The Romance of Winemaking -
Grapes on the vine

Winemaking is art as much as science, encompassing agriculture, sophisticated manufacturing, and timeless aging in traditional oak barrels. We may not think about it when we pull the cork but knowing what’s involved may just give us a greater appreciation for what’s about to tantalize our taste buds. Mostly, wine begins with grapes. The winemaking process does not change from smaller to larger wineries, only the scale of production. The five wineries surveyed for this story range from two to 200 acres and produce from 430 gallons to 500,000 gallons annually. Vines are planted in grids, allowing up to 1,000 per acre. That gives them proper access to sunlight and water. You might think, once vines are growing, there’s nothing much to do, but vines have to be pruned, often by hand, to ensure most growth is focused in the grape. They have to be watched and periodically treated for fungal diseases and insect infestation.

Harvest time is crucial

“There’s a careful balance between nature and nurturing,” says Gordon Steel, owner of Rio Grande Winery, “both in the vineyard A monk harvesting grapes at Rio Grande Wineryand winery that brings each wine to its full potential.” Birds are attracted to luscious grapes, so they must be prevented from getting to the fruit. This is accomplished by netting. Long rolls are laid over the top of the vines and clipped around the bottom, much like hobble skirts. It must frustrate birds to no end. Harvest begins in August. Like all fruit, grapes reach a peak of ripeness, then begin to deteriorate. They must be handled quickly and efficiently. “A whole year’s work can be ruined in just one day if we don’t process the fruit at its peak,” says Ken Stark, owner of La Viña Winery. For smaller wineries, this means hiring people to cut clusters from vines. Larger wineries use mechanical harvesters to collect the grapes. Regardless of the winery’s size, grapes are conveyed to the de-stemmer. You know what a job it is when you separate a pound of table grapes from the stems — imagine having to separate tons.

Processing the grapes

Grapes being poured into bin.Winemaking now moves from the vineyard to the processing plant. White grapes are pressed immediately to extract juice, which is inoculated with yeast cultures to begin fermentation in stainless-steel tanks. Red grapes are held in fermentation tanks for up to two weeks before being pressed. That releases the tannins that give red wines their distinctive flavor and color. Juice runs through screens to remove skins and seeds, with organic materials composted for future vine growing. As wines ferment, their pH has to be tested periodically. New Mexico soils can be quite alkali, resulting in bitter-tasting wine. Wineries add acid to balance pH for the best-tasting product. The fermentation process creates sediments, so wines also have to be filtered at regular intervals. D.H. Lescombes Winery, the largest in New Mexico, not only grows grapes for its own wines but also provides grapes to other wineries. Florent Lescombes, president, says, “Our winery has over 50 fermentation tanks, each up to 16,200 gallons in capacity.” Most of the tanks are equipped with computer controlled temperature jackets, undoubtedly the highest level of automation in New Mexico’s wine industry.


Many red wines and a few whites are matured in oak barrels to smooth out tannins and add character. Each 60-gallon barrel, Large metal fermentation vatsmade from American or French oak, costs from $300 to $900 and lasts from three to five years. Wine is aged in barrels from three months to two years. When wine is ready to bottle, it must again be filtered for clarity and to ensure sterility. One surveyed winery uses a plate filter which removes particles larger than .45 microns. A micron is one-thousandth of a millimeter. Bottles are washed and rinsed to make sure they’re clean. Wine is pumped from its holding tank through a final filter into each bottle. Then the corker compresses and inserts a cork. After a final rinsing and drying, the bottles enter a capping machine and labeling machine. A small winery that produces upwards of 2,000 bottles may be able to bottle, cork, and label its wine by hand. It’s a different story if you’re bottling 200,000 cases annually. Most of the work is done by automated machinery.

Packed in cases, the bottles are stacked on pallets and stored in climate-controlled warehouses. For the largest wineries, wine is shipped to distributors and from there to retail outlets. For smaller wineries that depend more on their wine tasting rooms and festivals, wines are racked in bins awaiting aficionados.

What is “estate bottled”?

Some wines are labeled “estate bottled,” meaning the wine was bottled on the same property on which the grapes were grown. Not every wine can be so labeled. Because all the wine at La Viña is made at the La Union vineyard, Ken can say, “We are an estate-bottled vineyard winery, because we produce all of our wines from grapes grown in our vineyard.” Bryan Oakley, owner of Mesa Vista Winery, adds, “Although we offer a few wines made from grapes grown elsewhere, most of our varietals, such as the viognier, riesling, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and malbec, carry the estate designation.” Wine is as old as the earliest civilization. It’s as much a part of us as . . . breathing. All this considered, it doesn’t matter how big or small the winery, but only the passion of the winemaker that determines the quality of the wine and the gold medals it earns. In New Mexico wineries, there are lots of gold medals hanging on the walls.

Written by Bud Russo
Originally published in Neighbors magazine

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