Monday, September 15, 2008

Paolo’s Grapes

I recently took a tour of our Southern wineries, partly to deliver copies of my new wine guide, but also to spend time with some of the wine makers in this part of our state. Using Las Cruces as my staging center, I went south to La Vina Winery in La Union, west to Deming, and northeast to Tularosa on different days.

The location at the top of my list was New Mexico Vineyards, Inc., which is managed by Paolo D’Andrea. In fact, it was Paolo I was most eager to meet. He came to New Mexico in 1986 to train workers on how to prune the vines and stayed to manage this 300 acre vineyard. Paolo grows 36 different grape varieties at last counting. Subsequently he opened his own winery, Luna Rossa, in 2001.

At the winery I tasted nine of his red wines and found all of them to be impressive interpretations of the Barbera, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Merlot grape among others. His signature Nini blend and I were already good friends, and renewing acquaintances was once again a pleasure. His wines are big, earthy, packed with fruit flavors and eminently drinkable. The Barbera, one of my favorite wines, would shine in California or Italy as well.

His wife, Sylvia, kindly guided me to the vineyards --I was in no mood to take another MapQuest mis-adventure -- and graciously led me on a tour until Paolo returned. It became obvious early on that these were two tireless grape growers and wine makers. Paolo comes from several generations of wine makers in Rauscedo, Italy which is above Venice. He is also a premier grower of Italian grapes, and not surprisingly, a premier maker of Italian wines.

She pointed out their nursery on this site, which has 100,000 plants. Truly appropriate for a native of Rauscedo, which is home to Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo (VCR) – the world’s largest and most respected grapevine nursery. Paolo is constantly experimenting with grape varieties, and his passion for grape growing and wine making are known state-wide by other wine producers. When I spoke to Jerry Burd of Black Mesa about New Mexico Vineyards from whence he sources many of the grapes for his wines, he referred to them as “Paolo’s grapes”.

I really enjoyed gazing out over a sea of grapevines, with the backdrop of the Florida Mountains. It was easy to fantasize that I was in a world of vines and grapes and not high desert terrain. Walking the holding facility I came upon the new grape harvester they are employing as hand-picking has become too time-intensive for the demands placed on the vineyards. I was invited to climb aboard the high-tech machine, and from the cockpit could imagine effortlessly combing a field of grapes. This was an interesting contrast to hand-picking grapes back home in Corrales, which I did at the end of August. See “Corrales Wines” for details.

No, Paolo doesn’t own the grapes, he manages them, but his influence is on every grape, every leaf, every rootstock, and every new grapevine he brings into the world. A goodly number of New Mexico and Texas wineries rely on Paolo for quality grapes. With that kind of influence you can perhaps understand why I was so eager to meet him.

Finally a beat up pickup arrived in a swirl of dust and he got out to survey his vineyards. We had a brief exchange in his office after which he apologized for having to get back to work. I got the feeling he spent little time behind the desk and most in the field with his grapes. Back outside I watched his workers getting ready to deliver their first harvest of grapes. It occurred to me that I was still thinking of harvest in California timelines, not those of Southern New Mexico.

Dressed in shorts and a red polo shirt, he quickly donned a wide-brimmed straw hat and set to work. My conversations to him were interspersed with his directions in Spanish and Italian to his staff as they prepared to load the just harvested Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio grapes into a big semi that arrived soon after him. After a discussion with the truck driver as to the sequence of grapes to load based on which wineries are on the delivery route, he tore off strips of masking tape with the name of each winery destined for each set of grapes.

The grapes are stored in bright red containers that look like a larger version of ones used for milk bottles. The grapes are then dumped into white carboys with about a 50 cubic foot capacity until they nearly overflow with grapes. Firing up his Mitsubishi forklift, I watched Paolo expertly load one carboy on top of another and then take the two-stack and load it into the semi. It didn’t take long observing Paolo in action to realize the Eveready Bunny would have been exhausted watching him at work.

The following day when I visited Tularosa Vineyards, Chris Wickham took me on a tour of his facility. Behind the tasting room under an overhang he proudly showed me his grape crusher which was busily crushing grapes. Paolo’s grapes. Salut!

Wines with a Southern Exposure

One of the best wine tours to take in New Mexico covers Las Cruces, Deming, and Tularosa. I recently completed just such a tour, visiting several wineries as well as viewing our largest vineyard; New Mexico Vineyards, Inc. in Deming. Using Las Cruces as my base of operations, I was able to canvas a range of wine producers with very different philosophies of growing grapes and making wine.

So why would anyone but a wine guy do such a tour? If your impression of a winery was formed at one of our festivals, you may be missing the best they have to offer. Typically, a winery brings their most popular wines to a festival, and makes their biggest sales. In New Mexico, many of these wines are sweet or specialty wines, such as chocolate or Chile-infused wines. These are often the big money makers so they receive more attention than they deserve. If you are like me and prefer drier wines, then a winery is the place to go.

