Northern New Mexico has a counterculture deeply rooted in its DNA. This is where Wavy Gravy established his pioneering sustainable hippie commune in the late ’60s and Stanley Crawford wrote his ’70s back-to-the-land classic “A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm.” Today, it still has alternative living experiments in housing, energy and agriculture.
Growing anything here is a laborious and difficult endeavor. Small farms rely on centuries-old acequia (irrigation ditches) to nourish a desert land. The earth is rocky, subjected to extreme weather, and so dry that evaporation occurs almost before watering begins. Farms of ten acres or less are common. When the Conquistadors came four centuries ago they brought viniculture, using a mule train that started in Veracruz, Mexico, and snaked its way north, carrying Spanish rootstock to plant. Nothing much took, however, and the Spanish gave up on the New Mexico adventure two centuries later.
David Salazar, of the University of New Mexico at Alcalde, is trying to reclaim some of that heritage. We visited him at the agriculture extension housed in a fantastic old ’20s adobe-style house once lived in by Georgia O’Keeffe’s mentor. There, set amid a hundred acres of fertile bottom land, Salazar is bringing back the Leon Millot and Seyval Blanc grapes and doing it organically.
He uses clover for a ground cover and nitrogen source, along with compost. A fine mud spray chokes pests before they eat the grapes and a mild dish soap repels aphids. If a fungus appears, a baking soda mixture is applied. Salazar finds that nutrients are locked in the soil when traditional flood irrigation methods are used, so he’s advocating sprinkling, which has the secondary benefit of conserving water. He’s also working with others to get them to do the same. There is a serious effort to switch to organic farming here; the university extension conducts seminars, meetings and demonstrations for all the growers who are interested in saving the land. This is the heartbeat of organic viniculture in the Rio Grande Valley.
Salazar is a studied, soft-spoken, weathered man who was born a few miles down the road. He loves the land and the plants that grow on it. He has an uncompromising view of the ravages that modern diet and methods of food production have done to his Hispanic family and Native American neighbors, stating, “They’re better off eating the cardboard than the pizza inside it.”
He firmly believes that if the right grape varietals are planted in these soils they can be grown organically. When growers want grapes like Pinot Noir, which are temperamental at best, they are forced to use chemicals that poison the land and water. Instead, he plants grapes he knows can make good wines in New Mexico; the red Millot can be made into a smooth and rich wine, and the white Seyval is beautifully flinty and fruity.
Most of New Mexico’s grapes are grown conventionally in the southern part of the state, then brought north for blending, where they become labeled the more chic and valuable “Wine From Northern New Mexico.” In our next segment, we’ll explore how the true northern wines taste.