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Eating with the Enemy

It is my second night in New Mexico, on the road as part of a tour of the state’s wineries, visiting a half dozen of the half a hundred winegrowers who flourish in this desert Southwest state. Through my long consumer association with Gruet – I’ve cheerfully consumed dozens of the winery’s well-made sparkling wines over the last couple of decades – I know I will not be surprised to find that New Mexico can and does make fine wines.

But what has already surprised me is how New Mexican winemakers boldly embrace foods redolent with the hot and spicy chile peppers for which their state is known. Elsewhere, most vintners would hesitate to pair their best offerings with pepper-enhanced cuisine, the fear being that the spice and heat would overwhelm the wines.

But not in New Mexico. Last evening, my arrival day in Las Cruces, an hour’s drive from El Paso, the D’Andrea family which owns the pioneering Luna Rossa winery as well as an Italian restaurant had on their menu a pizza topped with long green chiles to go with prosciutto cotto and tomato sauce. And served their varietal Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Tempranillo with it. 

Tonight we are truly eating with the enemy. Chris Franzoy, whose family emigrated from Italy in the late 1800’s, has driven down from Hatch Valley – New Mexico’s chile paradise (or hell if you have a delicate palate) – to educate us on the state’s favorite vegetable while we drink wines made by Amaro, Luna Rossa and Rio Grande wineries. “When my granddad first tasted a chile, he thought he had been poisoned,” Franzoy laughs. Yet, by 1932, the family was growing them and taking them to market.

As Franzoy – who is branded as one of the Young Guns of Chile – educates us on the Scoville scale that measures the heat or capsaicin concentration in the peppers, Russell Hernandez, owner of Salud! de Mesilla where we are dining, starts to bring on the heat. His crispy pork belly with red chile and pecan pipian is paired with an Amaro Malbec. A Hatch green chile chimichurri is matched with a Luna Rossa Italian red blend, and a chicken breast smothered with Hatch green chiles rubs up against a Rio Grande aged orange wine. Not surprisingly, dessert is chocolate “with a hint of Hatch red chile spice.”

And so it goes all week. One evening at an art gallery near Ruidoso that celebrates the Hurd family of painters, Chef Mashon Swenor deconstructs a posole of pork loin with a light red chile and hominy and serves it with host Jasper Riddle’s “Tighty Whitey” Pinot Grigio as well as a Sauvignon Blanc from his Noisy Water winery. An elk that had recently roamed the local range is prepared sous vide with a three-cauliflower mash and green chile crème. We wash that down with a Noisy Water Cabernet-Zinfandel blend. Dessert – a gelato-stuffed sopapilla – is led out of the gate by Riddle’s homage novelty red chile wine (“sweet with a spicy kick”).

North of Santa Fe, where our lunch is hosted at the Four Seasons Resort by the Padberg family and their Vivac wines, Chef Kai Autenrieth whips up a brie brule served with a chile jam. At a Gruet-sponsored dinner at Coyote Café, the quail comes stuffed with chorizo and cornbread and is glazed with ancho chiles and cherries.

As expected, the tour proceeds merrily. I taste many enjoyable wines and chat with a lot of friendly folk who made them. As one of them notes, while not many New Mexican wines, except Gruet, are in wide distribution, the state has enough tourist and food attractions to lure people to come here and then spend an afternoon or so at the dozens of tasting rooms in the major cities.

On my final night, after the last event is over, I mosey into the bar at the hotel where I am staying in search of something on the mellow side after a few chile-infused days.

“What are you having this evening, sir?”

“How about a Bloody Mary?”

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