TAOS: HISTORY, CULTURE, ART AND, YES, WINE!

Wine travel isn’t just about visiting wineries and tasting their wine. For me, drinking wine isn’t only about how a wine tastes or even about how the grapes were grown and the wine was made but also about the history of the vineyard and the winery, the winemaker’s story, and so on. Similarly, when visiting a winery it means a lot to me to learn about the history and culture of the surrounding area.

Such it was with a recent visit to Taos, New Mexico. At this point I can hear you saying, “Wine? In New Mexico? Ok, so the New Mexico wine industry is not California; it isn’t even Colorado. But there is interesting wine being made there and plenty of fun to be had in the tasting rooms. And you can’t beat Northern New Mexico for cultural, culinary and historical interest. As much as the area is renowned for its food and art, it turns out wine is also part of its history and culture.

I was surprised to learn that the first wine grapes were planted in southern New Mexico around 1629 by Franciscan monks who had accompanied Spanish colonists to use for sacramental wine, roughly 150 years before vines were planted in California.

Over the subsequent years, wine grape growing had several ups and downs. As in many states, what I’ll call the modern New Mexico wine industry got its start in the late 1970s. Today, there are over 40 wineries, with most clustered around Albuquerque but several near Las Cruces in the south and several more in the north scattered between Santa Fe and Taos. And much like Colorado – where wineries are located all over the state but most of the grapes are grown in on one area (the Grand Valley) – most of New Mexico’s grapes are grown near Las Cruces.

In the meantime, New Mexico has become much better known for its Spanish and Native American culture, its art and its food. I had a chance to experience all of this on a recent visit to Taos with a group of writers.

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Sagebrush Inn Courtyard

Although Taos is home to many welcoming B&B’s, we enjoyed a stay at the historic Sagebrush Inn & Suites. The property opened in 1929 as a 17-room hotel. Since then, it has hosted many artists and celebrities, including Georgia O’Keefe and Dennis Hopper for example. Recently refurbished, today it features 156 rooms mostly surrounding a peaceful courtyard and a popular conference center. I enjoyed staying in one of the many rooms with a Kiva fireplace and an appealing Southwestern atmosphere. The complimentary wi-fi was particularly appreciated. We didn’t have a chance to eat at the attractive restaurant but I did enjoy a local Black Mesa Chardonnay at the Cantina surrounded by impressive works of art.

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Taos Pueblo with Sacred Taos Mountain in Background

But we were there to explore this magical place that is brimming with a mother lode of history. The first place we stopped was the Taos Pueblo, the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. Indigenous people established the Taos Pueblo complex roughly 1,000 years ago. Experience a bit of that history with a guided tour by a Pueblo native. Help preserve ancient traditions by purchasing authentic, traditional arts, crafts and food – like Mica-flecked pottery, silver jewelry and a loaf of homemade bread.

Spanish colonialists came to the area about 600 years later, apparently looking for the famed Cities of Gold. The Conquistadors didn’t find much gold but still decided to stay. Visitors can get a sense of what life was like, at least by the early 1800’s (the late Spanish Colonial period) at the Hacienda-de-los-Martinez.

Built in 1804, the fortress-like, adobe walled complex became an important trade center for the northern boundary of the Spanish Empire and the terminus for the Camino Real, which connected northern New Mexico to Mexico City.

Another of the vestiges of the Spanish colonial period in New Mexico is the many historic churches. One of, if not the, most famous is the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church south of Taos on the Ranchos de Taos Plaza. Dating to 1815, its traditional adobe mission-style built in the shape of a cross, is enshrined in a classic painting by Georgia O’Keefe, though it is said to be the most painted and photographed church in the United States.

Taos also has been a favorite of artists and their benefactors – drawn to the area’s natural beauty and its varied history and culture – for over 100 years. Visitors interested in this can tour numerous art museums and historic homes that illustrate how Taos became a magnet for creative people.

I heard a lot on this trip about the Taos Society of Artists and the role of this visionary group in establishing Taos – and northern New Mexico – as a destination for artists. You can immerse yourself in this period with visits to the Taos Art Museum-Fechin House, which is dedicated to the art of early twentieth century Taos, including a collection of paintings by the masters of the Taos Society of Artists; the residences of three of the six founders of the society: the Ernest Blumenschein Home and the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, including the homes and studios of E.I. Couse and Henry Sharp; and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House – Luhan, a wealthy New York socialite, was responsible for bringing many elite artists and other creative and political luminaries of the day to Taos in the 1920s.

I particularly enjoyed our time at the Millicent Rogers Museum. Rogers was the daughter of the co-founder of Standard Oil and the museum is dedicated to the history and culture of the southwest, specializing in Native American and Spanish colonial art. She moved to Taos in 1947 (only six years before she died at age 51) and became a patron of Native American artists and others of the Taos art community. Her expansive collection of self-designed Indian-made pieces is housed at the Museum. Particularly impressive was the pottery of Maria Martinez, the famed potter of the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. It’s a few miles north of town but well worth the trip.

