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2 Weekend Farmers Built Ponderosa Valley Vineyard, Winery

By Robin Frames
For the Journal
    PONDEROSA— The tasting room of the Ponderosa Vineyard and Winery, about equal to a medium-size kitchen, was recently packed with some two dozen wine-lovers, who in turn were surrounded by stacks of wine cases.
    Co-owner Mary Street, working alone while her husband and partner, Henry, was at a wine festival, was serving wine to the tasters, selling bottles, answering questions about the winery and the nuances of different wines, and repeatedly refilling her dishwasher with dirty wineglasses.
    She was totally unflappable, keeping her sunny disposition despite the chaos. A large section of the walls was covered with ribbons and medals that Ponderosa Valley has won at competitions.
    Also in the tasting room were the Streets' three dogs, two great Pyrenees— the size of big Saint Bernards— and one papillon, not much bigger than a teacup Chihuahua. Despite the crush of people, no one stepped on the papillon, and no one was stepped on by the great Pyrenees.
    The vineyard and winery, in the Jemez Mountains village of Ponderosa, draws crowds to its tasting room six days a week, year-round. Its 17 current wines are sold from the winery, at shows and wine festivals including the New Mexico Wine Festival, and through the distribution network of Boutique Wines of New Mexico to outlets in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos.
    Since they first purchased three acres in the Jemez as a camping retreat in 1976, the Streets took note of the area's small vineyards and began growing grapes.
    "We were weekend farmers then," Mary recalled, explaining that Henry was an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and she did property management.
    They maintained their interest in grape growing and winemaking. Henry studied grape growing and researched different grapes for wine. Jim Concannon, a California winemaker, encouraged them to try Rieslings and provided some cuttings. They thrived, and the Streets bought more California vines.
    In 1982, they harvested their first commercial crop of grapes, selling it to La Chiripada Winery in Dixon, which in turn produced award-winning Riesling wines.
    "The people at La Chiripada kept telling us that we should get into winemaking ourselves. 'The money's in the wine, not the grapes,' they would say," Mary said.
    In 1991, after eight years of grape production, the Streets retired from their city jobs and began building their own winery.
    "At that time, the old Southwest Distributing building at Broadway and Lomas in Albuquerque was being demolished," Mary said. "So we bought cinderblocks, tin roofing and other materials, and built our winery out of them."
    Henry went back to school, studying winemaking at the University of California-Davis, and Mary studied accounting at the University of New Mexico.
    The winery was bonded, meaning it obtained a federal license, in 1993. Today, the Streets grow four kinds of wine grapes on 81/2 acres— Riesling, pinot noir, baco noir and golden muscat. They buy other grapes, mainly from the Deming Vineyards.
    In 1994, the Streets moved up to the winery full time. "You really have to stay with the grapes," Mary explained. "Once we got the process down, everything started going smoothly."
    But occasionally even now there are snags. "Three times so far we've had false summers in February or March that start up the vines," Mary said. "Then a cold front comes in ... and sits with us for a week. We may have to start back with the roots again. Fortunately, the roots usually survive."
    She said in the first year of wine production, they attached the labels to the wine bottles by hand with glue sticks.
    "That wasn't too hard because, that first year, we only had 450 cases to label. But production kept going up, and today we have a very efficient label machine. We need it, because now we produce 3,500 cases."
    Still, Mary and Henry do the entire job themselves with the help of only 10 others for picking the grapes and two others for making the wine.
    "I used to drive the tractor every weekend," Mary recalled.
    Today, Ponderosa Valley is the biggest grower of Riesling grapes in the state, and visitors from all over the world come to the winery for a tasting.
    "They're curious how grapes can grow in the desert, and we show them our drip irrigation system," Mary said. "That and Mother Nature does it, along with the right grapes, of course."
    Good fruit and the style of the winemaker, "who in our case is Henry," make good wine, she said.
    "If you pick the grapes too soon, they will taste like alfalfa. How long you keep the grapes in their skins determines the amount of tannins in the wine."
    She also said it's very important to submit one's wines in competition, "because a winemaker tends to get to like his own wines, however good or bad they are."
    After all their work and investment in the winery, the Streets must love their work. Mary said their biggest reward is the clientele.
    "Henry makes a good wine, and if you have a good wine, it's easy to sell. Almost everybody who walks in my door is in a good mood."
Ponderosa Valley Vineyard and Winery
    PRINCIPALS: Mary and Henry Street
    PRODUCTS: Wine, including Riesling, pinot noir, baco noir and golden muscat
    FOUNDED: 1982, first commercial crop of grapes. Winery was bonded (obtained its federal license) in 1993.
    PRODUCTION: About 3,500 cases a year
    LOCATIONS: One, 3171 Highway 290, Ponderosa
    HOURS: Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
    WEB SITE: www.ponderosawinery.com
    BUSINESS TIP: Good fruit and the style of the winemaker, "who in our case is Henry," make good wine, co-owner Mary Street said. "If you pick the grapes too soon, they will taste like alfalfa. How long you keep the grapes in their skins determines the amount of tannins in the wine."
Wine festival today
    The New Mexico Wine Festival continues today in Loretto Community Park in Bernalillo.
    The wines of more than 20 New Mexico wineries, including Ponderosa Valley Winery, will be available for sample and purchase from noon to 7 p.m.
    This is the 17th year of the event, generally considered the biggest and oldest New Mexico wine festival. It draws an average attendance of 20,000.
    Admission is $10 for adults (includes a wineglass); $4 for those older than age 12; and free to children younger than 12. For more information, call (505) 867-3311, Ext. 202.
    You can buy advance tickets through Ticketmaster.

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