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St. Clair Winery in Deming captures summer in a bottle.

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Time in a Bottle

St. Clair Winery in Deming captures New Mexico summers to savor later, one glass at a time.

By David A. Fryxell


When Baron Philippe de Rothschild famously said, "To develop character, great wines must go through great hardship. . . . There must be suffering to produce it," he was not thinking of vineyards in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Yet the scorching summer sun that bakes St. Clair Winery's 120 acres of vineyards there—soon to be 180 acres—would do the Baron proud. The grapes grown on the winery's own vines, plus those on some 300 acres mostly near Deming from which it buys grapes, swelter in the New Mexico sun.

Three generations of winemakers—Julian, Herve and Florent Lescombes—in the vineyard near Lordsburg.

The grapes' suffering is tempered by the cool New Mexico nights, along with 20 minutes of irrigation every other day. Florent Lescombes, vice president of the family-owned New Mexico Wineries that runs St. Clair Winery east of Deming, says, "The main thing I've learned about grapes in 25 years is that vines are like people. They like stress but they like it humid also. They like it to cool down, to have some downtime.

"If conditions are not consistent, the vines are not very happy," Lescombes continues, his French accent still thick enough after years in New Mexico to require careful listening. Sometimes whole words—"Lordsburg," for example, which comes out something like "Lzdboorg"—get lost in translation. "You have to train them, just like a kid."

You also have to find the right soil. "Clay soil is the worst for wine, and 90 percent of the farms in the Southwest have clay; that's why they have single-year crops. We found a sandy farm near Lordsburg. In sandy soil, the vines can put down a root system 20 to 30 feet deep, which also holds water in the winter.

Peering from behind tinted glasses and below a ballcap labeled "Blue Teal" (one of the winery's multiplicity of brands), if not for his accent Florent Lescombes could be any southwest New Mexico farmer: blue jeans, polo shirt, long face lightly tanned even in autumn. It turns out, indeed, that the conditions that favor chiles and pecans are also good for grapes.

Southwest New Mexico gets more sun than such better-known wine regions as Napa Valley, California, or Burgundy, France, he explains. But the cool nights here make for gentler growing than in California's Fresno valley, source of 80 percent of American grapes—notably those that wind up in less-expensive bottles. Too much heat yields too much tannin in red wines.

New Mexico Wineries' vineyards produce five to six tons of grapes per acre at harvest time, which runs from late July to early October. That's comparable to the yield in Napa Valley. Other vineyards in the Land of Enchantment yield about three to four tons of grapes an acre, Lescombes says. In the oven-like Fresno area, by contrast, the harvest begins in June and the vineyards produce 10 to 12 tons per acre.

"That's why we can't go into a grocery store and compete on price with a Gallo chardonnay," Lescombes says.

Instead, New Mexico Wineries has chosen to emphasize its still-somewhat-unusual place of origin and to limit its distribution to the Southwest. To be labeled "New Mexico wine"—and benefit from the $4 million annually spent on promoting the state's wineries—a wine must contain at least 75 percent New Mexico-grown grapes. So the winery grows up to half of its own grapes and buys the rest from other New Mexico growers.

Seven salespeople, four delivery drivers and a newly hired event coordinator work to push the company's five main brands—Santa Rita, Mademoiselle, St. Clair, Blue Teal and DH Lescombes, plus sweet Plum Loco and Wine-a-Rita "margarita wine"—throughout the state. A wholesaler brings the wines to Texas. Besides selling to restaurants statewide, the company also operates its own Blue Teal restaurant and tasting room in Mesilla (which will be moving to a new location nearby at 1800 Avenida de Mesilla in early 2007) and the St. Clair Winery and Bistro in Albuquerque.

Locals and tourists alike can also sample and purchase a whopping 54 of the winery's creations at the Deming winery tasting room. With 300 to 500 visitors weekly, Lescombes says, that facility sells more wine than any other tasting room in the state—despite its somewhat off-the-beaten-track location, along Hwy. 549 east of town and south of I-10. (Besides buying wine by the bottle, customers can even bring empty jugs and blend their own.) The St. Clair Winery in Deming also hosts an annual Winefest; the 11th annual event was last month.

