By Jason Gibbs
POSTED: 11/17/2014 01:00:00 AM MST
LAS CRUCES SUN-NEWS >> It was in 1629 when a pair of monks first planted vines in New Mexico to tease out the sweet nectar and produce wine in what was then a simple, Spanish colony. The men of the cloth started the first vineyard in North America and marked the Land of Enchantment as the first wine-growing region in the new world.
The first grapevines planted in what is now the state of New Mexico were brought to Senecu, a Piro Indian pueblo south of Socorro, by Fray Gracia de Zuniga, a Franciscan, and Antonio de Arteaga, a Capuchin monk. San Antonio de Padua Mission, at Senecu, was located on the east bank of the Rio Grande, slightly north of the present small village of San Antonio. The cuttings brought by the missionaries were a variety of Vitis vinifera, commonly called the “mission grape.” This variety is still grown in New Mexico today. Historians think it is a European variety from Spain, called Monica.
By comparison, St. Clair Winery may seem to be a newcomer, boasting a mere 30 years trimming the vines, pressing the grapes and waiting, patiently, for the fruit to ferment to make a statewide staple.
But don’t, for a heady moment, think the New Mexico vineyard, winery and bistros that comprise the St. Clair brand haven’t made the most of toasting one of the state’s signature agricultural crops and one of our favorite refreshments.
“We are passionate about growing grapes in New Mexico,” said Hervé Lescombes, the owner and patriarch of the winemaking family that traces it’s roots in the business back many generations. “We feel that the citizens of New Mexico are one of the reasons for our success and we want to give back to them. The way we celebrate with our family is with great food and wine — we want to share that with our customers and guests.”
The senior Lescombes is the fifth generation winemaker of the Lescombes family. His grandparents, originally from Prussia, immigrated to Algeria in 1846 and made a living by operating vineyards and making wine to sell to France. Hervé and his brother followed the family tradition and became grape farmers in Burgundy, France in 1962. It was there where he met his wife, Danielle, had three children and built a successful vineyard and winery business.
He saw great opportunity in southwest New Mexico, and made the area his family’s home. The climate and terrain is similar to that of his native Algeria. In 1981, Hervé began his venture with a small vineyard that produced the harvest that would eventually be crafted into his first New Mexico vintage in 1984. The small operation soon expanded and grew to become the largest winery in New Mexico. Winemaking duties have since been turned over to Hervé’s son Florent Lescombes, who oversees the winery operations, while his oldest son, Emmanuel Lescombes, manages the vineyard.
“New Mexicans have been talking to us for years about our wine,” Florent Lescombes said. “We do our best to listen, give them what they want and in turn we make better wine and have become a better business. It’s time for us to appreciate them.”
“Cheers to another 30 years,” added Emmanuel Lescombes.
The label now boasts several locations in addition to the Las Cruces bistro at 1720 Avenida de Mesilla. The first Las Cruces bistro opened in 2007 before moving to the current location in 2012. The Albuquerque bistro opened in 2005 and another in Farmington opened in 2009. They join the original vineyard in Lordsburg and the winery and tasting room in Deming.
Squeezing the nectar from the grape was not always easy in the Land of Enchantment.
The Rio Grande and the weather were formidable adversaries of the early New Mexico vineyards. By the turn of the century, the Rio Grande had deposited enough sediment along its bed to elevate the channel above the surrounding terrain. Floods occurred frequently and the groundwater reached the surface of the soil, converting once fertile land into a swamp. Grapevines developed root-rot, and alkaline deposits coated the vines, lowering yields.
From a high of almost a million gallons a year, wine production fell to 296,000 gallons in 1890, 34,208 in 1900, and 1,684 in 1910.
The rebirth of the New Mexico wine industry began in 1978, said St. Clair spokeswoman Lori Paulson. New Mexico now has 42 wineries and tasting rooms, producing almost 700,000 gallons of wine a year. The state’s wine industry is once again well established.
To celebrate their 30th anniversary, St. Clair has bottled a commemorative wine called La Clairette. It is a throwback to one of the winery’s first bottles that was released at the grand opening.
They are also offering rewards for shoppers who purchase St. Clair at any one of the many statewide retailers.
And, through the month of November, the winery will be offering one-day offers on their Facebook pages and website, with 30 percent discounts on specially selected items, treats from St Clair Winery & Bistro, and other surprises.
Times have changed since the first issue of Las Cruces’ first newspaper, the Rio Grande Republican — now the Las Cruces Sun-News — which reported in May 1881: “The Mesilla Valley grape has no equal in the world and wine growing is the principle industry of the people. It seems unreasonable, but it is nevertheless true that every five acres of land in this whole valley, if put into grapes, is capable of supporting handsomely a family of five persons. The product is already famous under the name of El Paso or “native” wine. The population of Las Cruces was about 2,000 then, augmented by about a hundred families in Mesilla and Mesilla Park. The largest cash crop in the Mesilla Valley was grapes. Wells Fargo carried almost a half-million baskets of grapes at $10 each in 1894 with two hundred casks of wine per week.”
The quantity may have changed, but the quality remains and, like any fine bottle, grows better with age.