April 2011

Del Are Llano – From the Arid Land: Grape Co-op to Provide Local Wineries with Grapes

Juan Estevan Arellano

When people think of ecotourism, Santa Fe and Taos immediately come to mind; yet between these two destinations there are plenty of places to recreate and quench your thirst. There’s rafting and camping in the Río Grande and art tours in the fall, including the Dixon Art Tour, which will be 30 years old this fall.

But the most important developments along the Río Grande between the Española Valley and Taos are its wineries and now a brewery, and recently the organizing of a grape growers co-op that hopes to eventually provide a lot of the grapes needed by the local wineries.

In Velarde, before entering the canyon, there is Black Mesa Winery, owned by Lynda and Jerry Burd, the new owners, who continue to make wines in the tradition of the winery’s founders, Gary and Connie Anderson. Jerry continues to study with Gary, whose philosophy is guided by: “Good wine, good food, good friends and good conversation soothes the soul and refreshes the intellect.”

Once you get out of the canyon, in Embudo there is Vivac Winery on the turnoff to Dixon. Brothers Jesse and Chris Padberg, along with their wives Michelle and Liliana, own Vivac. The word “Vivác” is a Spanish term meaning “high-altitude refuge.”

If you head east toward Peñasco and follow the High Road to Taos, there is the Chiripada Winery in Dixon, established in 1977. It’s the oldest winery in northern New Mexico, owned by brothers Pat and Michael Johnson. “Chiripada” means “stroke of luck” in Spanish.

Or, if you head northeast on highway 68 towards Taos, there is Blue Heron Brewery in Rinconada, where you can sip their excellent homemade beer or Chiripada wine. Scott and Kristen Hennelly own Blue Heron Brewery. She is the daughter of Pat Johnson, one of the owners of Chiripada. Whereas grapes are a crop that doesn’t use that much water, hops take an exorbitant amount, and for that reason they are not grown in the desert Southwest.

One of the oldest vineyards in northern NM is Río Embudo Vines in Cañoncito, two miles east of Dixon, owned by Jasper and Orlinda Tucker, who planted seven acres in the early 1980s. Last year the Embudo Valley Acequia Association recognized him as Farmer of the Year during its annual Celebrando las Acequias.

The new Northern NM Micro Grape Growers Cooperative is aiming for “a stroke of luck,” in the high-altitude refuge that is the Española Valley, under the shadow of the Black Mesa, which frames the north side of the valley. Their aim is “to form a collection of growers to represent, pool resources and educate grape growers in northern NM in the successful, sustainable and profitable production and marketing of quality wine grapes.”

According to Co-op President Tim Martinez of Velarde, owner of Los Arboles Vineyard, “About four years ago I started to plant vines as an alternative to growing apples (little market) or chile (labor intensive). Since grapes are not really what is farmed around here, neighbors, friends and others took notice. They kept coming by and checking on how my vines were doing. Most became interested in starting their own. We formed a group last year, mostly to purchase in bulk to reduce the price per vine.” The organization currently consists of 17 growers with many others showing interest in joining. Members are from Española, Chimayó, Alcalde, La Mesilla, El Guique, Velarde, Hernandez and Dixon.

Currently four growers are growing Cabernets, Merlots, Montepoliciano, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Pinot Griot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Tramenite and others. Some are also growing table grapes such as Concord, Reliance, Niagara and Muscats.

Not all the members are men. Women have also joined, among them Dr. Marsha Brenden, who says, “As probably the most micro-grower of all the co-op members, my first soon-to-be-planted quarter of an acre in Dixon will hopefully add to the co-op’s harvest in years to come.” Another woman, Lucia Sanchez from Alcalde, is vice-president.

The co-op is for the micro-growers with five acres or less, since most of the land holdings are in the range of one to five acres. At present the co-op, on the advice of local wineries, who they hope will become their primary customers, are concentrating on three varieties of grapes: Riesling, Petite Shiraz and Malbec.

The theme is “One Acre at a Time,” and they hope to plant 4,200 vines, or five acres. Hopefully in a few years all the vacant land that today is full of invasive Siberian Elms and Russian Olives can be planted in grapevines, and thus help the economy of the valley and help save the water rights. Joshua Johnson of Chiripada thinks the co-op is “a great idea; we need more grapes and the closer the better.” People interested in joining the co-op can contact Tim at 505.852.4060 or via e-mail: sierra_tim@yahoo.com.

Next time you’re traveling the last leg of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro between Ohkay Owingeh and Taos, don’t think of the road as a dead zone where there is no cell phone service or sleepy villages, but rather as a place to stop and quench your thirst with some of the best wine produced in New Mexico.

Estevan Arellano is translator-editor of the book Ancient Agriculture. He and his wife, Elena, raise heirloom fruit and vegetables in the Embudo area along the Rio Grande.

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2 thoughts on “Del Are Llano – From the Arid Land: Grape Co-op to Provide Local Wineries with Grapes”

  1. New Mexico grape

    There use to be a widespread grape industry here that literally had it roots back to the Spanish Conquistadors that brought grape cuttings with them during settlement starting in 1580. The grapes came from the Spanish homeland that has a similar dry and harsh climate to New Mexico; that hot dry summer and cooler nights which results in a 30-50 degree temperature swing in a day or a week. As they came into New Mexico, which had long-term deep freezes, these grapes died back for years and finally evolved into a grape that could tolerate the weather and the shorter growing season. These grape vines produced a really good grape for wine and jelly making.

    During Prohibition the U.S. Revenue Agents burned and bulldozed most of the vineyards in New Mexico and destroyed the 400 year old legacy and lineage of these grapes.

    Now this is important because if you go into a nursery and buy a grape plant it is probably a Concord grape that comes out of New England where water is abundant and heat is rare. So when you plant them they do poorly because they don’t have that 400 years of evolution for our climate. Other grapes come out of southern nurseries and are completely freeze intolerant and you lose them.

    The New Mexico grape is making a comeback.

    So Prohibition had a devastating economic impact on New Mexico which could have been the nation’s Napa Valley.

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