BLANCO, N.M. – Trash, sagebrush, tall trees and an old metal barn greeted David Arnold when he first saw the slice of land tucked along a bend in the San Juan River in 1999. But Arnold and his wife, Marcia, saw the potential for something more.
And with the support of family, loans and a lot of hard work, the product of the Arnolds’ decade-long dream, Wines of the San Juan, became apparent one warm evening in October. Clusters of regulars and out-of-towners mixed, shared food and sipped wine as the golden hour’s light filtered through trees. The Arnolds moved throughout the crowd, answering questions, chatting and serving food.
The old metal barn now held steel drums of fermenting wine. The trash and dense stands of sagebrush were gone. There was a tasting room, an outside bar, a wooden stage for performances, a large fire pit and a small pond out back. Peacocks roamed alongside a few stray chickens. The winery and vineyard was an eclectic mix of art and rustic charm, a place that feels quintessentially New Mexican.
“They make you feel like family,” Dede Otero said about Wines of the San Juan. Otero and her husband, Pat, have been regulars since it opened, and the Oteros’ daughter even had her wedding at the property.
It is this sense of community and ease that keep regulars coming in and draws out-of-towners down the dusty road off New Mexico 511 in Blanco.
Although neither of the Arnolds consider themselves “wine people” – in various incarnations, they were hay farmers, horse trainers and dairy farmers – they became interested in the art of winemaking after visiting Ponderosa Valley Vineyards during a trip hauling hay to Albuquerque.
Arnold, who grew up in Durango, was familiar with the San Juan Valley from family trips to pick fruit during the fall. After doing some research, he decided the Farmington region would be ideal for growing grapes.
“We’ve since found out that’s not true,” he said. “We had to tear out some of the earlier grape varieties planted and leaned heavily toward hybrids because they can withstand the late spring frosts.”
Late spring frosts, fairly common throughout northern New Mexico, can devastate many of the common grape varieties. Although the vineyard has 5 acres of grapes, they make up only 3% to 4% of grapes in their wines. The remaining grapes are outsourced from vineyards throughout central and southern New Mexico.
“The raccoons harvest a lot of our grapes,” Arnold said.
A community of winemakers
The close-knit support extends beyond the Arnolds’ customers to vintners throughout the state.
Tim Martinez with Rio Suave Vineyard said he learned a lot from the Arnolds. Martinez and his parents, Timmy and Anita, started growing grapes about eight years ago on the land his family homesteaded for generations.
“There’s no sense of competition,” Martinez said. “It’s a really nice community of winemakers, and we all help each other out.”
Although Martinez has been making small batches of wine for the past 10 years, Rio Suave Vineyards, across the San Juan River from the Arnolds’ property, has been operational for the past year. In November, the vineyard gained its wholesale license and will begin selling its products in stores and businesses throughout the Four Corners, Martinez said.
“It’s just a passion that’s grown over the years,” he said.
Like Wines of the San Juan, Rio Suave Vineyard relies on grapes grown throughout the state to create its wine. The vineyard has planted 3 acres to date, with 2 more acres available, making up roughly 25% of the grapes in its seven wine labels, Martinez said.
When Guy Drew of Guy Drew Vineyards in Cortez considered the Four Corners for a vineyard and winery more than 20 years ago, he looked at northern New Mexico first. Ultimately, the properties available at the time were not suited to growing grapes, he said. But Drew said there are many similarities between southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, mainly the effect early spring freezes have on crops. Like Arnold, Drew found cold-tolerant, hybrid grape varieties worked best.
“This area is very unique in that the soils and the fruit intensity I get from the grapes grown down here is superior to the fruit I get from other regions,” Drew said. Guy Drew Vineyards was recently acquired by Fenceline Cider in Mancos.
A long historyWinemaking in the Land of Enchantment is a long tradition, perhaps one of the oldest in North America, according to Vine and Wine, a nonprofit dedicated to all things wine-related in New Mexico. Spanish settlers began growing grapes in the region 400 years ago because they needed sacramental wine. Still, the wine industry was almost nonexistent by the 1940s because of Prohibition, natural disasters and strong competition in other regions, according to the nonprofit.
Organizations like Vine and Wine, the New Mexico Wine Growers Association and the New Mexico State University Extension Office have worked together in the past few decades to jump-start the industry and support vineyards and wineries throughout the state, no matter the size.
Yet, the results of the effort have largely sprung from central and southern New Mexico. Businesses like Wines of the San Juan and Rio Suave Vineyard, located farther north and with colder temperatures, are less common.
While both of these vineyards have had their share of growing pains, financial struggles and frozen vines, they have one thing in common: They have survived perhaps because of the community and sense of place the families cultivated and nurtured out of a land some considered too harsh and inhospitable.
For Arnold, the path from a dusty stretch of land in 1999 to a bonfire surrounded by family, friends and new guests at his vineyard in 2019, is relatively simple.
“I couldn’t get the idea out of my head,” he said.