An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989

Up Front

Wild horses face uncertain future in Placitas

Ty Belknap

Controversy continued through early summer over the free-ranging horses in Placitas.

Some call them wild; others say that they are feral. Most people like having them around but disagree over how they should be protected. Last month’s Signpost Web Poll resulted in a thirty-five-to-one vote to allow the horses to continue to roam the hills around Placitas freely as they have done for so many years. However, this summer’s drought has compounded the questions of where, when, and how the horses will be free.

The Wild Horse Observers Association finally located the starving horses that had been corralled by a Placitas resident and subsequently sold at auction by the New Mexico Livestock Board. Several of the horses were being well cared for, although, tragically, the stallion had died after breaking his neck during capture. Another horse may have ended up in a dog-food plant in Texas. The thirty to forty horses still ranging free in the area are threatened by drought and the sprawl of residential development.

The herd that had taken up residence in the Cedar Creek subdivision and now lives in the corral of Mark and Barbara Goodwin, who have secured ownership of the horses through the livestock board. The Goodwins are searching for a nonprofit agency to assume ownership of the herd, as well as a place where the horses can safely run free. The Cedar Creek Homeowners Association has not objected to the rescue effort, and several neighbors have offered to help with the considerable expense of feed.

Carlos Lopopolo, of the New Mexico Horse Project, plans to arrange for DNA testing to determine whether the horses qualify for protection under the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Meanwhile, he has tried to secure a special-use permit from the Albuquerque Open Space Division so that the herd can be moved to the Placitas Open Space.

In a letter in the Gauntlet section of this paper, Albuquerque Open Space assistant superintendent Matt Schmader explains the problems that such a proposal would involve.

Las Placitas Association spokesperson Carol Parker has pointed out that the horses may cause damage to her group’s riparian restoration effort in the Placitas Open Space. She has suggested that it would be more appropriate for the horses to be relocated to the larger area that may be available on the BLM land north of Placitas.

Tommy Gow of the BLM has said that existing grazing permits and established management plans would make this proposal difficult. He also said that he supported the “noble effort” to find a safe place for the horses. Gow is willing to host an open meeting for concerned citizens, but indicated that the establishment of some type of horse preserve would require an overwhelming display of public support.


Southwest wine industry has roots in Bernalillo history

—from Fruit of the Vine, A History of Wine Making in Sandoval County, by Martha Liebert, Sandoval County Historical Society

Wine grapes in the Rio Grande Valley

The wine grape was cultivated in the central Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico as early as the 1620s. Some of the first vineyards in the country were in the Bernalillo area.

Grape vine cuttings, originally brought to Mexico from Spain by ship, were brought up the long trail, the Camino Real, from Mexico City by Franciscan priests and colonists to be planted along the fertile valleys of the Rio Abajo (from La Bajada hill south to La Mesilla valley). Wherever the lands were irrigatable, the soil and climate were ideal for the sun loving grape.

Arid desert conditions with annual averages of eight inch rainfall, plus the hot sun and cold nights of New Mexico, all provided the stress necessary to produce the best wine grapes.

As Missions were established at the Indian pueblos, the priests planted cuttings there for sacramental as well as table wine. Each hacienda had its own vineyard and made its own wine.

Bernalillo was the center of many lush vineyards in colonial times. Wine production flourished in the sandy soils of the region.


Vine cuttings are planted in narrow trenches about six feet apart. The Mexican method was used where the vines are not trained on frames but trimmed close to the ground (from two to four feet high). In winter, the vines are covered in a two-foot high cone of soil which makes them more thrifty and fruitful and protects them from frost.

The vines begin to bear by the third year after planting, but it takes a decade for the vines to mature to produce the best wine. Harvest time may vary from August to October depending on yearly conditions.

The pueblo Indians harvested the grape crop each year for the priests during the 1600s, stripping the vines of fruit and filling carrettas with the produce. This ox drawn cart would then haul the grapes to the wine press which was made of green bull hides sewn together to form a huge vat which was suspended from stout posts. A top of punched hide was thrown over this and the grapes trod to a pulp on it, the juices running into the vat below. The pulp is retained to make vinegar. The filled vat is then sealed with mud to keep out the air and allowed to remain for sixty or seventy days to ferment. When the wine is drawn off an excellent grade of claret results.

