Gardening requires lots of water—most of it in the form of perspiration. –Lou Erickson
Milagro is Spanish for “miracle” because it takes a miracle to grow grapes here. –Mitzi Hobson
If, perchance, you are interested in making wine, whether commercially or for a hobby, Milagro Vineyards owners, Rick and Mitzi Hobson have three rules to abide by: keep your day job, keep your day job, keep your day job.
The Hobsons lived in Albuquerque’s North Valley until 1985; Mitzi was an educator, and Rick was an engineer who sold mechanical equipment. They moved to Corrales in ’85 and began growing grapes as an “experiment.”
“We liked to drink and eat, and it was totally to be the fun part of our life,” Mitzi explains when I inquire as to how one comes to oversee ten acres of grapes in the little village of Corrales. “It was about getting family together to mark the seasons and celebrate.”
Then the (unpaid) work began. Their land was a field of alfalfa and Christmas trees, so the initial task was to dig them up and haul them to local parks to be donated. The next task was the primary planting of the grape vines, another rigorous ordeal that required long hours and a lot of assistance from family and friends. “We kept wondering, ‘This is what we’re doing for fun?’” Mitzi laughs in recollection.
Coolers of beer were placed at the end of the long rows of vines, Rick explains, which provided a stand-in liquid incentive for their efforts until the harvest and production of those first bottles of wine. “That’s why I always tell people,” he says, “it takes a lot of beer to make wine!”
Although an engineer by trade, Rick grew up in a family of farmers, and the science of growing grapes seemed to be the perfect combination of family heritage preservation and personal ambition. “Wine,” he asserts, “is made in the vineyard, not in the winery.” This was not something that he fully understood at first, and so began the tremendous learning process about soil, irrigation, compost, vine maintenance, fungus and pests.
“Every year it’s something,” he states. “In 2006, we had more wasps and hornets than you’ve ever seen in your life—and boy did they love the zinfandel.” In 2010 (also known as The Year of the Raccoon), Mitzi trapped dozens of the masked mammals, assuring me they were driven five miles away and released. The Hobsons now run what they deem a “practical organic” vineyard. “We’re a sustainable operation, which to us means that we don’t use pesticides, unless we absolutely have to. But we won’t sacrifice the vines to call ourselves organic.”
It soon became clear that what started as an amateur experiment with five gallon glass containers was not going to remain just a “fun” hobby. “We made enough wine to know it could be good,” Mitzi says proudly. The Hobsons then decided they would raise all of their own fruit, and although not all of the vineyards belong to them (roughly half of the ten acres), they supervise all the growth and then buy the grapes from the smattering of neighbors whose land they till. Those initial vines, purchased from California, were bare-root grafted vines (own-rooted vines are susceptible to a pest that eats the roots) and of a particular stock that is very sensitive to water, appropriate to the arid New Mexico soil.
“This characteristic allows control of the growth rate of the vine,” Rick explains, getting into the intricate story of the grapes of Milagro. “If the vine grows too fast, then there’s too much space between the leaves, and it becomes too pithy and dies in the winter.” It appears that vines are like exceedingly temperamental children that need endless attention. From the end of January to the beginning of February, pre-pruning (or long pruning, which is the textbook term) happens, wherein all but the long canes of permanent spurs get cut off. Long pruning is a technique used in places with late spring frost, like New Mexico. The buds start their growth at the top and work their way down, so vintners wait as long as possible before cutting down to the last two buds at the bottom, where the growth occurs. Rick recalls back in the late 80’s when Gruet Winery owner Laurent Gruet came to assist in the pruning process, cutting so much vine, Mitzi says, that Rick was very concerned because he thought they were over-pruning. But of course, he admits now, they knew what they were doing, were very helpful and improved the overall quality of the fruit. All soil amendments are spread by hand from the last week of March into the first week of April, and the final pruning takes places in early May.
Then the fast and furious growth season of New Mexico begins, and “shoot thinning” (getting rid of all the volunteer growth and leaving spurs every five inches on the vine) happens. The vineyards require constant and meticulous observation. One always has to be mindful of proper spacing, making sure there is plenty of light and room for the fruit. The canes are positioned regularly through wires to assure upward growth of three to four feet, after which the tips are cut to focus the vine on fruit ripening. The vines are stressed in order to develop the flavor of the grape.
Rick explains this process: “Stressing means on a hot July afternoon you look down a row and see a combination of the shiny front and the green back side of the leaf, which means that many of them are turned away from the sunlight in order to conserve water.” Sugar levels of the grapes are sampled continuously until harvest in August. “For red grapes you want really black skin, no light can shine through. When I chew the skin, it has be chalky—no green taste,” Rick clarifies,“and the seeds need to be brown and ripened. The seeds make a contribution to the flavor, and if they’re not ripe, there’s a lot of astringency in the wine.”
Once the grapes are harvested, the wines at Milagro are made a bit differently than most. The varietals the Hobsons have focused on in their vineyards in the valley are Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Zinfandel. Half a mile away, on a hillside, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown (evidence of the existence of microclimates neither Rick nor Mitzi knew about until they started this business). The wines are made in the Old World style, which means they have slightly more fruit character and are drier, leaner, and meant to accompany food. They also have less alcohol, “simply because,” Rick says unapologetically, “I like to drink a lot of wine.” One of the key decisions in going commercial was the use of French oak barrels, which give the wine a nice, round texture in the mouth (as opposed to wines aged in other, less expensive containers). However, with the barrels costing $1100 each, the Hobsons then had to commit to producing enough grapes to justify this expense.
“And the pig!” Mitzi exclaims as we walk out of the former horse barn that now holds 100 French oak barrels. “You have to be wondering about the pig.” The mascot on the vineyard’s label is Wilbur (yes, after Charlotte’s Web), a pig that lived in the house with them for fourteen years. Wilbur was very well known in Corrales—better known to some, in fact, than his owners. Folks that would come looking for the vineyard and ask for the Hobsons were met with confused looks until they added, “You know, the place with the pig.” So when Milagro became a commercial venture, Wilbur solidified his place in Corrales history. “He had a very good palate,” Mitzi recalls. “He knew the good grapes.”
Any gardener or farmer is well acquainted with the patience, learning and hard work it takes to be successful, and Rick and Mitzi are no exception. That they’ve succeeded despite any real structural support for viticulture that exists in, say California or Oregon, is extraordinary.
“We really haven’t cut any corners in terms of what we do in the vineyard,” Rick states with confidence, “and we feel like we’ve created something distinctive to New Mexico. One of our goals is just to get people to give New Mexico wines a try. The wine making is getting a lot better here—even Oregon and Washington didn’t start out so good.”
The Hobsons are both in their 60s, and much of the work has become physically more challenging, but they are counting on nephew, David Hobson, (who helped plant those initial vines when he was 14 and is now 38) to continue the family business.
“You just have to want to do this so much; I hope what we’ve learned can be passed on,” Mitzi says.
“You have to be very tenacious,” Rick adds.
And willing to sweat. And believe in miracles. And if all else fails, have a pet pig with a good palate.
The Milagro Vineyards are located at 985 West Ella in Corrales. The winery is open for tours and tastings by appointment. 505.898.3998. Milagro wines can be found in locally owned restaurants and liquor stores as well as purchased at the winery. www.milagrovineyardsandwinery.com.
Story by Emily Beenen