Route 66 is known for a lot of things, but wineries are not exactly at the top of that list. However, I believe that every bottle has a story to tell, and in my never-ending search for great wine, I also look for a great story. So, this time I looked to now-defunct Route 66 for inspiration.
Route 66 is truly an American Icon. While it no longer serves as a major transit route between Chicago and Los Angeles, it certainly lives on in popular culture and our common memory. What began in the mid-1800’s as a government-funded wagon road along the 35th parallel became the first American highway to be completely paved. That was in the mid-1930’s. But it became more than just a highway, it was “American’s Main Street”. It was a benchmark of urban planning in which the centers of both small and large towns were linked via motor route. The towns along its path grew and thrived thanks to the traffic the Route begat.
The appeal of Route 66 was not limited to its identity as a transportation mode. It embodied a spirit of adventure and exploration enabled by the passenger car that was a feature of American mobility. It bred communication between East and West, small town and urban center.
Its success was also predicated on its style of growth that was the archetype for car culture, with businesses sprouting alongside its route for travel convenience. Not only were these needed, service-oriented businesses, but they were innovative attempts to pull in traffic from the ever-greater competition for travelers’ money. The drive-through had its origin in 1947 on Route 66, at a restaurant called Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri. In 1948, the first McDonalds was founded along its route in San Bernadino.
These innovations were as much of a draw to the Route as was its practical capacity as a highway. It wasn’t only used to get from Point A to Point B, it was a vacation in its own right. Route 66 passed through areas of stunning natural beauty, some not found anywhere else in the US or the world. Arizona exemplifies this aspect of the Route, where it passes through the Painted Desert and near to the Grand Canyon. But entrepreneurs built upon these natural landmarks by adding man-made road-side attractions for sightseeing and holiday making. Sights such as the “Blue Whale of Catoosa”, the “Wigwam” motels and Ed Galloway’s “Totem Pole Park” drew visitors and spawned postcards and gift shops. Even as the road is now defunct, the attractions keep coming. In 2004, artist Gregg Arnold created and installed a 14 ft tall “tiki” head (it looks more like an Easter Island moai to me) on the side of the road in Walapai, Arizona.
Its popularity was evident in popular culture, with Bobby Troup’s standard from the 1940’s “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”, the 1960’s TV show “Route 66”, and a reference to its path in the Eagles “Take it Easy” of the 1970’s.
Of course, the Route was not all fun and games, as is apparent by reference to it as the “Mother Road” in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; Route 66 was a primary road taken eastward by migrants escaping the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. And, its demise spelled the end of good fortune for towns along its path. The rise of the Super Highway and, more importantly, the town “bypass” created economic destruction and veritable ghost towns.
What Route 66 was not known for was its wineries. But, now that the road lives on mostly in popular culture, perhaps its identity will encompass new industry and innovation along its path. We are focusing here on only a portion of the Route, the southwestern run from Amarillo to LA. The southwest has good climate and soils for grape production, and energetic, talented winemakers in its midst. In terms of comparable lands for winemaking, the 35th parallel North crosses the northern tip of Africa touching Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, pierces the Greek Island of Crete and disputed Cyprus, and skirts the border of Syria and Turkey. All of these countries grow grapes – or have in the very recent past – and either do- have- or are capable of- producing fine wines. The generally hot, dry climates of these places mean that grape growing occurs close to the sea (or other body of water suitable for temperature tempering) or at altitude. That is mimicked in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California – all states in which we make roadside stops for wine tasting!
In Texas, Route 66 flew across the Panhandle, making a beeline from Shamrock in the East to Glenrio in the West. Along this path were the bright lights of Amarillo. While there were attractions across the Route, Amarillo had 2 of the most famous. One of these was The Big Texan Steak Ranch, which opened in 1960. It featured a 72 oz steak free to anyone who consumed it – and some accoutrements – within 60 minutes. Was this another “first”, presaging an American obsession with consumption challenges of huge amounts of food? Not sure, but another attraction, the Cadillac Ranch, is definitely unique. This art project consists of a row of 10 Cadillacs partially buried in the ground, nose first. It was erected in 1974.
