Commuters along I-25 may have noticed that acreage just north of Bernalillo has been more lush than usual the past few years as some 30 acres of grape vines take root in the high-desert foothills. The Pueblo of Santa Ana owns and manages the vineyard, making it one of only a handful of Native American tribes across the U.S. to grow grapes commercially. Tribes in California and Arizona have purchased existing vineyards, but Santa Ana is unique in growing grapes from the ground up. This year marks the second successful harvest and the release of the first wine made with the Pueblo-grown grapes—a still Rosé by New Mexico top-shelf vintner Gruet Winery.
Agriculture has been a staple of the Santa Ana people’s lifestyle for hundreds of years and their business enterprises since the 1980s. The Tamayame (the name of the Santa Ana people in their Keres language) have lived along the Rio Grande, 16 miles north of Albuquerque, since at least the 1500s. In this fertile valley, they’ve raised crops like blue corn—a treasured grain among Pueblo tribes—and their religious ceremonies are closely tied to agricultural seasons. In the 1980s, the people of Santa Ana began growing corn commercially and processing it in its own grain mill. Later, they expanded to grow plants native to the Rio Grande Valley, selling via both wholesale and retail operations.
Of course, the Pueblo’s ventures also include Santa Ana Golf Club, Santa Ana Casino and Hotel, and the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa. Joseph Bronk, the Pueblo of Santa Ana director of agriculture, places the vineyard under the umbrella of these public-facing enterprises. “Opinions on Indian gaming vary, but this has been a really complimentary facet of what the Pueblo is doing,” he says.
Joseph says the idea had been kicked around for a number of years. It became top of mind in 2011, when the tribal council readily agreed to diversify its agricultural enterprises, as long as Joseph could find some way to pay for it. To kick start the planting, the Pueblo found seed money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Southern Pueblos Agency, and in 2012, received three-year start-up funding from the Administration for Native Americans, a department within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through its Social and Economic Development Strategy grant program.
Having overseen farming ventures previously, Joseph knew the importance of identifying his market ahead of time. He found that in Gruet Winery, the vineyard’s sole customer with which it has worked closely through every stage of planning the vineyard and its harvests. The Gruet family has a 33-year history of growing grapes and making wine in New Mexico. Although Gruet is particularly known for its Méthod Champenoise sparkling wines, it also makes still wines. Under the leadership of Gilbert Gruet, and now his son and head winemaker Laurent Gruet, the label has earned numerous awards; in 2011, Wine Spectator name Gruet NV Blanc de Noirs a top-100 wine in the world—a particular coup since the sparkling wine costs less than $20. But to keep up with demand—some 2,000 tons per year—the winemaker needed ever more grapes. Laurent says they were eager to partner with Santa Ana for a new source of grapes. All the better, this vineyard would be near Gruet’s Albuquerque headquarters and tasting room. (Its other vineyards are in the Elephant Butte area and south.)
Laurent was part of the conversation from the beginning, picking the site for the vineyard. To the Pueblo’s surprise, he passed over acreage along the Rio Grande in Bernalillo, where Franciscan and later settlers grew missionary grapes. Instead, he placed the vineyards in the foothills, away from clay-like soil, where the topography would allow the cool air from the mountains to roll off the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes planted there. Laurent also worked with viticulturist and viniculturist Rick Hobson of Milagro Vineyards & Winery to find grape clones that would work well in New Mexico. The Pueblo’s aboriginal water rights would ensure steady irrigation of the field.
Planning was complete in 2013, and the first vines went in the ground in 2014. At an elevation of 5,200 feet, these are some of the highest-elevation Pinot Noir grapes in the world. Laurent lauds the variety as the king of grapes, thanks to its sophistication and ability to pair with a variety of foods.
Last year was the first harvest, unfolding over two weeks in August. How do they know when to pick? “Laurent says go, and we go,” says Bill Jackel, Santa Ana Tamaya Vineyard manager. The vineyard is close enough that Laurent visited weekly to test the grapes. In its first year, the sugars were a little too high for Laurent’s liking for sparking wine. So with the 70-ton harvest, he made a Rosé instead. The bottle has a unique brand; Gruet’s typical dome-shaped label has been modified to feature a stair-stepped design to reflect Pueblo influences. The wine’s origin from Santa Ana Vineyard and Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, is neatly noted at the bottom. It’s a dry Provence-style Rosé with good balance and lots of juicy berry flavor. Many of the bottles serve guests at the Gruet tasting rooms, Prairie Star Restaurant and Hyatt Regency Tamaya, though some are available for sale to the public.
This year’s 140-ton harvest far exceeded Laurent’s expectations in output and quality, leading him to call it one of the best vineyards in the state for its second year. “It has a better pH balance this year. It has a good balance between acidity and sugar, so I’ve been very happy with the grapes,” he says. Gruet has a sparkling wine planned for this year, which blends the three varieties grown on the vineyard, including Pinot Meunier—a rarity for U.S. vineyards, but an essential for Méthod Champenoise.
With Laurent’s tutelage and Bill’s four decades of know how from working in commercial nurseries like the former Santa Fe Greenhouses, the 30,000 vines have had a remarkable output. They average 4.5 tons of fruit per acre. Some clones, like the astounding No. 459, put out some seven tons of fruit per acre. “I’m a plant guy,” Bill says. “My goal is the long-term viability of the plants. Some people have told us they’re holding too much fruit, but Laurent’s my customer, so I do what he says.”
At this point, with all its start-up funding spent, Joseph says the vineyard is self-sustaining, though it’s not yet the profitable venture the tribe is hoping for. He hopes to change that in future years by continuing to grow healthy supplies of grapes and having more cost-efficient harvests, as some 60 seasonal, mostly Native American workers flood the fields each August to trim the clusters from the vines by hand. From Laurent’s point of view, there are never enough grapes—particularly high-quality grapes like these—so he hopes the vineyard adds more acreage in the future.
Santa Ana Pueblo and Gruet are more than grower and customer. They’ve fostered a one-of-a-kind partnership in a truly distinctive venture. First, there’s the Pueblo of Santa Ana, which is adapting its agricultural heritage to a new time and a new economic system in order to plant one of the few Native-owned vineyards in the U.S., while working tirelessly to secure grant funding to spark its business diversification. Then there’s Laurent, a French immigrant who adopted his father’s ambitious dream to bring the Champagne region’s refined winemaking to rough-around-the-edges New Mexico, only to put the state on the map for sparkling wine. It’s a fruitful partnership that could only have grown in a special place, where for centuries, residents and settlers have formed unlikely trusts and built lives in these sprawling high-desert mesas.
Bottles of the Gruet/Santa Ana Vineyard Rosé are available at the Santa Ana Garden Center, 960 U.S. Hwy. 550, Ste. C, 505.867.1322.
Story by Ashley M. Biggers