Leap of Faith

Date April 30, 2005 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty


The standard industry joke: How do you make a small fortune in the wine industry? You start with a BIG fortune!! Actually, there's a lot of truth to that adage. Most wineries these days are started by people who made their fortune in other endeavors and now wish a change of pace, a different lifestyle, living in Wine Country, or some such reason. As long as they have that big fortune to support that dream, they mostly succeed.

However, if you're two young guys, just out of college, and want to pursue your dream of having a winery, and don't have that big fortune to back you up; things can be a little more tricky. And if you grew up in Dixon, New Mexico and want to return to your roots AND have your winery...things can be pretty dicey. Taking a big leap of faith, that is exactly what Jesse and Chris Padburg have done.

Started in late 1998, Vivac (pronounced Vee-vok) was founded by Jesse and Chris to carry out their desire of being in business together and combining their passion for wine. "Vivac"€ is a Spanish mountaineering term referring to a high-altitude refuge or high base camp. Born and raised in Dixon, their father was (and is) a local dentist. Wine was not a part of the growing up experience. They went their separate ways when they left for college.

Jesse headed north to Boulder and the University of Colorado, getting his degree in Spanish Literature. A studies-abroad program led him to a year in Chile. Chile just happens to be one of the exciting New World producers of wine, although the industry dates back over a hundred years. Like France and Italy, wine is cheap in Chile and a regular part of the everyday meal. Jesse started to develop an appreciation for local wines and the seed was planted.

Chris headed south, down to Tulane University in New Orleans, seeking a degree in business. Deciding that they wanted to start a winery together, in Dixon, Chris returned to the state to assist in the startup; completing his degree at the University of New Mexico.

Jesse next headed west to take winemaking courses at UC Davis; probably the world's premier oenology school. Cellar work at Santa Fe Vineyards and Black Mesa Winery followed for practical winemaking experience on a small scale. The Vivac winery was finally bonded in 2001. The bright cozy tasting room was then opened in November 2003.

But there's another part of the Vivac equation that truly makes this a Padburg family operation. At Boulder, Jesse met Michele Alexandra, a Taos graduate who was studying theater there. She also studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were married last October in Tuscany. Alexandra, Jesse, and Chris have all three been studying and recently passed their first level Sommelier's exam.

Last year, Chris married Liliana Zavala, a native of Mexico. She makes hand-made gourmet chocolates in a small kitchen off the Vivac tasting room. Both Michele's art and Liliana's chocolates are available for sale there.

But it doesn't end there. Chris and Jesse's enthusiasm for wine has infected their parents with a strong interest in the subject. A casual perusal of Dad's modest wine cellar in a corner of the winery convinced me that he's a quick study.

To make wine, though, you start with grapes...pretty basic. The Padburg Pair planted about 1.5 acres to grapes on their Dad's land. Because of the cold climate, especially in the winter, at this altitude, the focus was on French-American hybrids. These include the white Cayuga and three reds; Leon-Millot, Foch, and Baco Noir. Interestingly, there's a tiny experimental planting of Viognier and Cabernet Franc, two vinifera species. The first crop from this planting was taken in 2004.

The Padburg Vineyard is probably the Northernmost planting in New Mexico. At this altitude, it also qualifies as one of the highest in the nation. Climate-wise; the vineyard is comparable to Germany, Italy's Piedmonte, and Walla-Walla in Washington State. Eventually, they will expand their plantings as they figure what does and does not work in Dixon.

As their home vineyard ramps up to full production and to fine tune their winemaking skills, they have been buying grapes for their current wines from the Truth or Consequences and Deming areas. The wines are made in a tiny facility on the vineyard property, stacked to the ceiling with tanks and case goods. Fermentations are performed in plastic picking bins, with frequent punch-downs (pigeage in French terms). Aging and storage is performed in Italian-made stainless steel tanks with floating heads to exclude the oxygen. Adjacent to this original winery, a prefab arched addition has recently been completed that will roughly triple their floor space.

And so what are the Vivac wines like? They had first come to my attention two years ago when they debuted at the Taos Winter Wine Festival in January 2004. As I briefly tasted through them, a Cabernet, Merlot, and a Chardonnay (not varietals that particularly excite me); they struck me as clean, interesting, and well-made. I filed away a note in my data bank that these are two guys I should keep my eye on.

A recent visit with Chris and Jesse and a chance to barrel (tank, actually) taste their new 2004 vintage was more telling. They have a Refosco (an obscure Italian red varietal from the Friuli region) that is a knockout. It shows the fragrant/floral/juicy character in the nose that Refosco typically has, with that slightly mineral/earthy edge on the palate the Italian versions usually have. More elegant and graceful than those from Italy, it is varietally dead-on to what Refosco should be.

More impressive, from the winemaking standpoint, was their blended red of hybrid grapes from the home vineyard. It is primarily from the Baco Noir variety. Baco, a hardy indestructible variety that could probably grow in the southbound lane of I-25, usually makes reds that are coarse, rustic, tannic with a teeth-chattering acidity; a wine suitable to accompany Mastodon steaks in a heavy mole sauce. Surprise....their version is elegant and refined and belies its hybrid grape origins.

The 2004 Syrah, though a bit reduced on the nose (that will clear up with age), showed all the telltale strawberry flavors that hot-climate (Deming) Syrah often shows in California. The Barbera has the classic spicy/salami nose of that variety with the slightly edgy acidity you find in those from Italy's Piedmonte.

Overall, from the Vivac wines I've tried, they seem to show a level of elegance and refinement that's not often found in New Mexico wines. Jesse frankly admits...he makes wines that he and Chris like to drink; a worthy goal I would say.

Visiting with Chris and Jesse, one cannot but be struck by the enthusiasm and passion their youthful viewpoint brings to this new endeavor. It will be interesting to follow their wines over the coming years. I can also hardly wait to get back to try Liliana's chocolates. And that BIG fortune down the road? Well...one just never knows!!

The Vivac tasting room is open daily in Embudo on the highway to Taos. Further information can be found on their Web Site: www.VivacWinery.com