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Pueblo harvests latest grape crop for New Mexico-based Gruet Winery

October 2, 2018

The tradition of pueblos growing grapes for wine in New Mexico goes back a long way, and with a recent partnership between Santa Ana Pueblo in Sandoval County and a premier winery, that tradition is seeing a revival.

Joe Bronk, director of agricultural enterprises for Santa Ana Pueblo, said this summer’s harvest of grapes grown for New Mexico-based Gruet Winery was the fourth crop since the pueblo first planted grapes for Gruet Winery in 2014.

Bronk contacted Gruet “about their interest in the feasibility of forming a partnership” and the winery provided a letter of intent to purchase, so that Santa Ana could secure grant funding from the Administration for Native Americans under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Southern Pueblo Agency, Bronk said.

Gruet was “more than happy to entertain the idea, they basically said, ‘Well sure, if you are gonna build it, we have a need for it,’ ” he said. The idea was that the project would be self-sufficient and the pueblo takes over ownership and management, he said.

The pueblo plants mostly Chardonnay and pinot noir and some pinot meunier for Gruet, the same varietals that are grown at the winery’s Engle vineyards near Truth or Consequences.

For Gruet “this was an obvious win-win,” Gruet spokeswoman Heidi Witherspoon said by email. “The pueblo diversifies economically, we buy the grapes they grow (definitely working with them on technique and varieties), its labor force learns how to grow and harvest vinifera (the common grape vine), and Gruet gets another source for grapes that has reliable and proximal access to water.”

Private/pueblo grape growing partnerships could be a growing trend, said Christopher Goblet, executive director of Viva Vino, New Mexico Wine, a statewide trade organization. Goblet sees it as “a natural fit” and he plans on meeting soon with the American Indian Chamber of Commerce to see if more pueblos want to grow grapes.

“There is a desire for New Mexico-grown grapes and wine,” said Bronk, adding that Santa Ana has more acreage available for grape growing.

Although the majority of wine produced in New Mexico is consumed by residents and by visiting tourists, that could also be changing as more state wineries look to send their products beyond state borders as Gruet does, Goblet said.

The Santa Ana harvest was not the work of just one pueblo. A Native American labor force picked the 30 acres along Interstate 25 by hand with contract labor crews in addition to Santa Ana’s, getting help from Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Jemez and Zia pueblos, Bronk said. This year’s harvest netted 75 tons.

Bronk earned a degree in agriculture from Auburn University and honed his skills working in the wheat and grape harvests of California.

Wine growers often speak of a region’s “terroir,” or the environment in which a wine is produced. Altitude seems to be a key ingredient in shaping the flavor of New Mexico wines. The high altitude here, where pinot noir grapes are grown at some of the highest altitudes in the world, “results in great acidity and fruit flavors,” Witherspoon said. The Engle vineyards are about 4,775 feet above sea level, while the Santa Ana Pueblo vineyard is at about 5,200 feet.

The Gruet tradition goes back to founder Gilbert Gruet producing Champagne in France in the 1950s. When the family traveled to New Mexico in 1983, they encountered European winemakers who had done well planting vineyards in Engle, and in 1984, they planted their first experimental grapes there, according to the winery’s website.

At Santa Ana, the pueblo also has its own farm growing alfalfa and corn, a custom mill grinding blue, white and yellow corn, and wheat, and a native plant nursery and retail garden center that serves the public, Bronk said.

With this year’s harvest proclaimed successful, Santa Ana and Gruet are looking to a future of cultivating more pueblo acres for grapes. The pueblo could potentially plant another 400 acres for Gruet grapes, Bronk said.

“There is definitely an opportunity to expand,” said Witherspoon. “We are optimistic about further expansion and we can always use more quality New Mexico grapes at Gruet.”

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