Fruits of labor
Wine country flourishes south of the border

SideStory: Ducks for Bucks makes its return

Numerous bottles of Wines of the San Juan product await an afternoon tasting at the nearby vineyard. Located in the bosque near Navajo Dam, the vineyard produces fine wines and consistently rallies around local causes and charities./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Shawna Bethell

"We weren’t wine people when we started all this,” David Arnold said, looking out over his oasis of a winery and tasting room nestled not far from Durango in the bosque of the San Juan River Valley. “But I figured if a person was going to make a living in agriculture, the way to do it was to raise, process and sell their own product.”

That revelation came to David and his wife, Marcia, a little more than 10 years ago, and today they operate their Wines of the San Juan, which not only sells award-winning products but provides a way of life that many people have forgotten.

Driving in past picturesque grapevines, visitors are greeted by a hand-painted sign reading: Slow down for other cars, winemakers and peacocks. This sense of slowing down permeates the place. Sitting among canopy-like cottonwoods complete with children’s swings hanging from their branches, visitors can sit back with their favorite glass of vino and listen to water trickling through fountains while gazing across the vineyard to the great wall of sandstone that shelters the little valley.

A pond out back offers guests another peaceful setting where it’s not unusual to see any number of peacocks fanning their great emerald and sapphire tails. The irony of the story is that this wasn’t supposed to be wine territory.

“We’d been looking for property on the south side of the river because everything we’d read had suggested a southern exposure. Then one day we looked across the river and there was a vineyard!”

Because of the altitude and climate, winemakers don’t want to expose vines to the warmth of a southern aspect too early because it could make them susceptible to late spring frosts. In the bosque, a northern exposure keeps plants dormant and protected until the warmth of true spring allows them to flourish safely.

The Arnolds went to visit the vineyard owned by Gilbert Lobato who grew concord grapes for wines he made for personal use. Traversing further along the dirt-packed road, they came upon another piece of property for sale.

“Just about a hundred yards past Gilbert’s there was a ‘For Sale’ sign hanging upside down on the fencepost,” said Marcia, shaking her head and laughing at the memory. The land was full of sagebrush and salt brush, trash and stray dogs.

“I knew if sage and weeds would grow,” added David, “we could grow our vines.”

Wines of the San Juan proprietor, Marcia Arnold, pours a glass of red. /Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Over the next couple of years, the Arnolds cleared the land of trash and brush, hauling truckloads out at a time. They also helped Lobato, who was then in his late 90s, with his vines, getting a bit of hands-on experience along the way.

Meanwhile, David kept doing research, reading about vines and land, soil chemistry and wine. You can see the fruits of the couple’s labor in the craftsmanship of the farm. Everything is done with the elegance of work made by hand, from the buildings to the wine itself. Eventually their determination and care paid off, and again, it came unexpectedly.

One day during fishing season, international wine critic David Valvo just happened to be fishing in the area. As is his habit, he stopped in at the little winery unannounced. “I was so nervous,” said Marcia. “You could just tell he was someone who knew wine.

“We only had a hodge-podge set of glasses then,” she added, “but I had one crystal glass. I cleaned it out and gave it to him to use.”

Later that day, Valvo called the Arnolds and asked them to dinner. He also told them they had five excellent wines.

“After that experience, I was confident,” said David. “I finally thought, ‘We could do this.’”

Today, the Arnold’s still wonder if they have a “real” winery, because their winery isn’t what they consider sophisticated. Their bottling process is done individually and their wine cellar is a straw bale building, keeping with the philosophy of pragmatism and environmental ideals. The entire business is run by family members including son Jack and his wife, Alex, and son Josh and his wife, Brittny. But their wines are in demand across the region, and the community supports their efforts. Likewise, the Arnold family supports the community.

Not only is their winery visited by tourists from around the world, the Wines of the San Juan hosts multiple events throughout the year. To begin the season, on the first Saturday after April 15, they host their annual Spring Fling to celebrate the passing of tax day. Then, each Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the winery hosts afternoons of music, wine and hors d’oeuvres.

They also have a strong dedication to fund-raising events for families of children with Niemann Pick Disease, a rare metabolic disorder in children. This Sat., June 5, the winery hosts a Ducks for Bucks race which is also being billed as a “family-oriented play day.” The wine makers wrap up their year in September with a Harvest Festival, complete with art and music.

It’s only about an hour drive from Durango to the Wines of the San Juan, just a few miles north of Blanco, N.M., on Highway 511, but the property is a world away from the daily grind.

“Too many people are looking for security and working jobs they don’t like,” concluded David. “This is just our project, a way to live a lifestyle we can enjoy.” •