By: Rob McCorkle
New Mexico’s love affair with the fruit of the vine for some 400 years has been a tempetuous one that today has matured and given rise to a thriving viticulture industry. A Franciscan friar and Spanish monks planted the first Spanish wine vines in New Mexican soil along the banks of the Rio Grande just south of present-day Socorro in 1629. By the early 1800s, the New Mexico Territory was producing more than one million gallons from riverside vineyards.
However, periodic floods and [Prohibition] thwarted the flow of vino so severely that it wouldn’t be until 1977 that small commercial wineries would begin opening their doors in New Mexico, including the granddaddy of them all, La Vina Winery in La Union.
There, in the mid-1980s on a sojourn along Highway 28 through the Mesilla Valley, my romance with New Mexico wines commenced.
Today, more than 50 wineries, vineyards and wine tasting rooms in the state endeavor to keep pace with America’s growing love and consumption of locally produced wine. More than half a dozen wineries call southern New Mexico home – from La Union to Fort Selden – with Las Cruces serving as the hub of the Mesilla Valley Wine Trail.
More than 30 years later, I am rekindling my romance with New Mexico wines!
Hidden in plain sight in the heart of Las Cruces, Amaro Winery exudes the feel of somebody’s home. From its location in a mixed commercial-residential area just west of historic downtown to its cozy tasting room with furniture you might find in one’s living room and decorated with local artwork, the winery welcomes locals and out-of-towners alike to sit and sip more than a dozen varietals sure to please any palate.
Founded by the winemaking Maier family in 2009, Amaro, which derives its name from the Negroamaro grape, of late has been racking up a slew of awards in statewide competition. Last year in Albuquerque, Amaro Winery brought home the first-time Premier Vintner’s Award for the best Tempranillo, a 2010 vintage, as well as three gold ribbons for its Chenin Blanc, Malvasia Bianca and Malbec. Try a glass of any of these varieties, or any other Amaro offering for that matter, and you’ll see why.
I typically lean toward dry reds so on a recent Friday evening visit, I opted for a flight of five: a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 Mission, 2014 Sangiovese, 2014 Malbec and Rockhouse Red. Though I would have gladly had a glass of any of them, I opted for the Malbec, a smooth yet robust, ruby-colored wine with hints of blackberry and cherries balanced with silky tannins. Simply superb. My wife, a white wine drinker, chose a glass of chilled dry Chenin Blanc, a crisp, slightly tart 2015 varietal, over the somewhat fruitier Malvasia Bianca.
Though the winery offers limited snacks, Friday typically finds a food truck parked out back, offering local dishes to complement any wine or beer. Yes, beer. Amaro Winery serves two styles of Bosque Brewery beers on tap and carries a variety of bottled beers from various New Mexico craft brewers. My compliments to Benjamin and Lisa Maier for providing an imbibing option to their customers which many wineries don’t.
Not long after the Fresh food truck opened its window, I was ordering an Italian portabella sandwich for Judy and a highly recommended bison burger for myself. Although the outside patio tables looked inviting, the evening’s chill sent me inside. While we waited at the bar for the food and for musician Chris Baker to start his set (Amaro has live music every Friday), a customer stopped in after work to order two bottles of sweet red Amour to take home to Anthony. She says she loves Amaro’s wines and stops in a couple of times a month to take some home.
Amaro Winery is a true family affair, with roots that cross the Atlantic to Germany where Benjamin’s father, Bernd, first started making wine. When opportunity called to take his winemaking skills to America, he headed for New Mexico in 1983 to start a winery just outside Truth or Consequences. He left five years later to earn an agricultural economics degree at New Mexico State University, which he parlayed into a career with the school’s viticulture program and later became a winegrowing consultant domestically and internationally before teaming up with his son and daughter-in-law to launch Amaro Winery.
The family’s winemaking tradition looks to continue for years to come. Benjamin and Lisa’s 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter often hang around the winery and lend a hand during wine bottling time, Benjamin noted, as he took me on a tour of the winemaking facilities out back and inside the adjacent warehouse that includes the Barrel Room and bottling and labeling operations. “We can fill a case of wine a minute and we produce about 2,000 cases a year,” Benjamin says.
After the tour, I decided to try a few of the lighter wines: the semi-dry, white 2015 Symphony, the Desert Peaks Rose’ and award-winning Chenin Blanc that Bernd is especially proud of and touts as “really great in the summer.” A glass of wine at Amaro’s will set you back $5 to $8, while bottles run a reasonable $15 for most whites and $16 to $28 for red varietals.
All of Amaro’s grapes come from a 12-acre vineyard near Mesquite, NM. The Maiers also grow some trial varieties on an acre and a half surrounding their home south of Mesilla. Harvest occurs in early August. Benjamin says growing wine grapes in southern New Mexico proves a formidable challenge due to a fickle climate that includes periods of extreme daily temperature swings and occasional late spring frosts. The Maiers have learned that varieties that fruit later in the spring consistently provide the best results.
Amaro Winery makes the most of their business by featuring live music and other activities on a regular basis and by hosting special events like the recent Valentine’s dinner staged in the Barrel Room. Ten couples sat at tables tucked into niches between the wine casks, dining and drinking while being entertained by an acoustic guitarist.
Jerry Phillips hosts an open mic the first and third Thursdays. Popular, too, are the monthly [Sip N’ Paint] parties and [Salsa Nights] on the second and fourth Saturdays. “We clear out the tables and salsa lessons start at 7:30 and last half an hour before the dancing takes over for the rest of the night. It’s really popular, so when it gets warm, we may move it outside to the covered patio.”
A recent addition to Amaro Winery’s lineup is the [Monumental Wine Series]. A portion of the sales of Organ Mountain Symphony, Desert Peaks Rose’ and Rockhouse Red benefit the Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
Amaro also invites patrons to have a taste of history dating to the 1600s by sampling the 2014 Mission wine, made from grapes containing the same DNA of the first vines planted in New Mexico. After all, if the crudely made introduced in the 17th century was good enough for the Spanish priests to use in their religious ceremonies centuries ago, today’s finely crafted New Mexico wines should be plenty good enough for today’s oenophiles looking to support the state’s wine industry that’s finding its legs.