It’s an all too familiar story. A person with a casual interest in wine is served that epiphany wine, a wine so good their eyes are opened to what wine is all about. And then begins that precipitous descent into the depths of wine geekdom.
One of the rules that geeks learn early on, when searching for that next epiphany wine, is not to be fooled by the appearance of a wine store. Oftentimes, the grittiest, most unostentatious of wine shops will harbor unknown wine treasures. Invariably, there is someone behind that shop who has an abiding interest and passion for fine wine. That characterization fits Kokoman Fine Wine and Liquor in Pojoaque to a T. It’s not much to look at when you enter the front door, but take that sharp turn to the left and all sorts of wine treasures are there for the taking. And the mind behind it all is none other than Keith Obermaier, a fixture on the New Mexico wine scene for a good many years.
The name Kokoman is the Tewa word for “bogeyman”; Pojoaque is Tewa for “watering hole.” So this is the “bogeyman’s watering hole”…an apt description. Keith came to New Mexico from Chicago to study mechanical engineering at the University of New Mexico and play football. His father was a physicist who invented the dewpoint meter, a device to measure the water vapor content in a gas. But he found after two years that engineering was not his bag and dropped out. After hard labor jobs in Durango, Colo., and Oregon, Keith returned to New Mexico to a position with Smith Barney. One of his customers owned a floundering liquor shop in Pojoaque, which Keith, at 34, bought in July of 1984 and suddenly found himself in the booze business. His original intent was to convert the wine part of the building into a pool hall, selling beer and booze to his pool hustlers. Knowing little about wine, it seemed like a logical move.
One of his sales reps (Vintage Wines) was David Nolf, a man who had been in retail in Santa Fe for a number of years and established a reputation through his wine column in the Santa Fe Reporter, Santa Fe’s alternative newspaper, famous for their April Fools’ column. On his sales calls with Keith, David would stumble upon bottles of fine wine in Kokoman that thrilled him. He convinced Keith to abandon the pool hall idea and turn Kokoman into a fine wine establishment. So Keith hired David that November and established the pattern that has served him well…hire very good wine people and give them free rein to make Kokoman the wine destination in New Mexico, selling wines that the grocery stores don’t carry. David promptly went about doing that, taking advantage of their co-location between Los Alamos, Taos and Santa Fe.
Over the years, Keith has nurtured many fine-wine people. After David left to found his own wine shop, his position was taken over by Steve Begg, who lifted Kokoman to even greater heights. Steve ran the wine department for a number of years, eventually leaving to join the wine distributor, Bacchus Wine Patrol. Then he and Tom Wolensky founded Fiasco Wines, one of the best wine distributors in the state. Working with Steve was Margaux Singleton, who went on to start the highly regarded Enoteca Wine Shop in Calistoga, Calif.
Tucked back in the far corner of the wine room is a small temperature-controlled cellar. Within, you can find all sorts of top-notch wine for any special occasion—Dom Perignon, Domaine Romanee-Conti, Ridge Monte Bello and Silver Oak Cabernet, often from multiple vintages and going back a fair number of years. Keith reports that purchases from the cellar pick up around Christmas and during opera season. But the real strength of Kokoman is the ability to find seriously good wine at reasonable prices. Keith, Wine Manager Mark Spalding and Karen Easton do an especially good job on ferreting out lesser-known wines. Savoie Mondeuse? Derthona Timarasso? Ingrid Groiss Gemischter Satz? All remarkably good and in the $20 price range.
But Kokoman is not just about fine wine. Starting as a teenage stockboy at the original Kokoman, Jerome Valdez has risen to the position of Keith’s general manager. He has responsibility for the beer and liquor buying. They have one of the best selections of craft beers, liquors, liqueurs and Italian Amaros that you can find in New Mexico.
There’s only been one hiccup along the way of this success story. In the late ’90s, Keith built a building at the corner of Garfield and Galisteo Streets. This business, a partnership with Shirley Pisacane of of Circus Catering, was named Kokoman Circus. Aptly named, the wine department was run by Stuart Goodfellow. Despite an ideal location and one of Santa Fe’s best rooftop bars, run by Jamie O’Neil, Keith closed Circus in 2000. The building was rented to Bryan Knox, who started his upscale Standard Market.
During the years following the closing of Circus, Kokoman seemed adrift without a really good wine person in charge. This was finally remedied with the hiring in the mid-2000s of Phil Hemberger, a retired Los Alamos National Lab chemist. Phil was able to return Kokoman to its status as the wine destination in New Mexico. Phil fully retired several years ago, and the wine-manager shoes have been ably filled by Mark Spalding, assisted by Karen Easton.
Starting in the early days of David Nolf, one of the central features of Kokoman has been its Saturday-afternoon wine tastings, currently from 3:30 to 6:00 p.m. When winemakers come on a promo tour to New Mexico, they will often schedule to allow hosting at one of the Kokoman tastings. When the wine distributors have an important wine importer or wine personage in town, they will frequently host a Saturday Kokoman appearance. The sales reps from the distributors covet the opportunity to present a tableau of their wines on a Saturday. Sometimes, it’s simply Mark and Karen putting together a selection of wines they want to share from inventory.
Propitiously located, Kokoman attracts the going-home/going-down traffic from Los Alamos and Taos. Many Santa Feans regard the trip out to Pojoaque for the tastings time well spent. It’s a singular opportunity for the wine lover, or just the casual drinker, to expand their vinous horizons. There is a 10-percent discount on any of the “tasters” that are purchased. Many regulars have been making their afternoon tasting stops at Kokoman a Saturday habit to schedule around. For now, Keith has no plans for retiring or selling the business. With a son in Phoenix, Ariz., a daughter in Bloomfield, Colo., and a daughter in Brooklyn, New York, Keith weaves caring for grandkids and trips to see the family into his hobbies of golf, hiking and skiing. He has a top-notch staff that allows him to keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly.
So…if you find a bit of time on your hands late on a Saturday afternoon, a trip up to
Pojoaque for a Kokoman tasting is worth the drive. Who knows…you may find your next epiphany wine, and take that fated plunge into wine geekdom.
Kokoman Fine Wine and Liquor is located at 34 Cities of Gold Road, Santa Fe, a 20 minute scenic drive from downtown.
Story by Susan Clough and Tom Hill