By Darren Delmore
Before spending a week in New Mexico for the 22nd annual Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, I called my gastroenterologist to inquire about getting my esophagus lined with stainless steel. It seemed like the smart thing to do. The residents of New Mexico’s high desert utopia - perched at 7,000 feet – love wine as much as their art and hot peppers, and this four day festival is one of the finest, spiciest celebrations of food and drink in the country. I was going to need some kind of intestinal support network to wage this battle.
After surviving close to a week in that 402-year-old city, I can safely report that Santa Fe is alive and kicking with art, food and music. I learned some fun facts as well: the state dinosaur for starters, that it's the third-largest art mecca in America behind NYC and Los Angeles, the and that when a server asks you “green or red” after you order anything from oatmeal to a Ribeye you should respond with “Christmas”. Although being so far removed from an ocean can be tortuous for me, I hardly even noticed during my week there; I was too busy eating, drinking and taking in the culture.
The opening event of Wine and Chile Fiesta was the invitation only Trade Tasting at the Hotel El Dorado on Wednesday afternoon. I arrived early enough to set up our table and ready the nine Tablas Creek wines I’d be pouring. [A little business -- any accounts in New Mexico interested in Tablas Creek can find us through National Distributing Company.] It was nice to be pouring alongside fellow central coaster Jessica from Zaca Mesa who informed me after a half glass of Ruinart Champagne to mind my altitude. She was right. Something had felt off. Walking up from the parking garage alone had me huffing as if the lungs of Keith Richards were inside me. “Just drink a lot of water,” she added. I had researched restaurants around the city, and as the event filled up I was able to meet a lot of the buyers, managers and staff of wine loving establishments from Santa Fe down to Albuquerque and on up to Taos. A lot of good wineries were in the house. It was going to be a good week.
The fine wine specialist for National, Andrew Jay, recommended that I go have a bite to eat at Café Pasqual’s that night, since they were pouring our Patelin de Tablas by the glass and loved Tablas Creek. I walked into town from my hotel on the north edge of the city and entered the clamoring, legendary eatery. The manager saw my green Tablas Creek bag and introduced herself enthusiastically. The only spot available was in the center of a silent, ten person communal table in the middle of the dining room. I wedged myself in next to four couples and a guy on his iPad. After ordering a glass of Fontsainte Corbieres Rosé and doing that 21st century solitary shuffle of staring into my phone, a huge plate of complimentary roasted red peppers with a wedge of lime materialized before me, and the whole table suddenly had entertainment akin to a gastronomical version of Survivor to bring us all together.
“You must work here or be really special,” said the Texan next to me.
“You gonna eat all them?” asked the woman on my right. The couple I’d later learn was from South Korea just started at me through their black-rimmed hipster glasses, fully prepared to witness me burst into flames.
“Those aren’t bad,” the Texan consoled me. “Those are sweet ones. You’re all right.”
Thankfully they were. And delicious at that. I had a caramelized onion and poppy seed tart and “Albondigas de Pigolo con Adobolo” afterward, which are meatballs of bison and pork. A spicy mole dish tore up the woman to my right and she sent it away swiftly. “I’m beyond done,” she said, and didn’t utter another word all night. This was hot culinary terrain here. Tourists were going down by the minute!
Thursday was mostly a day to explore and absorb some Santa Fe culture. After some internet research I headed to Garcia Street Books just south of the river, which had a well-chosen selection of the authors I was looking for. Next door was a newsstand/café called Downtown Subscription, which is highly recommended for not only its brew but also the relaxed patio space in back to while away a lazy morning or afternoon. I checked out some of the galleries a block down from there, and a woman at Manitou Galleries that had a really stunning show going for painter B.C. Nowlin steered me toward the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, which was a great decision.
There was a forty-five minute wait for lunch at The Shed, which I spent browsing through the wine shop at La Casa Sena. I salivated over a 3-liter of 2009 Hommage a Jacques Perrin and their expansive selection of Ridge.
