Amid the cotton and alfalfa fields along highway 28 in Southern New Mexico and the western edge Texas, two vineyards saw their grape vines hanging heavy with fruit as temperatures soared to record levels this summer. Now, with the advent of cooler weather in the region, the wineries are hoping to see more visitors stopping by.
“The negative way is people don’t want to go outside when it’s hot,” said Bryan Oakley, owner of Mesa Vista Winery. “So even though we have refrigerant air in our building, people just didn’t want to venture outside. And not just us, but all the wineries had the same effect that it was too hot and business was slower due to the heat.”
Today seven wineries and vineyards can be found on along Highway 28 between Canutillo, Texas, and Mesilla, N.M., But the root of winemaking in the region goes back hundreds of years. New Mexico is America’s original wine country. In 1662 Spanish missionaries established the first vineyard in North America which was located near present-day El Paso, Texas. A full 140 years before California planted its first grapevine.
Zin Valle Vineyards in Canutillo, Texas, has been operating for 21 years and it is the only vineyard in the county limits of El Paso. The name of the business was inspired by the Zinfandel grape, which is the variety of wine they specialize in making.
Owner Ryan Poulos said it was important to choose a sun-hardy crop.
“That’s something you definitely have to think about when you’re starting a vineyard in a winery operation,” said Poulos, whose parents Victor and Kathy Poulos started the winery in 2002. “And so we were just very intentional about which kind of what kind of varieties we were going to grow. And luckily Zinfandel in particular, as far as water goes, we have our own well in the irrigation system, so we can water whenever we want.”
This year the region broke records with more than 60 days with temperatures over 100 degrees. Poulos was worried about turnout in the heat, but said customers persevered.
“We don’t love triple-digit days because people see that in the news and they say you know what, let’s just stay home or do something that’s a little more shaded,” Poulos said. “So it’s not helpful to our business when we have triple digit days, but also El Pasoans are very used to the heat and they know how to deal with it. We’ve been very fortunate this year that we didn’t see a huge drop in business.”
Poulos says that the heat impacts the musicians who play live music out doors and the people who work outside on the vines the most, by making it too hot to work outside at times.
‘Grapes like heat’
Heading north on Highway 28, Bryan Oakley runs the the Mesa Vista Winery Tasting Room with his wife, Dawn. The boutique winery opened five years ago and is of the newest wineries on the highway. The couple got into the business after retiring – Bryan Oakley was an engineer in the plastics industry and Dawn Oakley was a heavy machinery operator.
Bryan Oakley works the vineyard and he makes the wines, while Dawn Oakley runs the business and takes care of customers as the tasting room manager.
Bryan Oakley reflected on some advice he once got from former El Paso Times edtior Barbara Funkhauser who retired from the newspaper and ran the Tatreault Vineyard near Las Cruces until her death in 2014. She told him that grapes love heat.
“She used to run her stepfather’s vineyard in Fair Acres there in Las Cruces. And she’s right. Grapes like heat,” he said.
And this summer, the heat paid off.
“I had a very good crop. I usually get three tons off my little two acre plot and this year I got four tons. And I’m hearing that the other vineyards also had a very good crop,” Bryan Oakley said.