PONDEROSA — Tucked away in a cool valley just east of Jemez Pueblo on NM 4 is a vineyard that started from a few vine cuttings and a couple’s vision.
Ponderosa Winery, located in a town with the same name, began in a roundabout way after Henry Street and his wife, Mary, bought a three-acre plot, which was originally supposed to be a camping retreat, in the valley in 1976.
“We got married in ’74, bought this place in ’75 and planted the first grapevines in ’76,” Mary Street said. “Our first commercial crop was in 1982, and then later on, in ’93, we decided to keep the grapes.”
Street said she and her husband had no idea what to do with the 16 tons of grapes they had grown in 1993. After following advice, Henry began taking wine-making classes at the University of California-Davis to learn how to turn his burgeoning yield into a self-sufficient business.
“He took best in show at UC Davis two years in a row as an amateur,” she said. “When he got back, we began the new chapter of being a fully fledged winery. Really, the money was in the wine, not the grapes.”
Street said over the years, she’s learned how to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to tasting and judging wine.
On her own since Henry’s death in July 2014, Street leaves the wine-making process to Mark Matheson, a professional wine-maker and brewer who has been in business for over 20 years.
When it comes down to it, Matheson said, both wine-making and beer-brewing require almost the same science to be a success.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Farmers make wine and engineers make beer,’” he said with a smile. “The difference for wine comes in the form of the season.”
According to Matheson, brewers stay busy all year long at a steady pace, but with wine, it comes down to less than a two-month window.
“The trick is and always has been maintaining a vineyard at almost 6,000 feet with the threat of frost taking hold on the vines,” Matheson said. “This valley is a good place for a vineyard because of its slope and coverage, but frost is always a concern.”
When the grapes are ripe, Matheson processes them and ages the wine in oak barrels for flavor. This process, he said, happens normally in mid-August.
“The wine actually starts fermenting after one day,” Matheson said. “During that process, the wine is taking the sugar and turning it into alcohol, heat and carbon dioxide, which is the same process for beer.”
Next, he does a process called punching down, where he takes a tool and punches it down into the fermenting wine and extracts all the color he can.
“It takes us 10 to 14 days to do this for a red wine and two weeks on the white wine,” he said.
The aging process for each bottle is around one month, he said, so the wine doesn’t crystallize when chilled or get cloudy when warm.
“It’s called bottle shock,” Matheson explained. “Even though we are gentle when we fill the bottles, it’s kind of a traumatic event for the substance. So we wait a month for that to subside.”
Ponderosa Winery’s 10-acre vineyard, he said, hosts Boca and Pino Noir grapes, as well as a hybrid Riesling and the original Riesling grapes.
“The annual season is pretty short and quick for us,” he said. “We can be done and ready in as little as three weeks.”
Different grapes go through different techniques before they are bottled and begin the aging process, he said.
“You are going to make mistakes, but if you don’t try new things, then you really won’t get anywhere,” Matheson said.
The numbers of yeasts, tannins and enzymes now available, he said, have helped wine-makers up their game.
“Our standard of quality is simple,” Street said. “Everyone has to win an award or we don’t pour it.”
Another one of Street’s mottos is that she will keep the winery operating only as long as it pays its own bills.
“So far it has been paying for itself because the wines are good enough that the business is stable,” she said. “This business, because of the cost of the equipment to keep it moving, can be very much like a hungry child.”
Annually, Ponderosa Winery produces 3,000 cases of wine and attends many wine festivals to boost exposure.
“I am proud of all of the wine we produce because they are all award-winners, it just depends on your taste whether you like it or not,” Street said.
For more information, go to ponderosawinery.com.