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!

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