Gustavo Victor Golez at Harwood Museum

Agnes Martin Gallery at Harwood Museum

In the heart of Taos, the Harwood Museum is easily accessible just a few blocks from the Plaza. The museum was especially impressive for its amazing collection of New Mexican art, including more from the Taos Society of Artists, Hispanic art, (some more than 100 years old), Modernist art of the 1940s, a contemporary collection from the 1970s, and the abstract art of Agnes Martin.

But I have toconfess; I was mostly anticipating the food. And I wasn’t disappointed. We enjoyed lunch at Doc Martin’s Restaurant, located in The Historic Taos Inn, a registered historic landmark. The restaurant has earned multiple awards for its “Regional New American” fare and its extensive wine list. I couldn’t pass up the chance to have a great New Mexico chile pepper and their relleno was most satisfying, especially with an Elevated IPA from La Cumbre Brewing of Albuquerque.

Speaking of beer, don’t miss Taos Mesa Brewing. Located a few miles outside of town, it is worth the trip for some really good craft beer, casual food, and entertainment. It has become a popular spot for music and events.

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Dinner one night was at El Meze Restaurant, widely considered one of the best in the area. It is located in a historic building and Chef Frederick Muller’s food is rooted in the region.  It combines local ingredients like mountain trout, chiles, and wild mushrooms with preparations, as Chef describes it, influenced by Moorish Spain, Native American and American traditions.

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Our other dinner was a real treat, as we cooked it ourselves at the Cooking Studio Taos. We were guided by Chef Chris Maher, an extensively awarded chef, including an appearance at the James Beard House and time working at New York’s Tavern on the Green under Drew Nieporent, who has since become on of the nation’s most highly regarded restaurant owners. The evening gained additional interest as Chef Maher revealed he was first a professional actor and continues to act to this day. He told us some fun stories about his Hollywood years but my main take away from the evening is the seafood in red chile sauce and rice with noodles. I can still tasty that dish. The green chile stew was really good, too.

With all these activities I was still intent on making time to visit some wineries and you should, too. I intentionally asked our hosts to carve out some time in the schedule for me to do just that.

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On one morning, I drove 25 miles south of Taos to the tasting room of Vivác Winery, conveniently located at the corner of Hwy 68 & Hwy 75. Apart from the wines, it is notable for its pleasant courtyard, scenery, availability of local arts and crafts and (especially) fresh, gourmet chocolates.

This is a small, family operation (as so many of them are in New Mexico) founded in 1998 by brothers Jesse and Chris Padberg and their wives Michelle and Liliana. In fact, Michelle had to miss my appointment because her son stayed home sick from school. But she arranged for me to meet with Sage who was operating the tasting room that day.

Just three miles up Highway 75 is La Chiripada Winery, another small, family-run operation. I was intrigued when I learned its home vineyards are at an elevation of 6100 ft., making it one of the highest commercial grape growing ventures in the world. Unfortunately the winery was closed when I was there and I ran out of time to visit their tasting room near the Taos Plaza. But the winery’s long history in the area (since 1977) and reputation for quality merit a visit the next time.

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I did get a chance, though, to visit the tasting room of Black Mesa Winery also just off the plaza. (The winery is 30 miles south of Taos.) Yet another family owned operation (by Jerry and Linda Burd since 2000), our group found it a fine respite from a day of museum and gallery visits. We happily tasted through a variety of wines knowledgeably poured by Laura Dunn, Assistant winemaker Craig Dunn’s wife.

Most of the wines I tasted at Vivác and Black Mesa were well made an enjoyable. I was particularly surprised and impressed with the Italian varietals, especially the Refosco at Vivác and the Montepulciano at Black Mesa. I also liked the Black Mesa’s aromatic, floral and spicy Malvasia Bianca (under their second label Alta Canyon Cellars). And I was surprised the Black Beauty, a chocolate Port-style wine was not cloying or overbearing like many such wines and delivered just the right touch of chocolate flavor. At Vivác, the Sangiovese, and Amante, their Port-style wine, also showed well. These wines and the wineries were a nice change of pace and are well worth a visit next time you go to Taos.

This visit gave me encouragement about the future of New Mexico’s wine industry. Both Laura and Michelle told me their wineries research and experiment to find varietals that will be successful in their micro climate. And Michelle said in an email response to my question about a signature variety that “New Mexico State University has a viticulturist working with the industry to do just that, find a ‘New Mexico variety’ but have not identified that golden goose as of yet.” She added that as of now Vivác is excited about the Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Petit Verdot, and Pinot Noir form their experimental plots. I would contend Gruet Winery near Albuquerque has had so much success with its sparkling wines, for now at least, that has become the state’s signature wine. Still, I will be interested to follow the development of New Mexico wine and enjoy tasting the results.

 

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.