There are varying accounts as to the genesis of wine-making in the United States. While it is widely acknowledged that as early as the 1500s Spanish and French Huguenot settlers in Florida began making wine with a native grape known as muscadine, efforts to plant the classic grapes used to create the great wines of Europe failed because of pests prevalent in wet climates. It wasn’t until Spanish Missionaries discovered the dry climate of New Mexico in 1629 with its sandy soils that the first European Mission grapes brought over from Spain were planted in what is now the United States. The original grape stocks supposedly remain the source of many of New Mexico’s vinters to this day.
Sources relates that in 1629, Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard (for sacramental wine) in New Mexico in defiance to Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world. Those first wines were planted on the east bank of the Rio Grande slightly north of the village of present day San Antonio by Fray Gracia de Zuniga, a Franciscan monk. Despite conflicting accounts, one fact appears incontrovertible–New Mexico is among the oldest wine-making regions in the country.
Today the fruit of the vine is cultivated in more than 5,000 acres throughout the Rio Grande valley. St. Clair Winery, situated in the fecund Mimbres Valley is the state’s largest winery. Thanks to day and night time temperature variances that can range by as much as 30 degrees and a growing elevation of 4,500 feet, the winery is reputed to grow some of the best grapes in New Mexico. Forty different types of grapes produce several award-winning wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah.
The Deming-based winery sits on several hundred acres and has a 500,000 gallon capacity distributed among seventy different wines under eight labels. It is among the 100 largest wineries in the United States with an annual production of 80,000 cases of wines. Its grapes are trucked from its 200-acre vineyards fifty miles away just outside Lordsburg. At the winery, the grapes are filtered and pressed. Some are barrel-aged for as long as 18 months. In the January, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine, the great Lesley King profiled the wine-making process at the St. Clair Winery for her monthly (and much missed) King of the Road feature.
In 2005, St. Clair Winery launched a wine-tasting room and bistro on the outskirts of historic Old Town Plaza and on the site of the now defunct Rio Grande Cantina. Bacchus would be proud. An extensive wine list showcases St. Clair wines which may be enjoyed in the bistro or the stylishly appointed wine bar. The wine shop also features some of our favorite gourmet offerings as well as wine accessories. St. Clair Bistros can also be found in Las Cruces and Farmington in addition to the tasting room in Deming.
The bistro’s menu is a vehicle for the diversity of St. Clair wines which are used to accentuate the sauces and gravies on most menu items as well as salad dressings and even the bistro’s signature soup d jour. The menus describe the best wine pairings for the bistro’s delicious French country dishes. An old-world style dining room and spacious outdoor patio provide an enjoyable venue for generally very good dining. That outdoor patio is one of the state’s best venues for al fresco dining with an expansive dog-friendly space cooled by both sun-shielding canopies, towering deciduous trees and misters spraying water in the air. Rivulets of glistening water cascade down a water feature to provide further illusion of cool temperatures.
Many lunch and dinner entrees are served with the house bread, a wonderful loaf accompanied by an herbed (parsley, thyme, garlic) butter. It’s a delicious, crusty bread enlivened by a terrific butter. That bread is the perfect canvas for the bistro’s panini sandwiches. Other sandwich options include the Southwest Tuna Melt, Pot Roast Sandwich, Bistro Dip and a Meatball Po’ Boy. There are three burgers on the menu including a flame-roasted green chile cheeseburger made with Hatch green chile. Burgers are constructed from premium certified Angus ground beef (ten-ounces) made to your exacting specifications.
11 September 2021: One of the best precursors to a meal at the bistro is the nosh plate (selection of meats and cheeses, artichokes, olives, an ancho chile brownie, local Mesilla valley sweet and spicy pecans, crackers, crostini and seasonal fruit) which over the years has undergone multiple transformations. When first offered, guests were allowed to select three from among ten different cheeses to enjoy with Kalamata olives (thankfully pitted), grapes, chunks of chocolate, mango chutney and homemade crostini. The platter was generously portioned and easily sated two diners. Today turophilies (someone who is obsessed with cheese) can still order the nosh and enjoy a wide-variety of surprisingly high quality cheeses. The nosh plate is artisinal in its presentation and delightful in its variety, albeit no longer as prodigious as it once was. Intended to be a “light snack,” the cheese nosh is beautifully plated and colorful.
During our visit in September 2021, the nosh plate showcased cheeses with unique personalities in terms of taste and sharpness, texture and appearance. Those cheeses were: Sage Derby, a mild, semi-hard cheese with a sage flavor and green veins characteristic of sage being added to the curds; Brie, the best known French cheese with a complex flavor and soft texture; and whipped feta, a softly spreadable cheese showcasing a pungent sharpness. The cheeses are quite good especially when judiciously paired with palate cleansing berries. Despite a palatable piquancy, my Kim raved about the ancho chile brownie and its fudge-like texture.
One of the many things we’ve appreciated most over the years is how often Lescombes changes up its menu. Unlike at other restaurants, these menu changes don’t necessarily appear to be seasonal. While change provides the variety of choice we enjoy, it’s also meant some of the items we’ve most enjoyed aren’t available during future visits. Still, the opportunity to experience new dishes is one we cherish. Menus are segmented logically into small plates, appetizers by another name but large enough to share; salads, each a melange of fresh greens and other ingredients; soups, including a “soup of the moment;” bistro bowls served for lunch; signatures, fish, meat and pasta entrees; and sinful, desserts to die for.