As for winemaking, El Paso was the original “home” of Texas production. In the mid 1600’s, Franciscan Friars successfully planted Mission grapes there for sacramental wine, drawing on new (and vital) irrigation techniques. But, the resurgence of winemaking in the 1960s and 1970s found a home further north. One of Texas’ 8 AVA (American Viticultural Area) is the Texas High Plains AVA. This lies mostly south of the Panhandle, just south of Route 66 at Amarillo. Wine country here is on high, flat terrain of well-draining sandy-loam soils between 3000-4000 ft elevation. Summer days are hot and dry, though the evenings are cooler. Irrigation is a must for the vines, which comes from the Ogallala Aquifer that is found beneath the plains. It was in Lubbock Co., and the Texas High Plains AVA, that “Doc” McPherson founded Texas’ first post-prohibition winery in the mid-1970s. That winery, Llano Estacado, is still going strong and had its wine served for the 2005 Presidential inauguration of George W. Bush.
Continuing the groundbreaking wine-work of his father, Kim McPherson started his own label within the Lubbock city-limits, which is due south of Amarillo, which itself is due east of Albuquerque. McPherson Cellars is not Kim’s first stint as winemaker; he entered that rodeo as winemaker at Llano Estacado and Cap*Rock Winery. McPherson doesn’t have any vineyards to speak of, but rather sources all of them from elsewhere, including from one of his father’s vineyards in Lubbock, Sagmore. I had first encountered McPherson’s wines while visiting Austin for an archaeology conference. Max’s Wine Dive has a proprietary wine made for them by McPherson: Tranquilo Cellars El Sueño. I adored this wild-fruit, brambled, Tempranillo blend. This wine was not available for purchase for our tasting, so we instead tried a different Tempranillo blend.
McPherson La Herencia 2013, Texas
La Herencia means “The Heritage” and this wine is an ode to the visionaries behind Texas’ wine scene. It is a blend of 75% Tempranillo, 11% Mourvedre (Mataro), 7% Grenache, 4% Carignan, and 3% Syrah. The wine was fermented in stainless and aged for 14 months in French Oak. The wine bursts with cherries, followed by a “Texas garrigue” of bramble and tobacco leaf. This wine is rich and full, but with ample structure to balance the ripe fruits. It was the richest – and thus last – wine of our tasting and was the favorite of the day for 6 of our tasters.
Route 66 entered New Mexico and soon came to Tucumcari – in my mind, one of the best American place-names. Ever. Tucumcari brings to mind the Old West, Native Americans, cowboys, buffalo, Rawhide, and watching Westerns on tv with my Dad. In real New Mexico, the route travels through Indian reservations, lava fields, and – also in Tucumcari – a dinosaur museum. Near the mid-point of the Route is Albuquerque, New Mexico’s capital city. Albuquerque has one of the nation’s most diverse populations, largely based around Native American, Hispanic, Latino, and Anglo cultures.
Albuquerque is also home to wine production. New Mexico, in general, bills itself as the States’ oldest wine-producing region. Just like in Texas, it was Franciscan Friars who planted the first grapes in the mid-1600s. These were “Mission” grapes and were planted, in both states, along the Rio Grande. The southern Rio Grande Valley proved difficult for grape-growing, as production was devastated in the first half of the 20th century by a series of floods. The rebirth of wine production was centered further north, with cold-hardy grapes of French-hybrid origin. Albuquerque is part of the state’s “Central” growing region and is in one of the state’s three AVA – the Middle Rio Grande Valley AVA. The climate here is similar to that around Lubbock: semi-arid with hot days and evenings as many as 30 degrees cooler. The altitude is higher here, at ca. 4000-6500 feet.
A well-known winery located in this AVA is Gruet. Gilbert Gruet had a Champagne business in Berthon, France before he and his family made their way to Albuquerque. He moved to New Mexico in 1984 specifically to make wine. He planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the same grapes he was familiar with in Champagne. Gruet’s vineyards are in the town of Truth or Consequences at an elevation of 4300 ft, making them some of the highest in the US. While still in the Rio Grande watershed, this location is just outside (south) of the Middle Rio Grande AVA.
Gruet Sparkling Brut Rose NV
This wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir, made in the traditional method (secondary fermentation in bottle). It is aged en tirage for 24 months. Their Brut Rose was first made in 2004; it is now their most popular wine. This wine has lovely, persistent bubbles and a fresh mouth. The fruit is subdued and light, with some ripening raspberry. There is ample acid, making for a crsip body. This wine began our tasting, starting us off with a pleasant bang.
