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If God forbade drinking
would He have made wine so good?
— Armand Cardinal Richelieu
What hath Bacchus wrought? Drive down to 4201 Highway 28 at La Union, New Mexico and you’ll find out. Twice a year vintners Ken and Denise Stark stage their festivals at La Viña Winery - the April Jazz Festival and the October Wine Festival. Both times of year are delightfully sunny and warm in Southern New Mexico.
Locals and tourists alike eagerly await these yearly fêtes champêtres. The winery is just a short jaunt from El Paso or Las Cruces, where most of the revelers reside, but folks come from as far away as Florida and Ohio, delighted to be in the midst of southwestern merrymaking, oohing and aahing about the friendliness and ambience at the Wine Festival. I met Frank and Barbara Brooks, retirees from Ohio now transplanted in Las Cruces, who said, “This is the perfect place to retire, and this festival is just one more appealing thing about it.” Dallas fans sometimes even miss their beloved Cowboys to attend the festival. Believe me, it takes something momentous to drag them away from their TV’s.
The adobe winery sits in the middle of 25 acres of grapevines in the Mesilla Valley where Dr. Clarence Cooper, a Physics professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, planted the root stock between 1973 and 1980. Although he no longer participates in the winemaking, his logo featuring a barrel-maker (a cooper) still adorns the wine labels.
Things didn’t always go smoothly at the Wine Festival. “The first year we expected 200 people, and about 2,000 showed up. We were really ill-prepared, and we ran out of everything,” Dr. Cooper said. Since then, he enlisted the aid of The Lions Club and public radio station volunteers from KRWG at New Mexico State University and KTEP at The University of Texas at El Paso, (who still assist the Starks today) and things straightened out.
The Starks moved here from Albuquerque (Ken had been winemaker for Anderson Valley Winery) in 1991 and bought the winery in 1992. The Jazz Festival is their brainchild. “We drew about 1,700 people for the first one in ’95, and we hope to double that this year,” said Ken.
The lineup for each year’s festival varies, but these old favorites are likely to perform: Mike Francis, piano; Gerald Hunter, trumpet; Curt Warren, guitar; Steve Smith, mandolin; Hollan Sudderth, vocalist; Yobosó; Jazz Pizzaz; and Gordon Butler, violin. The music here is mostly just for listening, but as the day wears on, a few hoofers will venture onto the concrete dance floor.
If you like jazz, you’ll love it in this vineyard setting. You can sit under the mulberry trees or one of the parti-colored tents and drink in the jazz along with your wine. With the Franklin and Organ Mountains as a backdrop to the stage, you can get lost in the ambience.
The big one, the Wine Festival, takes place in October. It’s more of a harvest festival, because the recent crush will have been put into the vats for aging; the wines served will be earlier vintages. Varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, barrel-fermented Chardonnay, Red Zinfandel, Johannesburg Riesling, White Zinfandel, and Rojo Loco red, a blend necessitated by the 58 days of extreme heat in 1994 - the reds were too light for cabernet, so this semi-sweet red was born. Caveat: Open bottles are not permitted at the festival, so plan to take bottles and cases home with you. The open bottle law helps keep things calm at the event. “We average one fight a year, and it’s usually between a man and wife,” Ken Stark said.
When you arrive at the festival grounds, you’ll have to park in an alfalfa field about a quarter-mile away, then walk to the entrance. For a modest fee, you can ride from and to the parking lot in James Babb’s horse-drawn wagon. Dressed like a drover, Babb is genial, and he lends a little southwestern flavor to the weekend.
You can dine al fresco here while strolling mariachis serenade you. Food vendors peddle a staggering array of foods: corn-on-the cob, ice cream, hamburgers, turkey legs, all types of Mexican foods, and bread, cheese, and fruit baskets. The Tatsu Japanese Restaurant from Las Cruces sells tantalizing Teriyaki on a stick, and the Marriott Hotel’s Chatfield’s Restaurant hawks Bananas Foster. No outside picnic baskets are allowed.
Artists and artisans line the perimeter of the festival grounds. As you wander past the vendors, you’re likely to see everything from stained glass to wood carvings to ristras. One engraver will etch your name into a wine glass or brandy snifter for free - the catch is you have to buy the glass. Another artisan makes wooden Santa Clauses and Uncle Sams suitable for standing guard in your yard. As you wander from stall to stall, you’ll socialize with the vendors and the other festival goers, whether you know them or not. It’s easy to palaver in this atmosphere. Just try it.
Music wafts through the air at the Wine Festival, also. Besides the mariachis, you’ll hear country, 50s and 60s rock, and Mexican tunes. Dance till you drop on the 60 by 60-foot concrete dance floor. If you’ve never seen the wine-making process, take a tour of the winery - it will cost you a buck. Tours commence every hour. Feel free to ask questions.
Bacchus hath wrought fun at La Viña. Plan to drive down and see for yourself.