From Good Earth
Salt of the Earth and Sweet off the Vine
By Randy Shamlia
Imagine if you will, a sunny day in 1598 when Don Juan de Oñate and a band of Spanish Colonists traversed The Royal Road (El Camino Real) along the Rio Grande in search of a new settlement. Even then it was semi-parched land, and the Franciscan Monks would soon follow in de Onate’s footsteps. Wine, the representational “Blood of Christ” was consumed as part of the ceremonial Sacrament then, as it is today. The Monks inevitably needed a supply of wine and waiting months to be refortified from the Old World would not suffice.
So, in 1629 Frays Garcia de Zuniga, a Franciscan, and Antonio de Arteaga, a Capuchin Monk, planted the first vitis vinifera variety in the Rio Grande Valley of Southern New Mexico. Known appropriately as the Mission grape, the vines were brought back by missionaries from Spain. Although Spanish Colonists were prohibited by law to export plantings, religious devotion took precedence in the New World. Thus, the Monks spurred what would become a prolific wine industry in New Mexico.
Centuries later, only yards from The Royal Road in the northern part of Albuquerque, is a plot of land owned by Erich and Pat von Schuetze, who have toiled away producing a variety of wine grapes for over three decades. Perhaps, in another era they would have labored for Sacramental purposes, but today they provide numerous winemaking hobbyists with their grapes—vitis vinifera being one of their select varieties.
Like the Franciscan Monks of the early New Mexican settlements, Erich von Shuetze is of hardy stock. He is salt of the earth. His facial exterior has been roughened some by the numerous years he’s spent in his vineyards toiling away at what he declares is “a labor of love.” He is a genuine sort and his hands, those of a well-seasoned grower, sturdy and worn, have picked many a grape. Pat, Erich’s wife of nearly 40 years, radiates a distinct sweetness through her warm and friendly eyes. To envision Pat, one only needs to hear her speak about the vineyards when their grapes are in bloom, “ It’s fresh and clean…a beautiful outdoor aroma.” Pat continues, “The grapes impart a perfumey scent.” Educated in Latin, vitis vinifera romantically rolls off her lips as she describes the grape.
The von Schuetzes are real viticulturists. Erich’s mother was a farmer’s daughter in her homeland of Germany, which has fertilized his dedication to the vine. Well into their third decade of growing, their varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Gamay Beaujolais, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. They also grow Concord and Thompson grapes for the table. Most all of their vines come from the vineyards of California–Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. Their fields are segregated into lower and upper vineyards and are nutrient rich, particularly the one-acre lower yard which was the flood plain of an ancient arroyo. Erich and Pat have worked hard over the years to build the soil, “We use grasses and compost as fertilizers…no chemicals,” Erich states. They have also used the mother (the solids from wine making) after the fallbright (when the solids fall to the bottom of the barrel) has occurred, as compost. Their vineyard is a classic example of sustainability in pure form, even their mulberries are planted by the birds. Erich quips, “That’s the way nature works…” Passion, patience and their earnest dedication has sustained their little vineyard, and from their modest yields, numerous local wine makers have created their own vintages over the years.
In addition to growing grapes, Erich and Pat also produce flower bulbs and are particularly enthusiastic about their fragrant Lillium. They tend to a host of herbs, which include chervil, chives, thyme, rosemary, basil and garlic, and have been selling their grapes and other earthly wares the Los Ranchos Grower’s Market for a dozen years.
Erich and Pat von Schuetze can be reached at (505) 898-6323 or at the Los Ranchos Grower’s Market. Call to get on the list for their wine grapes since their yields are limited. Winemaking supplies can be purchased at Victor’s Grape Arbor, 2436 San Mateo Place—NE, Albuquerque, NM (505) 883-0000.
Randy Shamlian is the author of A Slice of Apple Pie and a food columnist for the Los Ranchos de Albuquerque Village Vision.