11 September 2021: Comedian Jim Gaffigan quips that “One of the benefits of eating salad is that you can eat tons of it and never be satisfied.” Aargh! As a salad lover, my Kim rises to the defense of salads. Yes, despite wonderful meat, fish and pasta options on the menu, my unpredictable bride will occasionally eschew them to experience complete satisfaction with salads. Her most recent favorite is the summer berry salad (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, heritage blend lettuce, shredded parmesan, toasted almonds and mimosa dressing. While the berries are fresh and delicious, the real star of this salad is the mimosa dressing. You’ll want at least two portions of this tangy-sweet summery dressing.
11 September 2021: Merriam-Webster defines carbonara as “a dish of hot pasta into which other ingredients (such as eggs, bacon or ham, and grated cheese) have been mixed.” Though for most of us, carbonara is a rich and creamy white sauce, the aforementioned (and very broad) definition leaves a lot of opportunity for interpretation. Until our visit to Lescombes, for example, we had never had spicy seafood carbonara (fresh Salt Spring Island mussels, shrimp, mushrooms, applewood smoked bacon, cream sauce, linguini and Parmesan). Not nearly as rich as other carbonara dishes or as piquant as fra diavalo, this version is a very pleasant surprise. The linguini is perfectly al dente and studded with red pepper flakes and crispy applewood smoked bacon. The mushrooms lend earthy qualities that pair magnificently with the seafood. This is one dish we hope will remain on the ever-rotating menu.
12 September 2021: Because they have an inherent balance of savory and sweet flavors, mussels are a great vehicle for building complex and delicious flavors that highlight memorable meals. Mussels can be the centerpiece of a variety of dishes simply by diversifying the aromatic ingredients you choose to add. Steaming them releases a briny “nectar” which lays the foundation for a sauce. Despite these admirable qualities, mussels are often considered the black sheep or Miss Congeniality of the shellfish world, typically rating below lobster, crab, clams and shrimp. Lescombes might just change your mind as to how good mussels can be.
They do so by offering Drunken Mussels (fresh Saltspring Island mussels, Semillon butter sauce, spinach, red onion, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled bread), a small plate that belies the notion that there’s anything small about this dish. That’s especially true of its flavors. Huge, complex flavors playing more notes than an orchestra titillate your palate and elevate the mussels to rarefied air. Saltspring Island mussels, grown in British Colombia, are larger, more meaty and juicy even than their Prince Edward Island counterparts and there isn’t a dud among them. Make sure to have plenty of bread on hand to dredge up all that delicious sauce.
12 September 2021: Perhaps indicative of changing times and tastes, Jetsetter published a feature naming the “20 Best American Comfort Foods” in America and that list didn’t include pot roast. No pot roast! What kind of list would exclude pot roast? A list of more contemporary, less anachronistic dishes apparently. Among the 20 comfort foods on the list were loco moco, sancocho, Brunswick stew and the garbage plate. All good, but they’re not pot roast. Had the journalist who wrote the Jetsetter feature tried Lescombes’ country pot roast it would have ranked near the top of the list.
The country pot roast (braised in merlot, carrots, celery, Yukon gold mash and brown gravy) is an exemplar of comfort food. Tender tendrils of succulent beef braised in merlot, a versatile red wine, will water your mouth in anticipation of more. This is melt-in-your-mouth stuff, as good as you’ll find in Ireland. My Kim, who likens gravy to effluvia, sopped up every scintilla of that gravy. The carrots and celery were worthy accompaniment for the type of pot roast that makes the perfect comfort meal on a blustery day.
12 September 2021: In a hilarious episode of Hogan’s Heroes, French prisoner of war LeBeau made a Béarnaise sauce plaster as a cure for Colonel Klink’s flu. When a Luftwaffe doctor came to check on Klink’s condition, he mistook the aroma of Béarnaise sauce for rich food Klink was eating. Just being around Béarnaise sauce is enough to whet the appetite and maybe convert a vegan or two. A variation on Hollandaise, one of the five French “mother sauces” Béarnaise is a traditional sauce for steak. It’s not exactly easy to make because it involves ingredients that don’t play well together.
Lescombes Steak Béarnaise (filet medallions, grilled shrimp, Béarnaise sauce, Yukon gold mash and vegetable medley) is a far better vehicle for Béarnaise than applying it as a plaster over Colonel Klink’s chest. If two inch-thick filet medallions and four succulent shrimp covered in (almost enough for Gil ) the pale yellow Béarnaise sauce with its green herb flecks sounds good, wait until you taste it. You might just want to cover yourself (or a special loved one) in the rich, creamy, slightly lemony sauce.
Whether you’re an oenophile (someone who appreciates and knows wine) or a gastronome around town, you’ll find both creative and delicious wines and very good food at the St. Clair Winery & Bistro, a French country treasure in Old Town Albuquerque.
D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro
901 Rio Grande
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 12 September 2021
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Nosh Platter; Jackson Square Bread Pudding, Pasta del Faro, Sebastien’s Wine Steak, Flat Iron Steak, Pomegranate Chipotle Pork Salad, Green Chile Mac and Cheese, Spicy Seafood Carbonara, Summer Berry Salad, Drunken Mussels, Country Pot Roast, Steak Béarnaise