Mary and Henry Street, owners of Ponderosa Vineyards and Winery
Grape pressing machine
Wine storage tanks
Streets tend to the bountiful Ponderosa Vineyards and Winery
—Margaret M. Nava
Two great wine festivals take place over the Labor Day Weekend. The 24th Annual New Mexico Wine Festival—the largest and oldest wine festival in the state of New Mexico—takes place in Bernalillo and the Harvest Wine Festival takes place at the Southern New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Las Cruces. As in years past, there will be plenty of good food, live entertainment and dancing, and arts and crafts at both Festivals and, of course, there will be wine tastings from more than twenty local wineries, including Ponderosa Valley Vineyards.
Located three miles east of NM Highway 4 on State Road 290 (halfway between Jemez Pueblo and Jemez Springs) Ponderosa Valley Vineyards started commercially harvesting grapes in 1982 and has been producing prize winning bottled wines since 1991. Consistently winning awards at local and out-of-state competitions such as the New Mexico State Fair, the Southwest Wine Competition, the Indy International Competition, Amenti del Vino and the Oklahoma State Fair, Ponderosa’s products include three signature Rieslings, a Pinot Noir, and numerous red and white varietals and blends.
In 1976, Henry and Mary Street purchased three acres in the Ponderosa Valley with the intention of using it as a camping retreat. Upon discovering numerous small vineyards in the area, they researched viticulture varieties, planted some French hybrid vines, took some grape growing and accounting courses and learned everything they could about the winemaking business. Two years later, using cuttings obtained from winemakers in California, they expanded their vineyards to six acres. At 5,800 feet above sea level, the vineyards are on deep, well drained volcanic ash deposits which, along with long hot days and cool nights, provide the ideal conditions to develop unique wine character. Unfortunately, those hot days and cool (or cold) nights are not always beneficial. In fact, sometimes they are extremely destructive, as evidenced by last winter’s weather and this summer’s fires.
Early this year, plans were already shaping up for the approaching selling and growing season. Most of the 2010 white wines had been bottled, the 2008 Tempranillo had been released, and the Cabernet Sauvignon was getting rave reviews. Pruning was underway by mid-January and plans were being made to replant some of the Riesling vines. Then, on January 31, a powerful and historic winter storm moved across the United States, bringing record cold temperatures and strong winds to New Mexico. Temperatures dropped to minus-eight degrees in January and minus-16 degrees in February. Following the freezes, temperatures began to warm up but a series of late frosts caused bud break in April. Ponderosa Valley’s owner, Henry Street, said, “On April 28, we had 23 degrees and on May 1, 2, 3, and 4, the temperature went down to 23 degrees again. That whole series of cold spring freezes really damaged the vines. Everything we plant has proven to be cold-hardy down to around 18 degrees, but eight and 16 below is well beyond anything we have ever experienced in the thirty-five years we’ve been commercially growing grapes here. In essence, we lost most of this year’s Riesling and Pinot Noir crop but not the plants because the plants are coming back from the roots. We’re also planting some new cold-hardy cuttings so if we don’t have any more of these kinds of winter damages, we’ll probably have a full crop in two years.”
Although they lost almost 75 percent of this year’s crop to winter freezes, Henry and Mary will continue to produce quality wines using grapes grown in other parts of New Mexico. “Most of the wineries in northern New Mexico bring in fruit from southern New Mexico. In fact, some of the other local growers and I run a 48-foot refrigerated trailer down to Deming twice a week and bring back roughly 22 tons per trip for a period of six-to-seven weeks. The reason we do that is because the grapes used for Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlot won’t grow commercially up here. In normal years, we sell about 16 tons of our Riesling grapes to other wineries, but we won’t be doing that this year.”
The Las Conchas fire also had an effect on the winery but only from a business point of view. “Like most of the other businesses in the area, we were open but no one came walking through the door. People thought everything in the Jemez was shut down. In fact, when they were reporting on the fire on the radio, they consistently said that Ponderosa was being evacuated. The village of Ponderosa was never evacuated … it was the Ponderosa Campground that closed down. That misinformation hurt us but we’ll work through it and I think the upcoming festivals will really help.”
Working with people from New Mexico State University and the Vine and Wine Society, Street and his wife helped start wine festivals in New Mexico. “We went to the University and said we need some help marketing our wine. So we started a series of festivals first down in Mesilla, then in Ruidoso, and finally in Bernalillo. It’s been a symbiotic relationship with the town of Bernalillo since townsfolk needed help promoting the town and we needed help promoting the local wine industry. In Las Cruces, they have festivals over Memorial Day weekend as well as Labor Day weekend and over the Fourth of July, there’s a festival at El Rancho de las Golondrinas in Santa Fe. When I first got into winemaking, I couldn’t see an outlet to market my wines. These festivals have made all the difference.”
Street says his winery sells 10,000 to 12,000 gallons a year. His three styles of Riesling and the Pinot Noir have won awards all over the country. “Our quality standard since 1996 has been that every well made wine receive at least a bronze medal in a formal competition or it won’t be released.” The walls of the tasting room bear proof that this standard has continually been met. “Our tasting room is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday and, of course, over Labor Day, folks can sample and buy our wines at the wine festivals in Bernalillo and Las Cruces.”
For directions, hours and more information on the New Mexico Wine Festival at Bernalillo, visit: www.newmexicowinefestival.com; for the Harvest Wine Festival in Las Cruces, visit: www.wineharvestfestival.com.