Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Wine is bottled poetry.” Throughout recorded history, there is perhaps no more celebrated beverage than wine. Whether red or white, sweet or dry, wine seems to be a universal drink that bridges time, cultures, and terrain. What many area residents may not know is that grapes were once the major crop of the Mesilla Valley, and winemaking was big business.
A Little Wine History
According to Henry K. Street’s, A History of Wine in New Mexico: A 400-Year Struggle, wine was first brought to the area by Don Juan de Oñate for use in Mass by the monks that accompanied him. The monks started planting vineyards to make their own wine because of the high cost of importing sacramental wine.
In Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542–1706, Herbert Bolton writes “Priests in the Mesilla Valley were growing grapes for the production of wine almost a hundred years before grapes were ever planted in California. Agustin Rodriguez, a Franciscan friar, is credited with bringing the Mission grape, Vitis vinifera, possibly from Mexico, to southern New Mexico in 1580.”
By the 1800s, the territory of New Mexico was considered “wine country” and according to Henry K. Street, by the 1880s, production of wine along the Rio Grande had surged to nearly one million gallons per year.
Gordon Steel, owner and vintner at Rio Grande Winery, has done extensive research on the history of winemaking in the area. Steel’s family owned two vineyards in the Mesilla Valley in the 1880s. One was located downtown and was owned by Steel’s great-uncle, Judge John McFie, who was a Supreme Court Justice for the territory of New Mexico. The other vineyard, located where Bravo Chevrolet is now, was owned by his grandfather, Samuel A. Steel, and was part of the Mesilla Valley Dairy. According to Shan Nichols in Making Wine Along the Rio Grande, these two vineyards “produced an average of 4 ton per acre and were sold to The Bulls Winery in Mesilla. This aided in providing more wine for the long-established Mesilla Wine Festival.”
Las Cruces’ first newspaper, the Rio Grande Republican, reported: “The Mesilla Valley grape has no equal in the world and wine growing is the principle indus try of the people… Wells Fargo carried almost a half-million baskets of grapes at $10 each in 1894 with two hundred casks of wine per week.”
However, the early 1900s saw a major decrease in wine production along the Rio Grande, due partially to flooding and partially to the Prohibition in 1919.
Winemaking in New Mexico did not make a major comeback until the 1980s and 1990s. During that time the wine festival concept arose and helped promote New Mexico wines. La Viña Winery hosted its first wine festival in 1982. Since then, many more festivals have started across the state.
Today, there are 48 wineries in New Mexico, according to the New Mexico Wine Growers Association. Fifteen of those wineries are located in Southwest New Mexico.
Local Wine Festivals
Wine festivals have become a major attraction in New Mexico. In addition to supporting local wines, they also give wine lovers and newbies alike the chance to try a wide variety of wine from wineries located in other parts of the state. Currently there are four larger festivals in the Mesilla Valley area.
La Viña Winery holds two festivals, one in April and one in October. Both La Viña Festivals feature only their wines, but include many vendors and performers. The Southern New Mexico Wine Festival (Memorial Day Weekend) and the Harvest Wine Festival (Labor Day Weekend) are both held at the Southern New Mexico State Fairgrounds and feature wines from many wineries across the state, as well as a diverse group of vendors and performers. These two festivals are presented by the New Mexico Wine Growers Association.
While locals love the fact these festivals are so close to home, many attendees are out-of-town visitors. People come from El Paso, Juárez, Albuquerque, and a variety of other cities to attend. Alison Cundari and Maria Chavez of El Paso, Texas, visitors at the recent Southern New Mexico Wine Festival shared, “We like to try all of the wines and write down our favorites. We especially like it when we find wines that we are able to find in the grocery stores later.”
Connie and Fernando Torres of El Paso enjoy the wine every year, but the wine is not the only attraction for the Torres family. “I love the festival food,” says Fernando. “My favorites are the quesadillas and the turkey legs.” Who doesn’t love a good turkey leg?!
Food vendors from all over attend each year to sell their delectables. From Coonridge Farms’ organic goat cheeses that are made from their free-range goats near Pie Town, NM, to piping hot pizza from El Paso’s Forma Pizzeria portable wood-fired oven, food vendors offer a wide selection of tasty treats. And for those seeking crafts, you won’t be disappointed. Each festival showcases different artisans and their custom jewelry, local artwork, and other one-of-a-kind treasures.
Many of the wine festivals also have offerings to keep the children happy. Jumping balloons, climbing walls, and stagecoach rides are among some of the attractions for the younger visitors. Twenty-two wineries were represented at the most recent Southern NM Wine Festival. Amongst the vintners was Paolo D’Andrea of Luna Rossa Wineries, which has locations in Deming and Las Cruces. D’Andrea, whose family has had vineyards in Italy for four generations, moved to the United States in 1986. He has been growing grapes for 28 years and has had his winery for 12 years.
St. Clair Winery had several booths representing its different labels. The Vinos de los Muertos label was especially popular; they even sell t-shirts with the logo. St. Clair has winery & bistro locations in Las Cruces, Farmington, and Albuquerque, plus they have a tasting room in Deming, NM.
Amaro Winery, with a tasting room and outdoor patio in the heart of Las Cruces, shared its diverse selection of red and white varietals with eager tasters. Amaro is owned by the Maier and Denton families, who combine their business and winemaking skills to produce and bottle all their wines onsite.
Rio Grande Vineyards and Winery, located just south of Mesilla Plaza, shared a little about New Mexico’s rich wine history to attendees who were enjoying their wines. Gordon and Sandi Steel, vintners at Rio Grande, planted their first grapes in 2004, although they had been dreaming of and planning their vineyards for 25 years. If you haven’t yet attended a New Mexico wine festival, make this the year you do.
Not only are they a ton of fun, these festivals are a wonderful venue to try a variety of different wines while searching for your new favorite.
Article by Heather Parra
Photography by Bill Faulkner and additional photos courtesy of New Mexico State University Library, Archives and Special Collections, and New Mexico Wine Growers Association