St. Clair Winery presses for quality, lands national certification

While New Mexicans have been raising a glass of St. Clair wine over the past couple of years, the staff at the winery have been raising the bar on quality.

St. Clair just received food-grade certification from ASI, a national industry group that has standards above those of the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, making them the first winery in New Mexico and the Southwest to attain the designation, said Daniel Gonzales, creative director for St. Clair Winery.

“We are going to produce a higher quality of wine, respond to customer needs, and more efficiently track what goes into the product,” Gonzales said. “It also opens up a lot of doors for us.”

National stores like Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and Costco use the certification when deciding whether to carry brands in their markets, Gonzales said.

The two-year process involved analyzing the standards including everything from streamlining processes to documenting every step of the production, from procedures in the field to the time bottles are uncorked at customer’s tables, said Macaryo Argott, the company’s production manager. The initial challenge came in changing employees mindset and getting everyone to buy into the new process.

“This winery has been here a long time and it was a trial to get the old timers to jump on board. Then getting to the nitty gritty, picking up brooms and dustpans and cleaning and understanding why we were doing it.” Argott said.

General manufacturing practices, tracking product from field to glass, documenting with paperwork every step of the way and using only approved vendors were just some of the steps along the way, he said.

Ziedney Valenzona was hired to fill a newly-created quality control manager position and is in charge of monitoring standards, daily walk-through inspections, water safety supply testing and machinery cleanliness.

Landing the first such designation in the region is a point of pride to be shared by all New Mexicans, given the state’s status as the first wine-growing region in what is now the United States.

“It’s something to be proud of,” Valenzona said. “It’s not only built teamwork here but building a future for the company. They are doing great but they want to do better.”

Deep roots

This isn’t a new school of thought for the Lescombes family, who has a six-generation history of wine making. Hervé Lescombes started his vineyard in New Mexico in 1981, driven by his determined sense of adventure and his desire to make wine with less restriction than what was allowed in France.

“The government in France would tell you how many vines and even what varietals you were allowed to grow,” Lescombes said. “I wanted the freedom to do better and do more with what I had.”

Wineries are not mandated to be certified since wine is not regulated as a food product by the FDA.

“It is a choice we made to better ourselves for our customers,” said Florent Lescombes, vice president. “We just want to strive to be the best we can.”

St. Clair joins only a handful of wineries in the U.S. to achieve such a certification.

“Not only did the team work hard towards the certification,” Valenzona said, “but we are committed to maintaining the standards to always offer the best quality wines to our customers.”