VARA WINERY & DISTILLERY – Albuquerque, New Mexico
In 1620, King Philip III of Spain issued a royal decree mandating that each of the 19 recognized New Mexican Pueblos elect by popular vote, a governor, lieutenant governor and other officers as might be needed to carry on the Pueblo’s affairs. The decree required that elections take place at the close of a calendar year with installation into office occurring the first week of the new year. In commemoration of each Pueblo’s recognized sovereignty, each governor was presented a silver-headed Vara de Soberania (Cane of Sovereignty) with a cross inscribed on the sliver mount as evidence of the support of the Church. This symbol of the governor’s commission and authority has been passed on to succeeding governors ever since. *
In 1629, nine years after the Varas de Soberania were issued, Fray Garcîa de Zuñiga and Antonio de Arteaga smuggled vines out of Spain. In defiance of Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world, they planted New Mexico’s first grapes on the east bank of the Rio Grande slightly north of the village of present-day San Antonio. Thanks to the audacity of the two Catholic monks, the major shortage of wine in the Land of Enchantment was soon alleviated and the burgeoning territory’s wine culture exploded. Churches throughout the region began planting and cultivating their own vineyards, largely in support of sacred Catholic rituals, but also for more “secular” activities.
2017 saw the launch of a winery showcasing “an international family of Spanish and American wines celebrating the origins of the American wine experience thanks to the historical connection of Spain and New Mexico.” Fittingly, the new winery was christened Vara and if you hadn’t previously heard about it, you’ll certainly be hearing a lot about it in the future. Vara’s selection of fine Spanish table wines come from the prestigious vineyards of Rioja; while the “supremely joyous and festive Cava” emanates from the Alt Penedès.
Vara is situated in a verdant, secluded idyll virtually at the heart of the city. Though scant feet away from heavily-trafficked Alameda Boulevard, Vara seems miles away from the commotion of assiduous Albuquerque. Views from the parking lot are of verdurous–towering trees and dewy meadows amid the urban sprawl (and just wait until the international balloon fiesta where eastward views will be incomparable). There are deciduous trees on the property, too, and they provide cooling shade on balmy days. Many guests prefer luxuriating with their favorite varietal under New Mexico’s enchanting verdant skies. Others enjoy the capacious and intimate tasting room.
Although an on-premises kitchen was perhaps two years away, founding owners Xavier Zamarripa and Doug Diefenthaler really wanted a way to pair a memorable Spanish culinary experience with their exquisite Spanish and American wines. Their search took them no further than Javier and Molly Montaño, the dynamic couple who, in less than two years of operating Malageña’s Latin Tapas, earned the Local Heroes award from Edible New Mexico in recognition of the state’s best food truck. You have to be doing many things right just to be considered for such a prestigious honor. The Montaños certainly are.
We first met Javier and Molly in July, 2017, three months after they launched their mobile kitchen. My Kim described our inaugural visit to Malagueña’s Latin Tapas as “five-star food from a food truck.” After our second visit, Malagueña’s earned the very first and thus far only rating of 25 I’ve ever accorded to a mobile food conveyance, placing it in rarefied company as one of my highest rated restaurants in the Land of Enchantment. That’s not just one of my highest rated food trucks, but one of my highest rated restaurants of any type: brick and mortar, mobile food kitchen, fine dining, etc. We were blown away by Javier’s ability to coax such ethereal flavors from such a small space, his skill in creating a harmonious interplay from premium ingredients.
It shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. Before returning to the Land of Enchantment, Javier plied his skills as a chef at some of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in San Francisco where he met and won the hand of his life and business partner, the stunning Molly who worked as a gourmet food representative at the time. We figured the Montaños would eventually transition from mobile kitchen to brick-and-mortar. Fate and two visionary winery owners had other ideas.
Initially Javier and Molly were brought on to Vara to provide a Friday night paella experience. The event proved such a resounding success that before long the Montaños were asked to steward the winery’s entire culinary operation. As a result, Malagueña’s will no longer beat the mean streets of the metropolitan area though Javier is still behind the stove in the palate-pleasing pull-along trailer from which he had actualized magical meals for two years. Until Vara’s on-premises kitchen is ready, he’ll continue operating out of that tiny kitchen, still producing deliciousness unmatched by much larger kitchens. Molly now has a staff to help ferry Javier’s culinary masterpieces to eagerly-awaiting diners. She jokes that all that running around is what keeps her slim.
The Friday night paella (saffron, bomba rice, shrimp, chicken, chorizo, tomatoes, onions, green beans, parsley, lemon and aioli) experience continues to be a popular draw, but Friday is far from the only day to experience Montaño magic. On Sundays it’s not breakfast and it’s not brunch; it’s vrunch and after one visit, we’re ready to declare it the best in town. Vara is also the place to be on Wednesday when “Wine Up Wednesday” includes a two-dollar off everything happy hour from 5-7PM followed by live music on the patio. Full dinner service showcasing Javier’s incomparable Spanish tapas is also available Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings.
23 June 2019: Understandably the vrunch menu is rather limited. That is, limited in terms of the number of available options. As should be expected from a dining experience with the Montaños, your enjoyment of featured fare will be boundless. An excellent introduction to Vara’s tapas is the chicken pintxo (garlic sherry marinated chicken skewers with a salsa criolla) though your cravings probably won’t be assuaged until you’ve tried two or six other tapas. If the term “pintxo” sounds as if it’s its genesis is Mesoamerican rather than Spanish, you’re probably not the only lexicologist in town. In the Basque Country, the term “pintxos“ is used in place of “tapas” and represents dishes that are pierced or skewered. The chicken pintxo is superb–better than the satay at any of Albuquerque’s Thai restaurants. That’s saying a lot because the Duke City’s Thai restaurants serve up some great satay.