My restaurant pager went off as I checked out with a half bottle of 2005 Turkey Flat Barossa Valley Shiraz. The patio at The Shed was still crowded so I was led by the host to a deep secret room built in adherence to the local overhead clearance of five foot four. In fact an older gentleman was pacing by his table in there and grabbed the host, demanding to be relocated due to claustrophobia. He was freaking out and I couldn’t blame him. I failed the “green or red” test by asking my server for the mildest salsa on my enchiladas. The food was only on the verge of devil spice, which was just what I needed.
From 4:30 to 6:30 there was a soirée’ at the Governor’s Mansion for all the participating wineries at Santa Fe Wine and Chile. This was a chance to relax a bit and taste through everyone else’s chosen wine selection. I met France’s “Whispering Angel” who was there in a blue sport coat cinched at the neck with a little pink sweater representing his magnums of rosé de Provence wines. The Tablas Creek selection being poured by an array of sommeliers and restaurant wine directors was the 2011 Rosé, which was the perfect choice for the heat of the day. The hot desert sun was scorching the bottles of red wine. Nothing like having a glass of 90-degree Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
I cut up through a quintessential orange-pink New Mexican landscape to the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado. Word traveled my way about a prix fixe dinner their restaurant Terra was doing all week, with four courses paired with Tablas Creek wines. After a commanding sunset (right) I sampled two of the courses and their chef blew me away with his Green Chile Cioppino and 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc pairing: an innovative and thoughtful food and wine combination that really brought out the spice of the wine's Grenache Blanc component. Rhone whites are often a surprisingly good pairing with spicy food, which tends to fight with oak and can make high-acid wines taste shrill. The cioppino:
Out of all the days at this festival, Friday was my busiest. Tablas Creek and chef Fernando Olea were being paired up on the outskirts of town at world famous artist Allan Houser’s sculpture garden and residence. I could’ve driven myself later in the morning but opted to get on the bus with everyone else and get the full experience. I’m glad I did. His work, carved out of limestone, granite, bronze and other organic materials was full of grace and soul. As was the luncheon that the amiable Fernando Olea put together to pair with the 2011 Rosé and our two new Esprit de Beaucastel wines. There’s a first time for everything in life, and grasshoppers paired with a Mourvedre-based rosé was certainly new to everybody in attendance.
With a bus full of snoring passengers, we returned just in time for me to down an espresso and set up for the Reserve tasting at the El Dorado. This event was far more crowded than the trade tasting, as the attendees were an equal mix of industry and general public. Tablas Creek donated a ten vintage vertical of Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge for the auction. Wines were flowing fast. A small, exhausted group of us met up for dinner at La Casa Sena afterward, where the wine list is as thick as a Tom Wolfe novel. We drank a 2009 Domaine Weinbach Grand Cru Gewürztraminer. I had the Wagyu steak with it, which might show just how mentally debilitated I was from the succession of the day’s events.
Saturday was the grand tasting at the Santa Fe Opera with over 5,000 in attendance. I parked and walked down to the Flea Market beforehand, expecting to find locally-crafted art and jewelry made from indigenous gems and stones but instead found rugs and clothing from South Korea. I hoofed it up through the opera grounds to the series of event tents and found the Tablas Creek table. It was already packed an hour before starting time. Manny Guerra from Vineyard Brands came over for a glass of Rosé and the heads up that he had the 2009 Chateau de Beaucastel open two tents down and that I’d better come over now if I wanted a glass of it. I was getting the vibe that the crowd waiting behind the roped-off entrance was there to party. Thankfully over 75 restaurants were sprinkled about with plenty of food to keep things agreeable. 1 to 4 pm was the busiest blur of my lifetime. I poured both Patelin de Tablas wines, Rosé and Esprit de Beaucastel to the merry masses, at times with a bottle in each hand. I couldn’t believe how well organized and managed such a big tasting event could be. No wonder this was the 22nd annual.
At nightfall with a full harvest moon over New Mexico, I was in a quiet, off-Broadway part of the city, sitting in the Second Street Brewery watching one of New Mexico’s best singer-songwriters playing a set with his trio, drinking a stout and giving the spicy food one more try. The nachos, complete with Christmas, were crushing me with its spice and acids, and again the native chile won the dusty battle against this Californian wineslinger