By Joseph Mora
Black Mesa’s Winemaker Karl Johnsen and I are standing in the Winery’s barrel room stacked high with barrels of various heights and sizes and chatting about nothing in particular while I snap sundry photos, when it occurs to me that all the barrels have words on them.
My interest piqued, I walk around on my own and take note of some of them in an attempt to determine what it’s all about.
As I’m snapping a photo, I can feel Karl at my elbow, so without turning I say, “The barrels all have words on them…what’s up with that?”
He chuckles for a moment, then says, “Well…Jerry likes to give them all names.” I allow a moment to pass while scanning the words on a few of the barrels, trying to make sense of what significance they might hold.
Some are places, some are people’s names, yet I can’t seem to make any logical order of them.
Karl sees me grappling with the concept and offers, “First, he named them after all the 14,000 foot peaks he’s climbed. Then it was places he liked to hike…then camp…then people of significance in his life…” he explains, voice trailing off as his eyes follow a stack of barrels up to the ceiling.
Inside the abundant barrels of various levels of toast, size, and age, rest a sampling of the diverse explosion of vitis vinifera produced in the state in the past several decades. Reds, whites, rosés, sweet wines, dry wines…it’s all here in the rustic Winery in Velarde, each bearing a particular name given them by its owner, Jerry Burd.
On cue, Jerry walks into the room wearing shorts, boots, and a t-shirt that says, “What Happens In the Winery, Stays In the Winery, ” extending his hand in warm greeting. About as affable as they come, Jerry Burd is a former Minister, grant writer and wine geek that got into the wine business based on imagery from a dream.
He and his wife Lynda wanted to mix art and wine in the latter part of their life, and Lynda’s interest in Georgia O’Keefe somehow swayed them to New Mexico from Oregon.
They took over Black Mesa in 2000 from Dr. Gerhard Anderson and have since expanded the estate plantings, recently adding Albariño and Montepulciano to the mix, contributing to a New Mexican grape-growing tradition dating back to 1629 at the Piro Pueblo of Senecú south of Socorro.
In the nascent colony of New Mexico, wine was meant to be sacramental, but undoubtedly was used by its populace in a more recreational context.
There have been boom as well as boon years, high’s and low’s that have endured the centuries and now seem poised to bloom in an unprecedented way.
Rio Arriba county is home to three wineries that have emerged from the state-wide pack via International and National competitions, Black Mesa being the latest to do so at the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition, outscoring several Napa Wineries in the process of garnering a Silver Medal for their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon.
As Karl pours me the 2010 Cabernet in the tasting room after I’ve gotten the barrel room pictures, I ask him about his winemaking philosophy. “Get out the way of the grapes,” he succinctly replies, while continuing to pour me a taste, casually adding, “I find lots that play well together and let the grapes do the talking, ” as he sips a bit of the 2010 himself.
Soon Jerry shows up and we stand around listening to Nat King Cole, tasting through their line-up, and generally hanging out. After a while a few intrepid travelers stop in and go through tastings while we’re off in the corner and Karl and I spin Napa stories for one another.
He did his first stint with wine in Austria, working initially with Grüner Veltliner, the dry and acidic, yet complex white that’s gained an improbable cult status over the past decade through being championed by snooty sommeliers around the world.
Ironically, the Austrian chapter provided him with the knowledge needed for working in cold-climates, coming in handy here in New Mexico, where frost frequently happens. He still has an appreciation of whites though, and they comprise a good deal of Black Mesa’s offerings, from Vermentino and Riesling, to Chardonnay and Viognier.
Conversely, their Black Beauty Dessert Wine also won Silver in San Francisco, testament to the fact that they’re not about to shy away from what’s gotten them on the map, with a good portion of their wine club consisting of sweet wines.
“It’s almost as hard to make a sweet wine as a dry wine,” Jerry explains.
Karl dovetails, “It’s a tough balancing act. We want to be known for good wines, period. We want our wines to have a vinous quality that’s apparent,”
“The business is growing,” he adds, “And we find ourselves at a crossroads. Between the two tasting rooms and the array of wines…it’s a lot,” he says, looking to Jerry for commiseration.
Jerry quietly nods and they both go silent, apparently thinking about all the things that need to get done.
Assistant Winemaker Craig Dunn walks in and pulls Karl off to discuss some business and I realize it’s getting late, so I say my goodbyes and leave them to their day.
The Cabernet was deserving of the kudos received, and the whites impressed me across the board. I’ve tasted most of the offerings from Northern New Mexican Wines and have to say that the state shows great promise.
The future of Southwestern Wine is being written in this generation and I’d be willing to bet that some of the words from the barrel room at Black Mesa will make it into the text.