I can’t tell you how many times we’ve driven through the Las Cruces-El Paso area, first as young explorers of the Southwest and years later traversing between our home in Dallas and family in Arizona.
We’ve always enjoyed the area, especially historic Mesilla just outside of Las Cruces and the museums and scenic areas around El Paso.
But in all those years we never strayed far from I-10 or US Route 62.
Unexpectedly cold weather north of El Paso last week caused us to cancel plans to meander through the Gila Wilderness area north of Silver City and then visit a good friend in Santa Fe on the last leg of our Year on the Edges of America journey.
This left us with several extra days to spend puttering our way across southern New Mexico, time to explore the perimeter of the United States west and south of Interstate 10 right up against the Rio Grande. It also gave us an opportunity to re-engage with Harvest Hosts, a membership network that invites self-contained comfort campers like us, as well as huge RVs, to stay overnight for free at any of its 700-plus participating wineries, breweries, farms and historic sites across North America.
We had a delightful series of Harvest Hosts experiences last July, overnighting at four wineries and a farm along the shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, so we were excited to find several member wineries and farms to experience in this area as well.
First stop: Sombra Antigua Winery, west of the Rio Grande about halfway between Las Cruces and El Paso. It’s said to be the oldest continuously operated vineyard in New Mexico.
The place was jammed with two tour buses when we arrived – which was pretty amazing, given that the winery and the humongous white canvas patio tent are down a dirt road and nearly invisible from the main road. We went inside to inquire about overnighting and smiling barman Josh immediately showed us to a spot next to the red equipment barn.
We’d just finished a hearty lunch and decided to wait out the crowd over a Gruet Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine, long one of our favorites, made in Albuquerque by a French wine maker from grapes grown near the Elephant Butte reservoir we’d camped at the night before and at two other New Mexican vineyards.
Soon, the crowd thinned and we went inside to sample the house wines – a Barbera, Malbec, Montepulciano, Tempranillo and a Chardonnay. The Malbec was our favorite, very round and soothing.
We bought a bottle and went back outside, parked ourselves under a toasty heater and enjoyed the music by outstanding Bossa Nova guitarist, Julio Ortiz.
I can think of few more pleasurable ways to pass an afternoon than to listen to good music, sip good wine and make new friends. Before we knew it, we were swept into a warm conversation with a family from the area, clearly fans of the winery – Glenda; her fiancé, Oscar; her dad and step-mom, Mark and Mary; friend Karen; and daughter Taylor.
Later, Vineyard owners David and Theresa shared their cheese plate with us.
And G chatted up Joseph in a black beret from the Basque region, who was visiting the winery with his Cordon-Blue-trained chef-nephew Carlos.
The winery closed at 6 and we retired to our quarters by the barn for dinner – an uncommonly delectable lobster and seafood pasta a la Georges – and to read and journal a bit before falling fast asleep.
Second stop: La Viña Winery, a few miles further down Highway 28 in the town of La Union, said to be the oldest continuously operating winery in New Mexico. (It seems La Viña used to own the vineyard that is now Sombra Antigua, but moved its winery operations further south to La Union about 20 years ago.)
(I couldn’t resist snapping this picture of the rig that pulled up next to us at the gas station en route. We’ve never seen what must be about a 50-foot fifth wheel before. Note the triple axle. Can you imagine trying to park that monster? It’s size sure keeps us humble.)
This whole area – dotted with modest homes, small churches and Spanish-language storefronts – is bursting with vineyards and pecan orchards. The New Mexico True Wine Trail roughly mirrors the northern portion of the historic Camino Real, a 1,600-mile trade route that dates to the 16th Century and runs from Mexico City to San Juan Pueblo north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
La Viña boasts a grander entrance than Sombra Antigua but it was a Sunday and there were only a few other cars in the parking lot. Hostess Jennifer was alone at the bar and had her hands full, but was a gem with a kind smile, informative banter and generous pour.
It was nice to see a Sauvignon Blanc on the tasting menu this time and the “Caliente” red was a real kick at the end just for fun. But the best was the Côte de Bravo, modeled after traditional Côtes du Rhônes, offering impressive character given its lighter-than-typical color.
It’s a shame these wines are available for purchase only in New Mexico. They are generally lower in alcohol, in the 12 percent to 13 percent range, which is commensurate with the best French wines and in sharp contrast to various California wines that explode into the 14 percent and 15 percent range. (Trying to camouflage their imperfections?)
Many of the wines from this area are sweeter than we like, some rather thin. But the Malbec at Sombra Antigua and the Côte de Brovo at La Viña would hold their own in any blind tasting.
And with prices ranging from $16 to $26 a bottle, they are refreshingly affordable.
The next day we headed further south.
Third stop: Licon Dairy Azaderos in San Elizario, Texas.
Such a charming off-the-beaten path spot – literally a stone’s throw from the barrier between the United States and Mexico. (Yes, there’s actually a tall, rusted-looking metal-slat barrier that runs nearly non-stop along this portion of the border. Here’s a photo of it from I-10 in El Paso.)
Licon is a working dairy that also boasts a petting zoo. We had as much fun conversing with the macaws, partridges, doves, ostriches, llamas, burros and goats – not to mention an adorable but aloof camel! – as we did checking out the tiny historic downtown nearby and shopping in the dairy farm’s store.
G made immediate friends with one of the giant ostriches, who punctuated his greeting by trying to snatch G’s hat.
From there we moved on to chat with the the sad-eyed burros, whose short legs only accentuated their round bellies.
This llama might have benefited from some orthodonture, but the neighboring goats didn’t seem to care.
Our favorite was the camel – tall, gangly, haughty and unbelievably oddly shaped.
He (she?) spent the afternoon pacing the corral – curious enough about us to get close, but not curious enough to stay near us for long. The camel had quite a set of choppers; G was careful to stay out of “bite” range.
We worried about the camel at night when it dipped back into the 20s. We didn’t see any shelter and neglected to inquire about its living quarters. But when we got up the next morning, it was back practicing his pacing so the cold didn’t seem to upset its pattern.
G made fabulous stuffed butterfly pork chops that night, melting the special white jalapeño Azadero cheese we’d purchased at the dairy and layering it with fresh spinach and kale. He topped the presentation with slices of caramelized onion.
We slept well that night….
Now we’re off to the Big Bend area of Texas to work off some of that food and drink. But we’ll always remember our three-day amble along this portion of the historic Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.
Thank you Harvest Hosts for showing us the way.