Written by Alexia Severson
Spain brought a lot of things to the New World — horses, sheep, cattle, grapes. You may know the history of livestock in New Mexico, but you may not be aware of the role wine played in our history since the first Spaniard rode north from Mexico City. Historians record New Mexico’s first winemaking in 1629, but New World wine is decidedly older. Francisco Urdinola is generally credited with starting winemaking in North America around 1554. Spanish wine was heavily taxed and costly to ship. Apparently easy to smuggle, vines were brought to Mexico against the wishes of Andalusians, who depended on wine for their livelihood. Winemaking in Mexico subsequently was shut down by royal decree.
However, priests needed sacramental wine for Mass. The six-month oxcart journey over 1,000 miles of El Camino Real was the driving force behind winemaking here. Wagons arrived every three years and brought only 45 gallons of wine each trip. The Catholic Church and Governor Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto, whose government paid to import wine, solved their problem. They planted the Mission grape, Vitis vinifera, brought to Southern New Mexico in 1580 by Franciscan Friar Agustin Rodriguez, and made their own sacramental wine. If the Spanish king heard of it, he decided not to make a fuss and let the priests have their wine. By the late 1800s, wine production for priests and the general citizenry had reached nearly a million gallons a year, almost twice what New York state produced.
About then, California wineries entered the market, and stiff competition curtailed the high New Mexican production. By 1910, only 1,684 gallons were produced, and this ended abruptly in 1920 with Prohibition. In 1934, a dozen wineries reopened but could not compete with California and, by 1977, only three remained, one of which was in Mesilla. From that point, the wine industry was nurtured and supported by European investors. Among them was Hervé Lescombes, whose family had been winemakers in Europe since 1846. The Lescombes planted their first vines in Algeria in the 1880s. That’s where Hervé learned the art and science of winemaking. Algeria’s revolt for independence in 1962 drove them back to France, where they established a new vineyard in Burgundy. Perhaps it was competition or perhaps the love of the desert, but Hervé and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1981. Within a year, he planted his own vineyard. “New Mexico’s wine industry was growing again,” says Florent Lescombes, Hervé’s son who is now president of D.H. Lescombes Winery, based in Deming.
There were 7,000 acres of grapes across the state, and Lescombes tended 2,500 of them. “But making wine does not mean people will drink it,” Florent adds. The market once again contracted until only 700 acres were under cultivation. The Lescombes settled on 200 acres of land in Pyramid Valley, just outside Lordsburg. At an elevation of 4,500 feet, days are warm and nights cool, often with temperature differences of 30 degrees Fahrenheit or more. “This climate makes it possible to grow some of the best grapes in New Mexico,” Florent says. Careful attention to marketing elevated D.H. Lescombes Winery to the success it now enjoys. In 1977, the one remaining and oldest operating New Mexican winery was La Viña, which began in a small adobe building with a 14-acre vineyard, owned by an El Paso doctor. In 1991, Ken and Denise Stark purchased it. “We had an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Ken says. “We leased that land until the current property in La Union became available in 1998. It was a 44-acre jalapeño farm and, no, our grapes never tasted like peppers.” Ken had learned on the job under a wine master in California, who allowed him to take over winemaking when the head winemaker took another job.
Today, La Viña bottles wine from 24 different varieties of grapes. Across town from D.H. Lescombes is Luna Rossa Winery, founded in 2001 by Paolo and Sylvia D’Andrea. Paolo was born and raised in the Friuli region of northeast Italy. The fourth generation of winemakers, he has been involved in grape-growing and winemaking most of his life. He earned a degree in viticulture with an expertise in grafting vine plants from a college in Spilimbergo, Italy. He came to the United States in 1986 to teach laborers how to prune vines at a large New Mexican vineyard.
“My main goal in starting Luna Rossa was to prove desert land can produce grapes successfully,” Paolo says. The awards his winery has earned clearly show he reached his goal. Gordon Steel, who owns Rio Grande Winery with his wife, Sandi, came to winemaking the long way. He spent 35 years in the military and at every posting in Germany, England, France, Italy, Spain, and California, the couple used their leisure time to learn about winemaking, which had started with Gordon as a hobby in his late teens. In 2004, Sandi and Gordon returned to New Mexico with a dream. They found land in the Mesilla Valley and planted 10 acres in grapes. By 2007, they harvested the first of 12 different varieties of European grapes and opened their tasting room two years later.
Gordon Steel has been a teacher and mentor to others, among whom is Canadian-born Bryan Oakley and his wife, Dawn. Bryan credits Gordon with sharing his knowledge and helping the Oakleys get started in 2008 – 2009. Talking with a number of New Mexican family-run wineries, Bryan says, “The local wine community has been so welcoming, we decided to take the leap. The more people we met, the more we saw how much they support each other.” Bryan had long used plums, apricots, and peaches to make wines he shared with friends. While Bryan still works as an engineer for a home appliance manufacturer and commutes daily to Ciudad Juárez, Dawn oversees the vineyard.
They’ve based Mesa Vista Winery, New Mexico’s newest, near Chamberino, as Bryan says, “to be close to the El Paso market.” A micro-winery of two acres, they produce roughly 6,000 pounds of grapes annually, supplementing this with grapes purchased from other vineyards. “That’s enough for us to make 2,000 bottles a year,” Bryan says. While coronavirus may have kept us from visiting tasting rooms and enjoying the camaraderie of wine lovers, you’ll find the wines of all five of these wineries in your local store. Take a minute to pick up a bottle and toast the men and women who tie us firmly into our long and rich history.
This article originally appeared in Neighbors Magazine.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead