terroir in the wine—an unmistakable earthiness. If you taste any New Mexico Cabs throughout the state, you’re going to find that same flavor profile.”
The challenges of getting enough nutrients into the soil are what prevent the winery from pursuing strictly organic practices. “We use drip lines,” Mark says, “to bring really controlled precise additions to the plants.” Water for irrigation is provided by a nearby acequia.
“We have a ditch boss, a mayordomo, who approves the water once a week, and by rotation if available,” Mary says. Ponderosa’s unpretentious tasting room is filled with prize ribbons including a double-gold “best in show” for its 2014 Pinot Noir in the East Meets West Wine Competition, and Mary says this has been part of the plan since inception.
“Henry worked at Sandia National Laboratories (as a design engineer for nuclear thermal batteries), and they always had a standard of excellence in their work,” Mary says. “He said we needed a standard to live up to, too, so in 1996 we developed ours: every wine we sell has to be an award winner.” They know if it’s going to be a winner before it goes in the bottle, Mary says. “That comes from two things: the winemaker’s style and good fruit. You can’t make good wine with bad fruit.” One year, some Pinot Noir grapes stayed in the field too long and started to ferment. “We tried to salvage it, but it all went into the arroyo,” she says.
“We’ve got one shot a year,” Mark adds. “Then you’ve got to wait for the wheel to come around again. A lot of time is spent planning and dreaming this aspirational wine that you’re trying to make. What’re we going to do differently this time, how will we change some parameters?” Mark grew up in California (a “garden of Eden for grape growing”) and remembers being a six-year-old in the back seat of the car while his parents toured the wineries in Lodi. “They really enjoyed it, found it interesting, all the different facets—the science, the sensuous aspects of the tastings themselves, the organoleptic experience, which is a 50-cent term for the science of taste.”
Matheson was headed for pre-med when he “made the mistake” of taking a basic wine course in junior college. It has defined his career. He went on to study at University of California, Davis, which started a wine program in the 1950s. Also a home brewer, he was one of 15 people in a class with Michael Lewis, before the craft brewing explosion. It was during his internship in Healdsburg, Calif., (Sonoma) at the Alexander Valley Vineyards, that he realized his studies had been theoretical and that he would now “have to figure out all the practical stuff.”
Mark sees oenology and winemaking as “different ballgames. Oenology is the science of wine—Louis Pasteur, swan neck flasks, father of microbiology. It’s all about managing the fermentation, making sure your yeasts are happy,” Mark says. “Winemaking is real, practical, all about scheduling.” He says the number one practical issue winemakers in New Mexico have to deal with is the high PH level of our soil, adjusting for it. “It affects stability, color, freshness, everything,” Mark explains.
New Mexico winemakers have always grappled with the challenge of this high PH factor. In 400 Years of Struggle, Henry quotes from a 1932 item in The Alamogordo News about the wines of 1870: “Some wines produced were a well-flavored stimulating beverage, while others made a vinegar-like product that intoxicated and sickened with a nauseating flavor. The most palatable was of course in greater demand and brought a better price, but the inferior stuff was still consumed at a profit to the producers.”
Both Mary and Mark feel these are interesting times to be in the winemaking business because of innovations in equipment like sorting tables, whereby fruit can be sorted for ripeness, and bladder presses which are gentler and offer more control over hydraulic presses. But these are also interesting times for innovations in process.
“I make wine differently from fours years ago, which is different from 10-15 years ago,” Mark says. “How we add oak to our wines has really changed. Using oak barrels has been around since Napoleon’s army was marching around the earth, but it’s wasteful. Each barrel has 42 staves, but you only need seven to flavor the wine. So now we use oak chips to get our flavor.”
They still age the wine in barrels, but can use them over and over again. Mary says keeping the winery going has helped her cope with the loss of her husband of almost 40 years. “I’m comfortable where I’m at. I can’t imagine what it would have been like losing Henry without the winery. If I were all by myself, I wouldn’t have that support.”
She’s looking forward to sending all the new wines that haven’t yet been judged to this spring’s New Mexico State Fair. “There’s a new head wine judge, and the judging is taking place on May 20,” she says. “And we’ll be there!”
Ponderosa Valley Vineyards and Winery is located at 3171 N.M. 290 in Ponderosa, and can be reached at 1.800.WINE.MKR or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by Frances Madeson