We make a strong effort to follow the new wineries that sprout up in New Mexico from time to time. In 1984, retired Denver dentist Gary Anderson and his wife, Connie, founded Black Mesa Winery in Velarde. I tried their first few wines, was rather underwhelmed, and pretty much wrote them off. In 2000, Jerry and Lynda Burd bought Black Mesa from the Andersons as a career to follow retirement. Over the last decade, I’ve occasionally tried their wines and thought them better than I recalled, especially the Viognier. But still, I sort of ignored Black Mesa. As a high-level wine connoisseur (sniff, sniff), I have trouble taking a winery seriously that makes a chocolate-infused wine. Or so I thought …
At the Taos Winter Wine Festival two years ago, at the end of the day, I decided to stop at the Black Mesa table just to give it a try, mostly because the two guys pouring were long time wine friends of mine. My immediate reaction was “Hmmmm … this Chardonnay is actually pretty good.” As I tasted through the rest of the lineup, I thought “Gee … these wines are a lot better than I recall from Black Mesa.” I thought it might be time to discard my vinous prejudices and take a closer look at Black Mesa.
Jerry Burd, who comes from a wine background in California and Oregon, has had primary winemaking responsibility at Black Mesa since its purchase. What has changed is the hiring of Karl Johnsen as full time winemaker and Craig Dunn (former sommelier at Doc Martin’s restaurant) as his assistant. Karl was hired in the summer of 2010 as assistant winemaker. A few months later, Karl’s blended wines started to win awards in several wine competitions. Jerry was sufficiently impressed by Karl’s palate and attention to detail that he promoted him to winemaker the next year. But make no mistake, Jerry still has the final say-so on all major winemaking decisions.
The ongoing renaissance at Black Mesa was further confirmed last December. The Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition is regarded as one of the most prestigious wine competitions in the U.S. Of the four Black Mesa wines submitted, three walked off with a Double Gold award. This is an unprecedented showing for a New Mexico winery. The wines were the Burd Vineyard Montepulciano 2012, the New Mexico Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and the Cosecha Ultima, a late harvest dessert wine made from a blend of Riesling, Rkatsiteli and Siegfred grapes.
As part of this closer look at Black Mesa, we recently spent an afternoon touring the winery and tasting with the Burds. Not only are the wines the best they’ve ever been, there are a lot of exciting new things going on at Black Mesa.
Jerry and Lynda partnered with the Santa Fe Vineyards label around 2009. They eventually took over full ownership and closed that facility south of Española, moving the production to their Velarde winery. These wines represent the “value” wines as originally envisioned by Santa Fe Vineyard founder, the late Len Rosignana. Over a year ago, Jerry and Lynda created the Alta Canyon label to fill the mid-range niche below the Black Mesa brand.
Black Mesa continues to source most of its grapes from Paolo d’Andrea’s vineyard near Deming. Last year it crushed about 130 tons of grapes, 95 tons of which came from Paolo. It has also expanded its vineyard at the winery, which came into production a couple of years ago. This plot includes the varieties Pinot Grigio, Syrah, Albariño, Montepulciano and Chardonnay. (I’ve long thought that Albariño would make a very interesting wine in Northern New Mexico.) These wines are identified on the label as the Burd Vineyard.
There are simply not enough grapes available in Northern New Mexico for Black Mesa’s annual production level of 7,500 cases, so they have also been partnering with new growers to plant additional vineyards in this part of the state. One of these is the nearby three acre Velarde vineyard of Ral and Harriet Abbott. Further north, near Abiquiú is Stan Bader’s eight acre Las Parras vineyard,the northern-most vineyard in the state with probably the coldest average temperature through the growing season and the most difficult to ripen grapes in. It is a diverse vineyard that contain some hybrids, but Black Mesa buys the entire crop of Siegfried, Rkatsiteli and Riesling. Further afield, Black Mesa purchases grapes from Robert Jaramillo’s vineyard in Los Lunas, including Barbera, Petite Verdot and the rare Nebbiolo Lampia. So Black Mesa pretty much harvests from the entire length of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley.
The standard mantra in the wine biz is that “the wine is made in the vineyard.” Well … yes and no. Once these small lots of grapes show up at Black Mesa, the wine doesn’t just make itself. The devil is in the details. The close attention that Karl and Craig give the wine is a large factor in its quality. The winery is as well equipped as any we’ve seen here in New Mexico, with tanks suitable for small lots. Most of the oak barrels are fairly old and neutral, so oak is never a strong component in the Black Mesa wines. Interestingly, each individual barrel is given a unique name to facilitate tracking its contents—names such as those of New Mexico locations, Colorado 14ers, cats and grandkids.
For a winery of this small size, Black Mesa makes a mind-boggling array of wines, from single vineyard varietals to proprietary blends. The Black Mesa lineup itself contains well over 30 different wines. Because of his family’s Italian grapevine nursery background, Paolo’s Deming vineyard provides a wealth of Italian varieties that Black Mesa fashions into unique New Mexico renditions of those Italian varietals.
With the plethora of small lots of wines crafted at Black Mesa, the winemakers have become quite skilled in creating proprietary-named blends, like Coyote Red, an interesting blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, or La Bajada White, a unique orchestration of Symphony, Muscat and Riesling varieties.
Many New Mexico wineries produce off-dry and sweet wines because a fraction of their clientele tends to “drink sweet.” Often, these sweet wines are created as an afterthought to satisfy that market. Not so at Black Mesa. Its dessert wines receive the same creative thought and attention to detail as their table wines. The Jefferson Cup finalist described above, Cosecha Ultima, is one of the most compelling blends of Rkatsiteli one can (rarely) find in this country.
And now, it’s time to eat a bit of crow. When friends have praised the Black Beauty Chocolate Dessert Wine, I’ve always sort of rolled my eyes … “yeah, whatever.” Black Mesa has recently been allowed to use real chocolate in its production instead of artificial chocolate flavoring. So, swallowing my pride, I tried a small glass of the wine. And to tell the truth, it was pretty danged good … sort of the essence of chocolate-covered cherries. It would work well as an end-of-dinner tipple. Maybe Black Beauty wouldn’t pair well with fricassee of crow, but the Velarde Syrah, the best of the reds we tasted, might actually be something to crow about.
The lengthy list of Black Mesa wines can be shopped direct from its website (blackmesawinery.com). Better yet, a visit to the cozy little tasting room in Velarde makes a wonderful Saturday afternoon outing. But make no mistake, Black Mesa Winery is now among the top tier of wineries in New Mexico, and certainly back on our radar.
Black Mesa Winery is located on NM-68 in Velarde between Santa Fe and Taos. 505.852.2820. blackmesawinery.com
Story by Tom Hill and Susan Clough