W. W. H. Davis, U. S. Attorney General to the territory of New Mexico in 1854 states

    “No climate in the world is better suited to the vine than the middle and southern portions of New Mexico”

On a tour of the region, he made these notes:

    At Bernalillo, we enter the vine growing region of New Mexico which extends down the valley of the Del Norte (Rio Grande) to some distance below El Paso. Throughout this extent, grapes of a superior quality are cultivated. When fresh from the vine, the flavor is very fine and thought to equal imports from Spain and the Mediterranean for table use . . . Several thousands of gallons of wine are made yearly for home consumption . . . little gets to market.”

Local yields average seven tons per acre. The grapes maintain a high acid to high sugar balance with intense sun and long cool nights. Brandy and table wines were outstanding in quality also.

It took twenty pounds of grapes to make a gallon of wine as a general rule. The mission variety (red) was the first and most popular type in the area. Major threats to the crop were insects, late spring frosts, and hard winters.

In other parts of the New World Spanish Colonies, official state sanctions from Spain banned the raising of grapes and olives. This was done in order to protect the Andalusian farmers and their market for agricultural products.

Since all the ruling class of Spaniards in these provinces demanded Spanish wine, the wine exports from 1650 to 1700 equalled one quarter of all foreign trade. Even though this ban did not apply to the Rio Grande Valley, considerable amounts of wine were shipped in from Spain.

In one Mission Supply Train list from Mexico to the Franciscan missions, 45 gallons of sacramental wine is listed packed in earthenware containers. These pottery jars were not fired hot enough to be stoneware which would hold liquid so they used a green, lead glaze to seal the interior of the jars. This glaze tended to release lead particles in conditions of prolonged heat or contact with the acid of the wine. Thus the wine was very probably lead contaminated by the time it reached its destination . . .

The weight of these heavy jars filled with liquid must have been a staggering cargo to haul by rough trails a thousand miles. The design of these containers had not changed since Roman times and was of heavy pottery with coarse workmanship, rounded bottoms, and thickened neck rings. They were stoppered by cork or wood plugs and held liquid measured from 2.6 to 3.6 gallons.


Wine grapes are smaller than table grapes. It takes 186 growing days to mature wine grapes. Yields can be 120 gallons to the ton. White wine is made when the “must” is fermented without the grape skins. With red wine, the skins are kept in the process.

Fortunately, grapes grew well all up and down the valley. In 1776, Fray Dominguez noted grapes at Sandia and Santo Domingo Pueblos.

Through the centuries, many varieties were added to the original Mission red. In 1916, the Mallett Brothers listed eight varieties: Golden Sweet, Red Table, White, Claret, St. Peters, Roslin, Golden, and Sweet Picket.

In 1846, we find a description of the Bernalillo are by one passing soldier, Lieutenant Abert

    “Along the roadside were beautiful vineyards surrounded by high walls of adobes. We rode up to one of them and looking over saw some pretty donacellas plucking the fruit. They had round flat baskets placed on their heads. These were filled with thick clustered bunches of purple grapes from beneath which the bright eyes of the donacellas were sparkling.”

To the soldiers disappointment, a male relative of the donacellas took over the business of selling grapes to Kearney’s men.

According to Major H. R. Whiting at that time (1883)

    “Some of the wine makers of Bernalillo have extensive cellars, employ modern methods, and make several hundred barrels yearly. The valley of the Rio Grande will soon be famous and take its place at the head of wine and brandy producing districts of the world.”

The Christian Brothers

In the early 1870s, the order of the Christian Brothers came into Bernalillo and planted several thousand grape cuttings in the area of the Catholic church, Our Lady of Sorrows. They opened the LaSalle ranch and La France Winery as well as establishing the St. Nicholas School for boys.

They hired a French winemaker, Louis Gros Senior as manager of their wine operation. Mr. Gros produced over ten thousand gallons of wine a year for the Christian Brothers. He stayed with them until the 1920s and then left to start his own vineyard and winery.

This winery produced much of the sacramental wine for churches in the area until 1948 when they sold the ranch.

French and Italian families arrive

In 1882, the Mallett Brothers, Victor and Albert, came from Burgundy, France, to Bernalillo and cultivated large vineyards east of the church properties continuing for more than seven decades to produce fine fruits of the vine. Gros and Mallett wineries became well known over a large area.

