An Op-ed by Michele Padberg
Above: Budding grapevine. Photo courtesy of NM Wine.
The wine industry of New Mexico is due to celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2029. It is the oldest wine grape growing region in North America, yes older than California. The last study done on the wine industry in 2017 shows that it brought in $876.7 Million in total economic impact to New Mexico that year alone. The result has only increased since then. Jesse Padberg, President of the New Mexico Wine Association and owner/winemaker of Vivac Winery, put it perfectly, “We are an industry unlike many others in the state. We have three tiers; one, we are retail/wholesale shops; two, we are producers; and three, we are agriculture.”
Because of these tiers, wineries and vineyards are responsible for thousands of local jobs (7,712 jobs in 2017). Winery jobs include everything from hands in the field to prune and pick, cleaning the winery, crushing and bottling, tasting room attendants, groundskeepers, event staff, distribution sales, and deliveries, not to mention the winemakers, managers, and planners it takes to run a winery. When New Mexico Wine shut down, a critical number of connected industries closed down too.
NM Wine has already started planning their celebration for ten years down the road, and the excitement is palpable. Chris Goblet, Executive Director of NM Wine, and coordinator for the celebration, says, “Nothing I can think of in the wine world could be any more significant or exciting to commemorate than the 400th anniversary of wine production in America. What could be more exciting than planning the country’s largest wine experience in history? We think the answer is attending and raising a glass with us.”
Ten years may sound like a long time, but that’s how the wine industry goes. Wine grape vines need 3–5 years to mature, add a couple of years for winemaking and aging, bottle aging, and finally, to get it to the shelf, it can take about ten years. It’s hard to imagine the patience, dedication, and foresight to work that way, but wineries do. For this huge 400th anniversary celebration, most New Mexico wineries want to craft something unique—possibly planting new vines and holding back wine made in 2019 for release in 2029. With the ripple effect of closures now, it is easy to wonder how many of them will make it till then.
When this massive pandemic hit, and everything closed, winery tasting rooms, which are the majority of winery sales, in some cases a hundred percent of their sales, shut down. While things were beginning to shut down, they were not explicitly told to close, breweries and distilleries were ordered to close, and wineries responsibly cooperated, knowing their licenses are the same. Yet the Governor’s mandate never said the word “wineries.” Reopening started after two months, a brutal two months with only a small drizzle of income from curbside and online orders. Everyone eagerly anticipated opening patios to begin by the glass sales and tastings, this is, after all, starting the usual busy season. Safety protocols were extensively researched and set-up, redesigning of large spacious vineyards were oriented to include tables that are socially distanced, and the eager staff was waiting to get back to work. Then the mandate came that only restaurants were able to open. The blow weighed heavily as the continued weeks of lost income strained even those that had been better off at the beginning. Association lobbyists petitioned the Governor to make concessions, but additional weeks stretched into substantial losses as New Mexico Wine was denied. Finally, the mandate came through, and breweries were able to open! Relief spread throughout the New Mexico Wine industry only to have the gut punch that wineries are not included. Once again, the announcement never included the word “wineries,” but since it was implied to close without being mentioned, surely reopening is the same thing. Remember, they have the same licensing, can follow the exact same restrictions, and can also serve food as a brewery. So why is the Governor making a distinction now?
The difference is in the classification of a winery, which has now been moved to the arena of bars. And why can’t bars open? The thinking here is that a bar is an indoor closed space, there is more back and forth with the server, people stay longer, and the atmosphere is different. This ruling stumped wineries. A guideline for wineries to restrict visit times switch from tastings to by the glass or bottle sales at tables for patio service only would have adequately kept any worries to a minimum. Masks being required, spacing, and other restaurant or brewery protocols also make sense to implement, and wineries would be happy to comply. The mandate continues not to be amended as of June 16, 2020.
Why is this so dire? Let’s go back to the timeline to make a bottle of wine and compare it to that of beer. Even if a brewery were to grow its own grain, that would take only one season with the actual brewing taking, on average, two weeks after harvest to have a finished beer. A winery requires up to 10 years. This is to say wineries can’t bounce back the same way breweries can, and the longer they stay closed, the higher the desperation. The arbitrary nature of allowing sister industries to open and not wineries or, for that matter, cideries, is dangerous. Craig Moya, the owner of NM Hard Cider, says his business was cut down to six percent while doing curbside, but now with the sister industries open, people are choosing to go there instead of drinking at home which dropped his sales even further, yet his bills have stayed the same. Posing an interesting question, Moya asks, “Is it fair or legal to let a brewery open and be able to sell wine or a craft cocktail they make by the glass when that winery/distillery license is technically still shut down?”
Padberg also noted an essential element for consideration “The brewers are agriculture, but the grains and products they use, are rarely sourced locally. Most of our wineries can have a product that grew, was produced, and then consumed right here in New Mexico. At every step, we are producing tax dollars and jobs for our communities and our state.”, surely this added value should sway the Governor to reconsider.
It boils down to this, all the wineries in New Mexico source at least some of their grapes from the largest grower in the state New Mexico Vineyards. Paolo D’Andrea, owner/ winemaker of Luna Rosa Winery, oversees the grafting and production of the 34-year-old vines, and he confesses, “Managing a 300-acre vineyard in New Mexico is not an easy task. During a normal year, we have to deal with a lot of problems, winter damages, late freezes, wind, hail, pests, and not least, marketing.”
Managing the cash flow to buy grapes is also challenging for the wineries. Each year starts with assessing sales reports from previous years to determine what to buy from D’Andrea. Sales usually increase with spring break in March, and they begin to save for the cost of buying grapes in the fall. As the weather gets warmer, tasting room patios fill with people buying glasses, tasting, and bottles of wine; this allows wineries to save for the leaner winter months, purchase new equipment for harvest, and once again, to add to the savings to buy necessary grapes. This hasn’t happened this year.
If this cycle is interrupted, a winery can not afford grapes, and thus D’Andrea has no one to sell the grapes to. It will be an enormous loss for the investors that keep that large vineyard in business. If a winery can not make new wines due to not buying grapes, they will have nothing to sell. If they have nothing to sell in the years to come, tasting rooms close, jobs are lost, wineries go out of business, it will be a catastrophe. D’Andrea warns that “It is important to mention that New Mexico Vineyards is located in Luna County, the county with the largest unemployment rate in the state. If New Mexico Vineyards fails, twenty full-time employees will lose their jobs without counting the additional forty seasonal people hired during harvest time.”
Perhaps, with only one season hit hard, D’Andrea’s vineyard may be able to bounce back, but as previously mentioned, wineries look down the road for years, not just a few months. If D’Andrea can not sell his grapes, investors will be forced to pull out, and the incredible history, four-hundred years of ancestors toil, will crumble.
This travesty can be avoided with your support if you take a moment to message the Governor expressing how vital wineries are to our economy. Wineries need to salvage some of the profitable summer months to survive.
Join us in 2029 and plan to attend the biggest wine celebration the United States has ever seen—Viva Vino!