For more than 400 years, ever since the first settlers decided to grow their own grapes rather than wait for shipments from Spain, New Mexico has been a burgeoning yet relatively hidden player in the ever-growing wine industry.
Although winemaking has existed in the region for centuries, it is only in the last 30 years that New Mexico wine growers have made a concerted effort to market their products.
“It’s a relatively young industry,” said Bernd Maier, extension viticulture specialist in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at NMSU.
The New Mexico wine industry may be in a nascent phase, but its growth has been steady. According to a recent study commissioned by the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, more than 700,000 gallons of wine were produced by the 39 wineries in the state in 2012, resulting in an estimated revenue of more than $39 million. Those numbers are expected to continue to rise.
Those figures may seem small in comparison to California, which produced more than half a billion gallons of wine to the tune of $1.43 billion in revenue during the same time period, but the way New Mexico wines are currently marketed and sold is very different than products from more internationally recognized regions.
“Usually our everyday sale is to somebody off of the freeway,” said Sylvia D’Andrea, owner of Luna Rossa Winery in Deming.
“There’s people travelling through getting from one destination to the other. There’s a whole assortment. Like Deming, you are going to get more people from Michigan, Nebraska, places like that. Las Cruces (where Luna Rossa has a tasting room and pizzeria), they’re going towards Albuquerque or going towards Texas more so than going West. We kind of get both sides.”
Denise Stark, co-owner of La Viña Winery in La Union, said that although their business is in New Mexico, their customers are not.
“Twenty years ago, we didn’t know what our customer base would be,” she said. “It took us about two to three years to recognize that the entire population of the state of New Mexico is so small, that we didn’t really feel like that was our market. El Paso was our market. So we decided that we would purchase property and build a new facility and stay here.”
In many ways, the New Mexico climate is ideal for grape production, although there are some challenges.
“Like any other region that has a more continental climate, we have cold winters and hot summers. What we also have is these big temperature swings between day and night, especially during late winter,” Maier said.
“The combination between low humidity and cold basically can freeze-dry some of our wood, and so we have some varieties that will be able to withstand it better than others. White Zinfandel, for example, is a variety that does not like this kind of weather. On the other spectrum, maybe we have Grüner Veltliner, which is a white variety that originates from Austria, and this variety can cope with these conditions much better.”
D’Andrea agrees that the business can be difficult, particularly for growers. Luna Rossa is unique in that they not only produce wine, they also grow grapes for 21 different wineries, 15 of those in New Mexico. Weather conditions and the vagaries of nature have a significant impact on their business, which then affects others.
“That’s why I tell you the hardest part is being the grower, because the grower gets punished for everything,” she said. “If the hail comes, we lose. If the plants get a disease, we lose. But the person making wine, they can go and hunt another place to buy grapes. We can’t.”
A factor that will help New Mexico’s wine industry further develop is a more narrow focus on what types of grapes are produced, according to Maier.
“We are experimenting with a lot of different varieties, which is typical for an industry like this and for a marketing model that heavily relies on direct marketing out of the tasting room, festivals and local retail outlets and restaurants,” he said. “You have to have very many different varieties and different wines. When you mature in the industry, you’ll probably be concentrating more on very much fewer varieties.”
Harvest Wine Fest
Southern New Mexico State Fairgrounds
12125 Robert Larson
(11 miles west of Las Cruces on I-10)
Saturday-Monday, Aug. 31-Sept. 2
Noon-6 p.m. daily
Live music: Sat - Radio La Chusma and Nosotros; Sun - Eli James Band and Josh Grider; Sun - Soulshine and Locomotion.
$15 for adults over 21 (includes souvenir glass), free for under 21 accompanied by parent or guardian
$3 discount for military on Monday.
Designated drivers encouraged.