A FLEET OF PUFFY CLOUDS sails serenely above La Viña Winery as I step under a stonework archway, through the glass-paned doors of a two-story Mediterranean-style building, and into La Unión winery’s tasting room. Behind two granite-topped bar counters, a dark wooden cabinet showcases the star attraction: bottles and bottles of La Viña’s two dozen vintages, waiting to be uncorked and sipped.
Founded in 1977, La Viña ranks among the state’s oldest operating wineries, with grounds tucked just off NM 28, south of Las Cruces, amid fields of pecans, alfalfa, chile, and, of course, leafy grapevines. Owners Kenneth and Denise Stark and their small team farm all the grapes needed to produce wines from dry reds to sweet whites.
But the Starks’ journey to La Viña has more twists than a grapevine. While ranching in Texas, Kenneth decided to take weekly wine appreciation classes 75 miles away in Amarillo and was soon hooked. He got hired as an assistant winemaker at Albuquerque’s Anderson Valley Vineyards, during the 1989 harvest. When the lead winemaker left for another state, the owners promoted him to the role.
After La Viña’s winemaker died unexpectedly, Kenneth began commuting from Albuquerque on the weekends to serve as a consultant. By 1992, the job was permanent. When the owner opted to sell La Viña the next year, the Starks leapt. “I went from wine drinker to winery owner—all in about five years,” Kenneth says.
They knew they needed a different property for larger vineyards and event spaces, which landed them at a 25-acre plot near La Unión that was once a jalapeño farm. It’s where they’ve produced award-winning wines ever since.
Chilean enologist Guillermo Contador became La Viña’s winemaker in 2007, after working in his home country, South Africa, and California. The dry air, high heat, and sometimes volatile weather of southern New Mexico pose interesting challenges to grape-growing and winemaking. “This is an extreme climate that’s difficult to predict,” he says. “I’ve learned to handle that in the winemaking process.”
Next to the parking lot, rows of twisted vines bear the year’s developing fruit.
Inside the tasting room, the cool interior with its buckskin-colored walls and earthen-hued concrete floor evokes an Italian villa. Metal stools ring glass-topped wine-barrel tables. Diffuse sunlight streams in from the east-facing windows. Wooden double doors engraved with grapevines lead to the wine production room, outfitted with steel fermentation tanks and bottling machinery.
I sample a few varieties, including a semi-sweet Rojo Loco, a cabernet and zinfandel blend with fruity and earthy tones. The best-selling La Dolce Viña, an Asti Spumante–style wine crafted from muscat grapes, gives a tongue-tickling fizz with floral and citrus notes. “It’s a very sweet sparkling wine,” Kenneth says. “You can’t knock the stuff that sells well, so we make more of the sweeter wines.”
Just outside, a shaded patio with tables and seating is edged by a quaint garden—the perfect spot to enjoy an afternoon glass of wine. A pomegranate tree, laden with globes of fruit, stands in one corner, while a pink-hued crape myrtle claims another niche. A vine-covered archway leads out onto a two-acre lawn—a verdant space that plays host to weddings and winery events, like the Harvest Wine Festival September 24–25.
Thousands of people gather that weekend to hear live music, enjoy the tastes of local food trucks, shop an array of 60-plus vendors, and sample the spectrum of La Viña’s estate-bottled wines. There are even kids’ activities within in the enclosed festival grounds. “We try to be the friendliest,” Kenneth says, “and give people a great experience.”