Overall, the company employs 125 people at its various locations. It's arguably New Mexico's largest winery operation, certainly in terms of capacity. Last year, New Mexico Wineries bottled 65,000 cases of wine for its various brands. That's less than Albuquerque-based Gruet—which distributes nationally, especially out East, rather than regionally—at 100,000 cases. But New Mexico Wineries also makes wine for other vintners, totaling nearly 160 different wines including its own labels, and for special bottlings under private labels, which it prints or hand-paints right on site. If you get a bottle of "Inn of the Mountain Gods" or "New Mexico State University" wine, it likely came from New Mexico Wineries. Total capacity at the Deming winery is a half-million gallons of wine.

All of which is not to say the company emphasizes quantity over quality. In the first half of 2006 alone, 10 different varieties of its wine won 16 medals in international competitions. Sometimes, though, that "New Mexico" label can make it harder to earn the respect the wines deserve—even (or especially) here in the Land of Enchantment. Lescombes tells of a recent wine and chile event in Santa Fe, where none of the snooty festival-goers were sampling from the New Mexico Wineries booth. When he took down the company's sign, however, people began flocking for a taste—and loved the wine.

Florent Lescombes himself comes from a long line of winemakers stretching back to Burgundy; he's the sixth generation to carry on the family business. He's also studied winemaking in the prestigious University of California-Davis oenology program.

His father, Herve Lescombes, brought the winemaking family to New Mexico and still serves as president of the company. Swiss winemakers had actually founded the New Mexico winery in 1983; Herve Lescombes took it over in 1991. It wasn't the family's roots in Burgundy that led the Lescombes clan to this unlikely-seeming spot—rather, Southwest New Mexico reminded them of Algeria. Florent Lescombes' grandfather operated a winery there, when Algeria was a French colony. The grandfather lost everything with Algerian independence, but still the landscape here resonated with their memories of North Africa.

You often hear how Washington State, with its burgeoning wine business, lies on the same latitude as the great wine regions of France. But look at a globe: Southwest New Mexico sits on a line that would run right through north-central Algeria.


At the company's Lordsburg vineyards, halfway around the world from Algeria, the grapes are all harvested mechanically in the cool of the desert night. Ambitiously, the winery grows 30 different types of grapes, though eight major varieties make up the bulk of the harvest: zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Muscat, chenin blanc and gewürztraminer.

In Deming, outside at the St. Clair Winery facility, the harvest topples into a gleaming steel de-stemmer. Stems and stray leaves become compost; grapes are pumped inside, where the air is powerfully chilled against the desert heat, into the crusher. Twin presses can each handle 20 to 30 tons at a time, gently compressing the grapes for a couple of hours until all the juice is extracted. Red wines will later be pumped back through their skins—"like making coffee," Florent Lescombes says—to give the wine its color as well as flavor components. Seeds, which contain much of grapes' natural tannins, are removed, since fruit grown in the Southwest heat tends to be highly tannic, and replaced with oak tannins from chips or barrels, depending on the wine.

Each wine demands a different treatment. Florent Lescombes, who manages the winery's day-to-day operations, describes each method lovingly, the way a parent might boast about different children of whom he's equally proud. St. Clair chardonnay, for instance, gets tannins and a light oaky character from wood chips in the fermentation tank. DH Lescombes reserve chardonnay is cooled to the freezing point—not hard as ice, but a sort of wine slush—in tall, silvery tanks, "to settle the juice down" for stability, then fermented to the halfway point. The chardonnay finishes its fermentation with six months in oak barrels, which line shelves four high, row upon row, in the main winery building. The winemaker can even vary the flavors by changing the degree of "toasting" inside the oak barrels.

"The results are totally different wines," says Lescombes. "Wine fermented in stainless steel keeps 100 percent of its fruit flavors. The oak barrels drop the tannins out and make the wine fatter."

