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Grape expectations

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Rather than die on the vine, retiree produces wine

By The Staff

John Balagna grew up on a farm.

It wasn’t exactly a favorable experience.

“I grew up on the farm and left the farm because I hated it,” he said.

So he turned to another pursuit — working as a chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Though he had turned away from the scene of his childhood, an interest in working with the land had taken root and in 1970, it began to sprout.

He bought land in San Ysidro, which is on the highway going toward Farmington.

Then in 1972, Balagna planted a vineyard.

The venture wasn’t exactly a wild success.

“I grew up on a farm but I’m sure no farmer,” Balagna said.

Nonetheless, the experience didn’t kill his interest. It blossomed with clumps of grapes.

Balagna retired from the laboratory in 1986; which was also the first year he commercially produced wine. The business was called Balagna Winery and San Ysidro Vineyards.

“When I got ready to retire, I didn’t want to just sit on my fanny the rest of my life,” Balagna said.

He also made wine at home. It was a skill he learned from his Italian grandfather who came to the United States as an indentured servant.

“I really learned to work with wine from him,” Balagna said.

In the 1980s, there seemed to be a real flowering of interest in producing wines and in small vineyards in New Mexico. Through a wine-tasting group, Balagna got to know others  who shared an interest in wine. His wife shares his taste for it.

Those were the “coals I was walking on that caused me to want to do this,” he said.

Since growing his own grapes didn’t pan out, Balagna ended up buying grapes from a vineyard in Deming, owned by Paolo D’Andrea. Balagna said he bought from D’Andrea “because he had the best grapes in New Mexico.”

The business grew slowly.

Balagna started making between 600-800 cases and ended up producing 12,000 cases of wine before the business closed in 2004.

Balagna built a tasting room as well as a wine production facility on his home’s site in Pajarito Acres. He had a second tasting room in San Ysidro.

His customers came from all over the world — some in town to visit the lab or Bandelier National Monument. He also attended several wine festivals in the state and sold to stores in Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque as well as Smith’s Food and Drug  Centers in White Rock and Los Alamos.

He produced a whole range of wines: among them chardonnay, cabernet, pinot noir and zinfandel.

Zinfandel is his favorite.

“It’s a robust wine,” Balagna said. “But has many nuisances in flavor, especially a well-aged one.”

New Mexico may not be one of the better-known areas for producing wine but it has several advantages.

“The growing season is great because of the sunshine,” Balagna said. “So you get very high sugars in the grapes and that translates to pretty high alcohol in the wine and also good flavors. New Mexico wines are quite fruity and you usually have to add acid because they are usually not acidic enough.”

Olivia DeCamp, New Mexico Wine Growers Association executive director, said the state’s wine industry is ripe for success. The association, which has 37 members, is still growing, she said.

She credits positive press and awareness for the association’s success.

And with local wineries entering competitions with international vineyards, “people want to give it try,” she said.

New Mexico wineries have been successful in competition. In 2007, St. Clair from Deming earned “Best Red” from the San Francisco Chronicle.

The New Mexico Wine Grower’s Association started in 1991. According to its Web site, New Mexico is the oldest wine-producing region in the country.

The first grapevines were brought in 1629 to Senecu, a Piro Indian pueblo south of Socorro, by Fray Gracia de Zuniga, a Franciscan, and Antonio de Arteaga, a Capuchin monk. San Antonio de Padua Mission, at Senecu, was located on the east bank of the Rio Grande, slightly north of the present small village of San Antonio.

By 1800 New Mexico was wine country.

By this time, a strip along the Rio Grande extending roughly from Bernalillo to Socorro and from the vicinity of Mesilla to El Paso had well-established vineyards.

By 1812, raids by nomadic Indians were having such a dramatic effect on trade that wine was the only revenue-producing product.

Annual production from New Mexico wineries was estimated at 1,600 gallons.

Early on, however, the Rio Grande and the weather were adversaries to early vineyards and wine production fell from a million gallons a year to a mere 1,684 gallons in 1910.

The wine industry experienced a rebirth in 1978, just around the time Balagna got involved in the business.

Farming may not have in the cards, but Balagna said he enjoyed the process of producing wine.

Stepping into the cellar of his former tasting room, the fruits of his labor are still visible in the plastic blue barrels and boxes of wine bottles.  

He said when a person retires their first question is  “what am I going to do?” Seeing Balagna show off his wine production, it seems he found the right answer.

Kirsten Laskey can be reached at lareporter@lamonitor.com