You couldn't imagine a more perfect summer morning in Albuquerque's North Valley: blue skies, a cool breeze ruffling the air, and a temperature not yet threatening in its heat, but rather, soothing and near-restorative, like a short tenure in the sauna after a day spent shivering in air-conditioned interiors.
And you couldn't imagine a more perfect North Valley location: Casa Rondeña Winery, with its elegant architecture, lush lawns, and sparkling ponds and fountains.
At the helm, John Calvin, North Valley born and raised, internationally educated, and culturally reflective. Calvin has created with Casa Rondeña not only a new livelihood for himself and his family, but also a unique opportunity to promote artistic growth in Albuquerque by redefining the relationship between venue, artist and audience.
Having spent much of his youth away from the city of his birth, Calvin traveled the world, first studying music in India under Ali Akbar Khan and then traveling throughout South America, North Africa and Andalusia, where he developed an intense passion for the music, wine and architecture of those cultures.
Returning home to Albuquerque in 1981, Calvin embarked upon a career building homes influenced by New Mexican, Moorish and Andalusian architectural styles. Today, his passions have manifested themselves even more vividly in the form of Casa Rondeña, established in 1996 in the heart of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, just down the street from where Calvin was born and raised. Named after the two-thousand-year-old southern Spanish town of Ronda, known for its Roman and Arabic architecture as well as its distinctive flamenco melodies called Rondeñas, Casa Rondeña is both the physical and spiritual embodiment of Calvin's life passions and of his desire to share those passions with others.
From the beginning, Calvin says, he intended Casa Rondeña to have a cultural as well as economic purpose. "A great love of this land was instilled in me by my grandfather and my father. So I feel a personal mission to create with the built environment something that reminds me of all the wonderful things about the area."
Certainly, wine making is part of that mission. In honor of the fact that New Mexico is the oldest wine-producing region in the United States, Calvin seeks not only to craft the finest wines possible, but also to encourage the local population to put those wines on their tables.
Although Casa Rondeña wines are winning national and international awards-most recently a Gold Medal at the New York 2005 International Eastern Wine Competition for red Bordeaux blends in at $25 and under-Calvin reports that he still exports more of his wines to Napa Valley than to the Rio Grande Valley.
"It's a passion of mine to get the local people to wake up and say, "Wow, this is cool.' It doesn't taste like California cabernet, but it's not supposed to. We're not trying to compete (with the California wineries). We can't and we don't want to. We're trying to make something as unique as the rest of our culture."
While his wine pays homage to New Mexico's heritage, the physical nature of the winery, with its Andalusian and Moorish-influenced architecture, serves a more cosmopolitan function.
Calvin points to the dome above the new wine bottling building he finished constructing last year. Atop it stands a weather vane decorated not with the cardinal directions, but with an ichthysis, a yin yang, a Star of David and the Islamic Star. "Here we are in the world right now in this horrible conflict with these people who have given so much to us," Calvin says. "So I really have gone out of my way to try and incorporate my love and passion for Arabic sensibilities into the physical architecture."
Having traveled through Muslim countries and studied the history and culture of the Moors, Calvin wanted to create a physical reminder to all those who visit Casa Rondeña that, "we're all in this together."
A life-long student of music who plays religiously each day, Calvin has also recently sought to make Casa Rondeña a venue for artistic events of all kinds. One in particular is certain to become the winery's signature event. Now in its second year, the Festival de Musica Rondeña brings together the New Mexico Symphony's Music Director and Conductor, Guillermo Figueroa, his wife, Valerie Turner, and some of the finest chamber music players from around the world in a series of intimate evenings celebrating fine wine, music and food.
The event, which is a fund-raiser for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, was actually Turner's idea. Says Calvin: "Guillermo and Valerie have become very good friends and we were sitting around the dinner table one night and they mentioned they've been playing at a Chamber Music Festival in Napa for about ten years now. It's fairly successful and Valerie suggested we do it here."
This year's festival, held July 31, August 7, August 13 and October 2, includes wine and hors d'oeuvres in the vineyard starting at six in the evening, followed by chamber music in the Great Hall at seven. Located just off the tasting room, this high-ceilinged, rectangular shaped space served as Casa Rondeña's original bottling room but thanks to its rustic beauty and perfect acoustics, has become the site for all current and future events. The evenings end with an intimate, candlelight dinner on the lawn, prepared by Vivace's Gordon Schutte.
Limited to 100 people each night, the festival offers attendees the unique chance to experience world class music as an immediate and shared event, one that is part of a larger cultural and social experience. It's a far cry from the anonymity of a darkened concert hall.
Obviously, Calvin has created something that resonates with music lovers. Not only did the festival sell out last year, there was a waiting list for each evening. The event is expected to be just as popular this year.
Surprising? "Yes, actually," laughs Calvin. "For so long, Albuquerqueans have had an inferiority complex, I think. And maybe that's because Santa Fe and Taos have always been considered the artistic centers. But I think we're in a period now where we actually believe that we have something really good to offer."
Calvin also sees a greater commitment on the part of locals to up the bar and outsiders to embrace the locals. "Probably the best example of that is the fact that Guillermo Figueroa, who is a world class human being in every way, has chosen to be here. He and Valerie have really made an emotional as well as an artistic investment in our community."
So has Calvin. With additional events in the works, including artist receptions, participation in local festivals like Lavender in the Valley, and a Sunday afternoon Jazz Brunch, Casa Rondeña is quickly becoming a vital cultural venue.
And, as a native who had to scratch his own itch for distant shores before returning to embrace his heritage, Calvin ultimately pays homage to that process of rediscovery by reconciling the cosmopolitan with the vernacular. "If with the winery, I can remind people that wonderful agricultural products do come from here, if I can leave behind fifty or sixty well-made buildings, if I can affect people in some way, then I will leave behind something in Albuquerque that really bespeaks my love and passion for this beautiful area."
Casa Rondeña is located at 733 Chavez Road, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. For more information on the winery, the Festival de Musica Rondeña and other upcoming events, call (800) 706-1699, (505) 344-5911 or log onto www.casarodena.com.