The different labels for different styles of wine—St. Clair versus DH Lescombes—represent a deliberate strategy, much like General Motors' spectrum of brands from Chevrolet through Pontiac up to Cadillac. Lescombes says 75 percent of New Mexico Wineries' output are sweet wines like "Plum Loco" and their sangria line, which please the popular palate. "Kool-Aid, basically," he concedes. Next up the ladder is the Mademoiselle label ("fun wines we can play with"), then the nonvintage St. Clair brand, followed by the vintage-labeled Blue Teal wines. The company's top-of-the-line wines are the aged DH Lescombes varietals, aimed at wine lovers and restaurants. Prices roughly but not precisely follow this upward arch, from $9 a bottle for St. Clair or Blue Teal cabernet, for instance, up to $19 for DH Lescombes.

Sweeter white wines are bottled within a couple of months. "You treat it like orange juice," Lescombes says, "trying to keep it as fresh as possible." On the other extreme are higher-end reds, which may age a couple of years in oak barrels. The barrels themselves last only four to five years before being turned into planters.

He inserts a long glass tube, like a wildly distended eyedropper, into a barrel and gingerly removes a few inches of red wine. A quick tasting demonstrates the difference between cabernet sauvignon grapes grown in clay soil—less character and less color, destined for Blue Teal bottles—and the same grapes grown in sandy soil, bound for DH Lescombes bottling.

"To make a good wine, you have to have good grapes," Lescombes says, splashing the tasting leftovers into a grate on the wet concrete floor. "That's the number-one rule. Don't try to make a good wine with bad grapes. The number-two rule is to keep everything clean. We spend 70 percent of our time cleaning."


The bottling line is silent today, the only action being the relentless cleaning and scrubbing. "On a good day—there are not many of those—we can fill 20,000 to 30,000 bottles a day," Lescombes says with a soft smile.

This room also houses the machinery to cork the bottles and to top them with foil, along with the equipment for sparkling wine. The winery makes only two types of sparkling wine: one in which carbonation is simply added to a still wine, and one using a secondary fermentation. The true champagne method, Lescombes says, is too labor-intensive and requires at least two years in the bottle before the wine is ready to sell—"lots of inventory, not a big market."

Other rooms are home to a complete in-house lab, an art department and a whirring label-printer as wide as a desk. Wineries in California, he notes, have access to all sorts of nearby support operations; here, the wine business is mostly do-it-yourself if you want it done at all.

But doing it yourself also gives the winemaker more control, which Lescombes values for quality. Selling only regionally makes it easier to exercise control, too, even to the point of how bottles are placed on store shelves. "With our wholesaler in Texas, we have to check to make sure the bottles are moved on the shelf, that new bottles aren't simply placed in front with the older ones shoved to the back."

Lescombes raises a cautionary finger and adds, "One bad bottle can lose you 10 customers."

Some things are harder for a winemaker to control, or take a long time. Gradually, the winery has been making more and more of its own wines—up from 15,000 to 20,000 cases five years ago to 65,000 this year—and less bulk wine for others. Lescombes would also like to add more acreage, to enable the winery to grow 80 to 90 percent of its grapes, but that takes time and lots of money—about $10,000 an acre.

Changes in the wine business are like turning a big ship in the ocean. "You have to think about planting the grapes now, and then it takes three to four years for new vines to start producing," he says. "Then you might age the wine for two years. So you have to think five to seven years ahead, especially for varietal wines. The winery business, it's for lifetimes."

Florent Lescombes hopes those "lifetimes" will include his three sons—the seventh generation of Lescombes winemakers. With all the different aspects of the business, from winemaking to restaurants to marketing, there's plenty of room for all three.

Of course, it's more than merely a family business. Florent Lescombes makes a golden swirl in a tasting glass of chardonnay, the wine sparkling in the New Mexico sunlight streaming through a window. "For me," he says, "it's more of a life experience."


St. Clair Winery, three miles east of Deming on Hwy. 549, is open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday 12-5 p.m. For information, call 546-1179 or toll-free (866) 336-7357 or visit www.StClairVineyards.com. New Mexico Wineries also sells its wine online via www.southwestwines.com. Its Blue Teal restaurant and tasting room is at 1710 Avenida de Mesilla in Mesilla,
524-0390. St. Clair wines are also featured at the Twisted Vine, 108 Broadway in Silver City, 388-2828.


David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

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