Don’t bother looking for vineyards on your approach to Vara Winery & Distillery in the North Valley. Unlike local wineries such as Casa Rondeña and Gruet, Vara doesn’t generally grow its grapes in New Mexico. Instead, it makes most of its wine in Spain and finishes it in Albuquerque, aging, blending and bottling it for sale at its tasting room and in area stores and restaurants. It recently began selling a wine made in New Mexico.
It’s a journey that symbolically echoes that of New Mexico’s first vintners, Spanish monks who took cuttings from their native country and planted them in the Rio Grande Valley more than 400 years ago.
Vara is a collaboration between former wine distributor Doug Diefenthaler and Xavier Zamarripa, an artist whose first attempt to launch a winery failed due to opposition from his North Valley neighbors. The pair opened Vara in 2018 with an eye to eventually moving the operation to a $15 million vineyard and hospitality center in the works on Fourth NW near Sandia Lakes.
Diefenthaler and Zamarripa obviously have a sense of history. They named their winery for the silver-headed canes given by the administration of Abraham Lincoln to pueblo governors as a symbol of Native American sovereignty.
Vara occupies a tranquil spot off Alameda just west of the Balloon Fiesta Park entrance. The tasting room menu features more than a dozen wines. Prices are modest, starting at $17 for a bottle of rosado, Spanish pink wine, and topping out at $32 for Viña Cardinal ($32), an aperitif Vara rolled out in February as its first 100% New Mexico wine. Spirits include three brandies and Taylor Garrett whiskey ($53), a local label distilled at Vara using technology that speeds the yearslong whiskey aging process to a matter of days.
Accompanying the wines and spirits is a concise menu from chef Javier Montaño that includes braised short ribs, chorizo macaroni and cheese and ceviche. Everything is conveniently offered in a small as well as full servings, so you won’t break the bank trying a few different dishes.
On Fridays the staff pulls out a couple of shallow pans the circumference of truck tires and makes paella to go ($11 for the small, $18 for the large). Bomba, a pearly colored short-grain rice, is the star of Vara’s take on this colorful Spanish working-class dish. The rice expands during the cooking process to three times its raw-grain length, enabling it to soak up a lot of flavor without getting sticky.
Part of the fun of eating paella is teasing out goodies such as shellfish and sausage hidden in the clumps of saffron rice. Highlights in Vara’s version were the succulent chicken thighs and shell-on shrimp. The chorizo, sadly, was barely evident.
Paella pairs well with young, fruity red wines such as Vara’s 2018 Tempranillo ($18). The name is a diminutive of the Spanish word for “early,” a reference to the fact that it ripens weeks before most Spanish red grapes. Vara’s version, with its screw top and minimalist label, is unpretentious, quaffable, and complements the paella with spice and acidity. It’s blended with garnacha, a Spanish red that supplies some weight, texture and raspberry flavor to the glass.
The Friday menu also offers a tapas board, ($16/$24) consisting of chorizo, manchego cheese, olives, nuts and toasted bread. While it loses some of its presentation value piled in a box, you can still appreciate the excellent Spanish chorizo, slices of wine-red pork sausage with buttery pockets of fat. The only element missing was something sweet, such as figs or jam.
Vara’s tasting room is scheduled to reopen June 15. Until then, it’s easy to swing by and get your weekend started with some takeout paella and a bottle of wine.