First up was La Vina Winery, which skims our border with Texas, El Paso. Nestled in the Mesilla Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), it is the state’s oldest winery located in an area that saw America’s first grapes planted in about 1630. I sampled some of Ken and Denise Stark’s offerings, which included a well done Semillon among the whites. The Cabernet Sauvignon competes very well with under $40 Napa Cabs, and it doesn’t cost nearly that much.

I was grateful to Denise for guiding me to the winery as MapQuest seemed intent on giving me a tour of La Union. Instead, use the map on their website. The next day I drove to Deming, stopping first at St. Clair Winery. I called for directions this time as the MapQuest route looked more like a tour of the entire Southwest. Maybe the program doesn’t work in Southern New Mexico? Thankfully, the counterperson in the tasting room provided a more direct and easier to follow route.

The DH Lescombes wines, named for the founders, are still my favorites, but check out the other labels: St. Clair and Blue Teal being the most prominent. The Mademoiselle label seems to be going away as I only found one varietal, a Sauvignon Blanc listed. Too bad, I really enjoyed fanaticizing about the cowgirl on the label.

New Mexico’s largest winery is also known as Southwest Wines, the umbrella under which all the labels are produced. Their vineyards are located near Lordsburg, and are within the Mimbres Valley AVA, which stretches from Deming to Silver City. They also have a bistro/tasting room in Las Cruces and another in Albuquerque close to Old Town that I make a regular stop for food and wine. Check them out.

Since my next stop was not too far from St. Clair on Pine Street, I decided to ignore the convoluted instructions once again. This time, however, I should have followed them as Pine terminated in an entrance ramp for highway 10 headed toward Arizona. Off to my left, I watched Luna Rossa Winery fall off behind me on the other side of the highway. Fourteen miles later I turned back, getting off on West Pine, which is also the eastbound frontage road. Rats! I sincerely hope you laugh at my mistakes, but don’t repeat them.

I tasted nine Luna Rossa reds, including wonderful Barbera and Tempranillo wines. Keep in mind; I use a spit bucket so I can sample many wines. OK, I did swallow a couple of these. It’s hard not to; they’re rich, earthy, and reminiscent of Italian and Spanish wines. Since Paolo D’Andrea comes from several generations of Italian wine makers, that’s not too surprising. I have been a fan of Paolo’s wines for years, and his latest releases can compete with the best nation-wide.

Sylvia D’Andrea graciously guided me from the tasting room to the New Mexico Vineyards, which Paolo manages as well as his own vineyards. Three hundred acres and thirty six varieties of grapes are grown here, as well as a nursery of 100,000 plants. Many New Mexico and Texas wineries source their grapes from here. For more information on Paolo D’Andrea, see my blog “Paolo’s Grapes”.

When Paolo arrived he immediately set to work, taking the harvested Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio grapes and expertly loading them with a forklift. In between, we exchanged a few words as the semi-trailer was filling with grapes. Watching him in action, I realized where the Eveready Bunny learned his non-stop drum pounding. The man is tireless.

Finally, I headed for home by going through Tularosa. The Tularosa Basin is not yet an AVA, but will become one soon as land is constantly being given over to grape production. Here along highway 54/70 you’ll find Arena Blanca and Heart if the Desert just down the road from each other. Both focus on pistachios as well as wine. I forgot to ask which came first, but I’d bet it was nuts. Heart of the Desert is currently expanding their grape production, and I’ll be watching this development with keen interest.

My last stop was, appropriately, Tularosa Vineyards. David Wickham began planting grapes in 1985, and recently turned over the wine making duties to his son, Chris. I was in time to see him crushing grapes he’d just received from Paolo. Watching grapes go from harvest to crush was a real thrill for me. You don’t often get to see the labor, and love that goes into wine making, but this brought the reality into sharp focus.

The thought of all that work made me very thirsty, so after a tour of the facility, Chris took me back inside to try some of their wines. While I focused on the reds, I was impressed with the broad selection of wines offered. As I’ve mentioned before, the premium New Mexico wine makers experiment with many different types of grapes, looking for the optimum fruit to make their wine. This pioneering spirit is one of the reasons many of these wineries should be on the US wine map as well as New Mexico’s.

Tasting wines and talking with the winemaker is one of the special joys of this tour, and Tularosa Vineyards did not disappoint. Nor did the time I spent with Chris. While many people extol the value of family, wine makers express it better than most. How many industries can you think of that have sons and daughters eager to go into the same line of work as their parents?

The majority of wines I sampled on this tour don’t show up at wine festivals. By touring a winery you can sample many wines in limited supply and only sold there or in limited distribution. I’d guess there were at least a dozen wines I fell in love with that were not available at wine festivals. If you’re lucky, you’ll also have the opportunity to talk to the winemaker and learn more about the renaissance in wine that is New Mexico today. Salut!

The wine question for today: What do you think of sweet and specialty wines? Do you love them, hate them, or ignore them? Results will be posted on this wine blog.