One of the loveliest wineries in New Mexico just happens to also be the oldest winery. La Viña Winery, on Highway 28 (The Wine Highway) in La Union, New Mexico, has a 45-year history of vinting award-winning wines as New Mexico’s oldest, continuously run boutique winery.
Before wine became my passion, let alone my obsession, I was introduced to La Viña Winery as a wedding venue. The daughter of a good friend was married there at sunset late one summer and I thought I had never seen any place so beautiful.
Since that first visit, I’ve spent quite a bit of time at La Viña Winery—attending a community event, a festival, or just relaxing on the patio with a bottle of wine. There are many things to love about La Viña that have nothing to do with the wine. I love that they are very accommodating to families. It’s not unusual to see families having a picnic on the estate while the parents sip wine or to see children at the many community events. Even at their wine festivals, La Viña has an area for children to enjoy themselves.
I love that La Viña engages the community for important events such as La Viña’s annual Walk for Alzheimers that has raised well over $200 MILLION since it began in 1989. The Winery has an annual 4th of July celebration that proudly celebrates the nation and Howl-O-Wine Dog Walk supporting Pets Alive El Paso.
Kenneth and Denise Stark, owners of La Viña, are a great story of being in the right place at the right time. Kenneth, a Texas rancher, drove 75 miles once a week to attend a wine appreciation class. Before long he went from interested in wine to being an enthusiast, and in 1989 he applied, and was hired, to be the assistant wine-maker for Anderson Valley Vineyards in Albuquerque. Within the year, the head winemaker left the winery and Kenneth was promoted.
Anderson Valley Vineyards which is no longer in operation is technically the first winery in New Mexico, having opened in 1973. Since it is no longer around, La Viña has taken the title of first.
La Viña was originally owned by Dr. Kiki (Clarence) Cooper, a physics professor at the University of Texas-El Paso. He experimented with growing a few vines in his front yard and before long, La Viña was born and opened its doors in 1977. When the La Viña winemaker died suddenly, Dr. Cooper asked Kenneth to come down as a consultant. Kenneth commuted to La Union from Albuquerque every weekend until one day in 1992, Dr. Cooper made the Starks “an offer they couldn’t refuse.” All of a sudden, the wine enthusiast, turned winemaker became a winery owner and today, they are making wine history in the beautiful Mesilla Valley.
One of the fascinating aspects of La Viña is that it is an Estate Bottled Vineyard Winery. That means they have a single vineyard from which they grow all of their wine grapes. When harvested they go to their own winery for vinting and bottling. La Viña does not buy grapes from other vineyards. Everything is grown, produced, and bottled on the estate.
Fifteen years of putting their blood, sweat, and tears into every step of the winemaking process, Denise and Kenneth hired a small team to help them move the business more effectively into the future. Today, their team is comprised of Business Manager Luz Bustamante, Winemaker Guillermo Contador, and Vineyard Manager Jose Ruiz. When talking to the Starks or any member of their team, a common theme emerges: Winemaking is a combination of ingenuity, creativity, science, and artistry. Everyone at La Viña knows what it takes to grow a great grape and turn it into a great wine. Everyone shares the same philosophy of winemaking, a love for La Viña, and a vision for its future.
Unlike most wineries in New Mexico, La Viña focuses its brand on sweeter wines. Of course all of the New Mexico wineries have some great sweet wines, but the La Viña team recognizes that sweet wines are what their consumers, mostly from the El Paso area, are looking for, and that is what they provide. La Viña also makes some nice dry varietals, but sweet wines are their sweet spot and they’re really good at it.
When it comes to wine, I’m not really a creature of habit. It’s no secret that I love a good dry red, but I’m not the person who orders a Cabernet Sauvignon everywhere I go and judges the whole winery on that single glass. Nope! I’m more adventurous and I never know until I get to winery, what I’m going to drink. I can say that I have tried everything on La Viña’s current menu.
Honestly, I’m not a fan of all La Viña wines, but there are some important reasons I go back again and again:
- Their wine is consistent. La Viña has a style—especially with their dry and off dry wines—that is consistent from bottle to bottle and between the various varietals. In other words, I can recognize a La Viña wine, and that is a compliment in the wine world.
- Judging their wines from an objective standard apart from personal preference, La Viña makes some high-quality wines with refreshing acidity and fruit-forward flavors. They are able to produce a lot of commercially popular sweet to very sweet wines without sacrificing the integrity of the grapes or the winemaking process.
Wines of Note
There are about 28 wines on the current La Viña menu and, as I mentioned, I’ve tried all of them except the Light Port. Here is the list of some of my favorites.
Barrel Fermented Chardonnay. One of two dry white wines, La Vina Chardonnay is lighter-bodied than a California style Chardonnay, but it does have a lasting finish of some of the great flavors that can be imparted by fermenting in oak.
With the exception of a Rhone-style blend and a Bordeaux-style blend, the dry reds are varietals. I’m particularly partial to the Syrah which I find to be more in keeping with a French Syrah as opposed to an Australian Shiraz.
Among the off-dry wines, of which there are four, I prefer the aromatic Viognier. It has notes of mild stone fruits with a hint of minerality that balances with the medium acidity. La Viña’s Viognier is a bit more delicate than other Viogniers I have experienced, but it holds its own.
The remaining wines on the menu are labeled either Semi-Sweet or Sweet, but, of course, it’s all sweet to me! I try to keep about 6 bottles of sweet wine on hand, just in case, and usually 3 or 4 are a La Viña wine—because sweet is what they do best.
I really enjoy the White Riesling that tastes of ripe apples with lemon zest and displays notes of white blossoms. It’s labeled as Semi-sweet and I usually open this bottle when I’m door-dashing Thai food for dinner. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, La Piñata, referred to as “Party in a Bottle,” is one of my favorites. It’s a sparkling blend of White Zinfandel and Black Muscat. La Piñata is dangerously drinkable The more you drink, the better the party and the better the party, the more you drink!
Know Before You Go
La Viña is located at 4201 South Highway NM-28, La Union, NM, and is opened Thursday through Monday from noon to 5:30 p.m.
For $10 you can sample three wines of your choice. I believe you can add on additional tastings for a few dollars if you want to try more. I always try three, get a glass of something I haven’t tasted, and take home a bottle of something else entirely—but then I can be a bit daring. All of La Viña’s bottles are reasonably priced.
La Viña doesn’t sell food at the winery unless they are having a special event, but you are permitted to bring your own.
Every time you visit a winery, it should be an experience and there is so much to experience at La Viña! The interior of the tasting room is an experience, but so is the patio and so are the grounds. As you sip your wine, breathe in the beauty of the La Viña estate. The great thing about La Viña is that the wine will meet you where you are. If you need some peace and quiet or you want to make a party, La Viña wines, and winery, are there for you.
Until next time…