Ahhhh, Santa Fe. Blue skies, red chile, ancient history, and … wine? You read that correctly. Northern New Mexico is the oldest wine region in the United States, a-little known historical fact. Sample a cornucopia of fermented goodness at the many wineries, restaurants, and festivals in Santa Fe’s backyard. Who needs Napa, CA, when you have Nambé, NM? No need to seek out an Italian piazza when you have the Santa Fe Plaza.

According to the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, the elevated, sun-soaked soil and cool, dry nights have always made for an ideal wine production climate, but the history is not without drama and turmoil. The first grapevines were brought and planted in 1629 to Senecu, a Piro pueblo south of Socorro, in what is now New Mexico. The cuttings, brought by missionaries, were intended to be used for sacramental wine for religious purposes. From these humble beginnings, and despite revolts and harsh winters, by 1800 New Mexico was legitimate wine country. A large swath of land along the Rio Grande River boasted numerous successful vineyards.

In 1884 the region produced almost one million gallons year. However, the river that made the soil so fertile is the same river that repeatedly flooded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, turning the surrounding land into swampy terrain. Only 1,684 gallons were reported in 1910. Prohibition only served to make a once-thriving industry nearly nonexistent. Fear not, though. In 1978, New Mexico's wine industry was reborn with heartier grapes and wise land investors. Today, the region boasts more than 42 wineries and tasting rooms, with production near 700,000 gallons of wine a year.

Come Home to Wine Country

Estrella Del Norte is perhaps one of the most magical places to taste the fruits of this hard-won victory. The moment I turned onto the property, I knew I was in for something special. At first, I was mildly intimidated at the thought of a wine tasting — my wine knowledge pretty much consists of watching "Sideways" several times, and an inherent knowledge to avoid the $4.99 bottle at the convenience store. But wind chimes in the breeze, a sculpture garden, and the rustic outbuildings on this sweet, family owned 5-acre property in Nambé, just 15 minutes north of Santa Fe, made me feel welcome and relaxed. The sunny and intimate tasting room (a former horse stable), and the smiles of the staff made me forget my apprehensions right away. For $6, I was able to choose 6 wine samples ranging from a fruity white (made from apples and pears grown on site), to a red chile and chocolate infused masterpiece red blend called Holy Molé, and of course the signature Pinot Noir. After I made my selections, the staff was kind enough to place my picks in order from sweet and fruity to bold and hearty. The experience was a highlight of my week of traveling the area. Estrella Del Norte is the kind of place that feels full of possibility, makes me want to change my life and become a vintner, live off the land, and sip wine in the sunshine.

Recipe for Adventure winners savor Pinot Noir and Holy Molé wine at Estrella Del Norte. (photo credit: Estrella Del Norte)

Be sure to check out the website and explore their partnership with the Santa Fe School of Cooking to provide cooking classes and wine pairings in their awesome outdoor kitchen classroom. They also host other fantastic events, including vineyard dinners featuring local celebrity chefs and themes such as Cajun Carnival, Italian Harvest, Un Noche Cubano, and Vino y Paella. These are lively and intimate, and a fantastic way to discover new wines, mingle, and taste delicious local culinary creations. Also, for a fun afternoon of authentic bocce ball, join in on a petanque tournament, hosted by La Mesa Petanque Club. Whether you are a wine connoisseur, or a complete novice, you will feel at home at Estrella Del Norte.

Tastings in the Heart of the City

Cheers to wine tasting at Vino del Corazon. (photo credit: Vino del Corazon)

If you are looking for a charming tasting room located just off the Plaza, Vino del Corazon is the place. Quaint and inviting, this wine lover’s respite is sure to please your senses. You can sample 4 wines for $10. Choose from Tres Amores (a light and sweet blend of chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and semillon), Chardonnay (with hints of pear and vanilla), the yummy and summery Beso Blush, the peppery and fruity Shiraz, the rosy Riesling, and perhaps the most beloved, the Heart and Sol, a red chile cabernet. The smoothness of the grape combines with the perfect amount of warmth from the chile, bringing to mind a Santa Fe sunset — truly unique and authentically local. The cheese and chocolate truffle accompaniments make for divine palette cleansers. The staff is helpful and more than willing to answer questions about the locally owned vineyards that produce these palatable, luscious wines. If the weather allows, which it probably will, enjoy the patio and savor this special locale, smack-dab in the corazon of town.

Mead Goes Modern

Next, let's talk mead, or wine made from fermented honey and fruit. It is also known as "ambrosia" and "nectar of the Gods." My little-informed association with mead was one of medieval gauntlets and Viking helmets, an ancient elixir shared amongst brutish feasting and debauchery, sloshed about during roguish sing-a-longs and the like. Instead, though, mead has come of age in the modern age, and Falcon Meadery is here to prove it. At Falcon, they pride themselves in their process of using local wildflower honey, no sulfites, and only fresh fruits — a practice that shows in the quality of its mead. It can be sweet or dry, and quite sophisticated, depending upon its ingredients. Cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and peaches are some of the fruits that add a refreshing zest to the mead. Locally, you can find this fine beverage at Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen, as well as a handful of liquor and grocery stores. Call ahead to arrange for a tour and tasting at the facility where the good stuff is made, and visit their website for details about other events and tastings.

Celebrate Local Wine at Santa Fe Festivals

Two local festivals of the season are centered on Santa Fe’s love of the grape. The first is the Santa Fe Wine Festival, July 6-7, at El Rancho de las Golondrinas (Ranch of the Swallows), a 200-acre Spanish colonial living-history museum. You can sample and purchase varietals from 16 New Mexico wineries, in a festive atmosphere with live music, food, traditional agricultural products, and handmade arts and crafts.

Sampling the wares at the crowd-pleasing Santa Fe Wine Festival.

The other (and now legendary) festival is the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, Sept. 25-29. It’s an annual five-day food and drink extravaganza packed full of events featuring the culinary artistry found in over 75 of Santa Fe's many excellent restaurants, and the wines of over 90 national wineries. Some of the events include wine dinners, seminars, tastings and auctions, as well as luncheons, cooking demos, guest chef tours, and the Gruet Golf Classic. Five solid days of sampling all of the culinary treats that Santa Fe has to offer? Count me in!

Attendees of the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta learn about wines and local restaurants.

Raise a Glass to Local Wines in Santa Fe

In Santa Fe it’s a centuries-old tradition to think blissful and drink local. Raise a glass to the nation's oldest wine producing region on your next Santa Fe adventure. And relax, Santa Fe wine country is where wine lovers of all expertise levels can savor our vintages, along with the other treasures of the City Different. Salud!