1 March 2020: Ever the etymologist, the notion of “papas bravas” or what I thought translated to “brave potatoes” perplexed me. Are the potatoes brave because they can survive late winter weather? Does it make them fearless, intrepid or valiant because they grow in so many varieties? My friend Carlos chided me about what type of Spaniard I am not to know that “bravas” translates, in this case, to “fierce.” That certainly makes sense. Vara’s papas bravas (spicy fried Yukon gold potatoes with smoked tomato aioli) launch a full-frontal attack on your taste buds with a fierceness of flavor that lets you know you’re tasting something very special. These potatoes don’t quite have a red chile heat, but they’re certainly amped up potatoes. Their heat is mollified by the smoked tomato aioli. Never mind French fries. These are probably the best fried or roasted potatoes in Albuquerque.
23 June 2019: When my Kim asked me from what region of Spain panzalella originated, I explained the term is actually Italian (Tuscan), not Spanish (the benefit of being a logophile and gleaning culinary knowledge from my dear friend Becky). Javier’s panzanella salad (a chopped salad constructed with chunks of stale bread (not croutons), tomatoes, garam-macerated tomatillos, red onion, cucumber, parsley and goat cheese in a red wine vinaigrette with optional garlic-herb marinated tri-tip pintxos) is fabulous. It’s not conventionally Italian nor is it truly Spanish, but an ingenious melding (particularly garam-macerated tomatillos) of cultures and ingredients. It’s a lively salad with bold flavors that made at least one grown man (me) swoon.
23 June 2019: Only one “entree” graced the vrunch menu and though the steak ‘n eggs (over fried cauliflower, rocotto-tomato sauce, shaved manchego and two eggs) may have Spanish elements, it’s more American than it is Spanish. By any cultural standard, it’s a delicious representation of a brunch favorite. Eggs, available scrambled or poached, are perfectly prepared and blanket the entree. It may not be the prettiest dish Javier constructs, but it’s better than any steak and eggs dish in town. The steak is sliced tri-tip, a very rich, low-in-fat cut with very meaty flavor. The rocotto (a juicy, meaty Peruvian chile with incendiary heat) is tempered by the acidity of the tomato, but certainly makes its presence known. Manchego, a sheep’s milk cheese from the La Mancha region, is the most Spanish element in the dish. With its tangy, nutty, caramel notes, it’s a nice foil for the fried cauliflower.
1 March 2020: There are no dessert items on the tapas menu though if you have a yen for something sweet, the Spanish French toast (cinnamon sugar, fresh fruit with Cava whipped cream) will more than sate your cravings. You might never want French French toast after enjoying a generous plating of Javier’s rendition (made with bread from M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria). This bread isn’t “squishy” or “eggy” like some French toast tends to be. Instead, it offers just a bit of crunch before you pierce the soft, moist interior with your fork. The Cava whipped cream may be the best whipped cream in New Mexico.
1 March 2020: Research conducted by University of Buffalo professor Shira Gabriel and her team confirmed what most of us know intuitively–that comfort foods tie into memories of our childhood. She explained that “Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children. As long we have positive association with the person who made that food then there’s a good chance that you will be drawn to that food during times of rejection or isolation”…when you most need comforting. The chorizo mac n’ cheese (white Cheddar, chorizo and paprika panko breadcrumbs) at Vara Winery is as comfortable as your favorite slippers, as soothing as your favorite ballad and as delicious as forbidden fruit. Delightful textural contrasts between the soft conchiglie pasta and the coarse breadcrumbs add to the soul-warming properties of this exemplar of comfort and deliciousness.
1 March 2020: Jonathan Gold, the only food critic to ever earn a Pulitzer Prize once described a plate of ceviche as “a lovely thing, raw seafood briefly cured with fresh citrus and aromatics, a preparation often vivid with bright, fresh chile, translucent wisps of thinly shaved onion and fish that seems to glow from within.” Though he wasn’t waxing eloquent about the ceviche mixto at the Vara Winery, his description is apropos. Javier’s interpretation of the versatile (there are literally hundreds of variations) dish is an elegant marriage of tartness, fragrance and textures showcasing yellowtail tuna, shrimp, onion, cucumber in charred lime-chile coconut juice with chicharron. Somewhat resembling bacon bits, the chicharron is a textural foil to the fresh, bite-sized cubes of seafood while counterbalancing the invigorating citrus notes with a salty porcine deliciousness. I’d swim the seven seas for this ceviche!
Had King Phillip III of Spain dined at Albuquerque’s Vara Winery & Distillery, he probably would have issued a Vara de Ricura (Cane of Deliciousness) to Javier and Molly Montaño for their culinary genius and hospitality. At Vara, they’re taking Malagueñas to a higher level!
*Just over 200 years after the issuance of the Varas de Soberania, President Abraham Lincoln issued engraved canes to each of the same 19 New Mexico Pueblos as recognition of their real property ownership and right to self-governance. Today both canes are revered by the Pueblo people as physical and living reminders of their Pueblos’ natural authority.
VARA WINERY & DISTILLERY
315 Alameda Blvd., N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 1 March 2020
1st VISIT: 23 June 2019
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Steak ‘N Eggs, Panzanella Salad, Chicken Pintxo, Papas Bravas, Spanish French Toast, Ceviche Mixto, Chorizo Mac N’ Cheese