Several French and Italian families came into the Corrales and Bernalillo areas at this time. In Corrales were the Alary, Targhetta, Salce, and Le Plat families, and in Bernalillo, the Gros, Mallett, and Lermuseaux.

In about 1919, Giorgio Rinaldi brought northern Italy’s tradition to the Christian Brothers operation in Bernalillo at the request of the Archbishop De Guerre of Santa Fe. In later years, Rinaldi worked with the New Mexico Extension Bureau in he development of improved strains on the La Salle Ranch until 1933.

Nathan Bibo, a mercantilist from Germany who came in the 1870s, described his first planting of four hundred vines in Bernalillo’s apparently barren looking sandy foothills

“they produced the sweetest early grapes on vines so overloaded that the branches were breaking down . . . harvest as early as August 10th”

In the 1880 wine census, New Mexico was reported as the fifth in the nation in wine production with over three thousand acres of vineyards.

Prohibition changes everything

In the years that followed however, devastating floods in the late 1800s and early 1900s and droughts as well as the national legal prohibition of alcoholic beverages completely upset the market. But illegal or not, it was a money maker, and so at $4.00 per gallon, the market went underground.

Corrales and Bernalillo continued to produce in secret. When the “federales” were in the area, “they hid the barrels in a haystack.” Many got caught and paid penalties or went to prison. There was a lot of killing of “stool pigeons” who informed on the locals at one period.

Also, there was always the risk of escaping gases from the wine, causing an explosion and causing loud attention to your operation. If your roof flew off in the middle of the night, you had some fancy explaining to do . . . but still it went on . . . the law of supply and demand was very much in force despite the dangers and hardships involved.

Much of the central valley land was a flood plain and thus the soil was water-logged and became alkali due to the high water table and lack of drainage. Not until the 1930s when the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy drained the marshes with a ditch system was the land reclaimed for agricultural purposes.

There are many home operations in the area. Typical of these is the Sena family vineyard now in its third generation of production with nine hundred vines of Vidal Blanc and Zinfandel Grapes planted in 1978.

Although some of the earliest vineyards on the continent were located here in New Mexico, most present day wineries in the state are very recent additions.

From an auspicious start, the wine industry had deep set backs, but at present, there are more vineyards and wineries than every before in the history of the Rio Grande Valley and the future looks healthy for the industry.

[Editor’s note: To sample New Mexico wines, visit the New Mexico Wine Festival on Labor Day weekend in Bernalillo. For details about this event, call 867-3311 extension 133.]


Fire restrictions are lifted in the
Cibola National Forest

Cibola National Forest Supervisor Liz Agpaoa announced that campfire and smoking restrictions will be lifted for the Sandia, Mountainair, Magdalena, and Mt. Taylor ranger districts on Friday, July 26, 2002. Fire danger has decreased over the last few weeks due to moisture and higher humidity over much of the forest. Although restrictions are lifted, visitors are reminded to be very careful with their campfires and use of chainsaws.

Agpaoa would like to thank the public for their patience and support during the period of fire restrictions which effectively minimized fire occurrence. Firefighters were also commended for maintaining their state of readiness and efficency during initial attack efforts on all fires.

The use of fireworks of any kind is strictly prohibited on all National Forest lands. Additional fire information for the southwest is available at Please contact Karen Carter or Mark Chavez at 346-3900 for further information.


Signpost Web

We are proud to add a new page to the Signpost Web edition on which we will feature the work of Sandoval County artists.

If you are an artist and would like to be featured on this page, please e-mail us and send us the URL where we can see your images.

Please do not send unsolicited images.

New! The Signpost Web Readers Stories—

Pack rats! Everyone has at least one! Send us your best pack-rat story and if we like it, we’ll publish it on-line next month.

Keep your story to about 2 or 3 paragraphs. Please include your name and how to contact you.

When you have your story ready, send it to:

Deadline is August 15.

We welcome suggestions, comments, and letters  submitted via the site. Click here to go to the Contact Us page.





[Front Page] [Up Front] [Community Bits] [Dark Skies] [Fire & Rescue] [The Poll Page] [Featured Artist] [Time Off] [Around Town] [Calendar] [Eco-Beat] [Business] [The Gauntlet] [Community Links] [Sandoval Arts] [Senior News] [Animal Hotline] [Schoolbag] [Back Issues] [Ad Rates] [Contact Us]