New Mexico is the oldest wine making producer in the United States.
What started out as grape vines from Spanish monks to cultivating vineyards in southern New Mexico is now a class of inspiration at Vara Winery & Distillery, 315 Alameda Blvd. NE.
Wine classes lead the way from Spain to New Mexico under the direction of Jennie Thornton, wine and spirits educator.
“When guests come in the table is set to six crystal glasses and a semi circle at each place,” she said. “Nice cheese plate next to it. And I will admit, as soon as guests see it they usually go, ‘oh, something fancy.’ It is a stand-up class. So I do present for 90 minutes. I go through each of the wines and they are all Vara wines. But I tend to spend a lot more time talking about wine in general and the quality assurance of why, how to taste, how to pair it with food, how wine is made, and the science behind wine. I try to make it really fun. I started life as a non- science, non-wine person. And a lot of what I was taught was really boring and really technical. I didn’t like that. So I tried to take a different approach. I want people to understand those details. I think that’s a really nice depth of knowledge. I want them to laugh while they’re doing it.”
Turning something boring into something fun takes technique.
“I will be very honest, the first thing is 30 years of experience,” Thornton said. “I’ve been in the trade a long time and I’ve spent about half of my career making wine and examining it for quality on a technical basis. And then really the last 15 years, I moved into educating. First, I was educating wine trade people and then it slowly moved into more consumer-driven. I quickly learned that wine is a lot more fun. The technical details can be presented very quickly, but then with wonderful metaphors from the real world that teach people what they’re about. And since all of my students are over 21, sometimes I can be a little cheeky, too.”
According to Thornton the classes incorporate the history of where the wines come from.
“I usually want to tell a story about the place where the grapes come from,” Thornton explained. “I find more extreme climates, like we have an Albariño that comes from a wildly cold climate, but the grapes can still photosynthesize enough sugar, to make alcohol and taste beautiful. And so I use that wine to talk about some of the vineyards we use and then I’ll taste through individual varieties of grapes, like grenache or tempranillo. And then towards the end of our tasting, I’ll bring out the big guns. I always taste with the public. Some of our reserved wines are made in very limited quantities. But they’re usually blended from the three or four wines that I showed them at the beginning of the class. So they can start to really taste those individual components.”
The wine growing history in New Mexico is also a main course of the curriculum.
“New Mexico – it’s the first state in the 50 states that was planting grapes to be turned into wine,” Thornton said. “And that started happening in 1629 down south of Las Cruces. There are still vineyards in that area today and those vineyards were being planted by Spanish missionaries who were then coming up the Camino Real towards Santa Fe and then branching off first to Texas where they planted vineyards and then about 140 years later to California. But New Mexico was the first.”
One of Vara’s concoctions that pays homage to its New Mexico roots is its Viña Cardinal.
“It’s made with what locally people call the mission grape,” Thornton said. “Its actual name is Listán Prieto and we make a wine out of those grapes that are harvested from that same area where it all started almost 400 years ago. So I always talk about that a bit at the beginning of the class. And that always makes people go ‘Really, we had no idea.’ And especially visitors from California, or even from Virginia where Thomas Jefferson likes to take some credit. They’re usually blown away by that.”