Gruet “Gilbert Gruet Cuvee” Pinot Noir 2006
100% Pinot Noir, aged for 14 months in new, French oak. This drinks both like- and unlike- a Burgundian Pinot Noir. On the “alike” side, there is ample funk and earth on the nose, with great acid and a medium/light body. On the “unlike” side are slightly stewed fruits of the darker varieties: plums, black cherries, currants, some fig. It is drinking strong, but has certainly mellowed. Probably best to drink up. We had two pinot noirs in this tasting. Those who are pinot fans preferred this wine. Those who are not pinot fans preferred the Pali Wine Co. bottle.
Arizona may well be the most iconic part of Route 66 – conjuring images of the painted desert, which one encountered soon after entering the state. Here the route also passed through Pueblo archaeological sites and petroglyphs, the giant Meteor Crater near Winslow, past mountainous pine-forest near Flagstaff, the road to the Grand Canyon, the Havasu National Park and Wildlife Refuge and then the Mojave National Preserve. Whew!
Winemaking came to Arizona the same way it did to Texas and New Mexico (and California and Mexico) – via Spaniards. In this case, it was 16th century Jesuit priests who were – on the face of it interested in sacramental wines – who planted the first vinifera grapes. Grapes and vineyards proliferated until prohibition. Modern winemaking begins about 30 years ago, with the Sonoita Winery. Not coincidentally, the states only AVA is called the Sonoita AVA. This falls in the southern portion of the state – south of Tucson – in a mountainous area where vines are planted at ca. 4500-5000 feet. Certainly for most of the country, Arizona winemaking was not a household name until the arrival of Maynard Keenan – the lead singer of the rock metal band, Tool. One of their claims to fame was frequent mention on the animated show Beavis & Butthead, which is how I was introduced to the “Tool” name. Keenan owns a vineyard and winery – Caduceus Cellars – and also was part owner of Arizona Stronghold. However, he is no longer involved in Stronghold. Lest you worry that association with an alternative metal frontman spells doom for the wine, fear not. Keenan bet on the potential quality of Arizona wines, and helped to fulfill that potential. His name helped convince people to try his wines, which can only be good for the future of winemaking in Arizona as the quality becomes better known.
Arizona Stronghold Winery was founded in 2007 outside of Flagstaff, with the stated intent to make fine wine and elevate Arizona’s standing. Its vineyards are located in Cochise County, named for the famous Apache Chief, Cochise. These are in the southeastern part of the state, east of Tucson in the highlands of the Dragoon and Chiricahua mountains. Specifically, this is the area of Cochise’s Stronghold – thus the name of the winery. The vineyards are planted at ca. 4200 ft. The desert climate and altitude give the area a strong di-urnal temperature difference – up to 50 degree difference between day and nighttime temperatures. This is important for the structure of the resulting wine. If the climate is just hot, then the grapes are just sugary. The stayed maturation from nighttime lower temperatures helps the grapes develop good acid for structure.
Arizona Stronghold Dala Chardonnay 2010, Arizona
This is made with 100% Chardonnay. “Dala” is an apache word meaning “one” – which here equates to the single varietal. The 2010 vintage was very limited because of frost damage and some heat spikes, resulting in concentrated fruits. The wine was aged in Oak. This is a rich, full-bodied wine. It has a mead nose, and just a hint of vanilla. There are tropical fruits and bananas, plus a bit of golden delicious apple. It has a very nice weight, with a creamy mouth tempered by great acid. Our tasters enjoyed this wine – and were quite pleasantly surprised by it.
In California, the Route continues through the desert, past San Bernadino and the first McDonald’s, through to the lights of Los Angeles, and on to the ocean at Santa Monica. That is quite a way to end the trip.
While California was later to the list of wine-making than other states in this tasting, it also came via Spanish priests. From that common origin, however, California’s modern wine-making history has proceeded much differently. It is by far the most famous of these states for wine – though much of that acclaim occurs in areas well North of Route 66. Modern day vineyards are found all over California, and including in the wine region around LA. This region is known as the South Coast, and includes Temecula, Ventura, Cucamonga, and Riverside, among others. These areas have little name recognition outside of California, and are difficult to find – particularly in Pennsylvania. So, for this tasting I ventured about 90 miles up the coast to Santa Barbara, whose wines were readily accessed. Santa Barbara county wineries focus largely on chardonnay and pinot noir – which are great in its hilly environment and ocean-moderated climate. Hot days become cool nights, allowing for optimal grape growing conditions. While Santa Barbara is on the wine map, it is not nearly as popular as, say, Sonoma and Napa. That is a bonus for the consumer, as it leads to good wine values. Santa Barbara County has five, official AVAs , which vary in microclimate and soil configuration.
Pali Wine Co was founded in Lompoc in 2005. The company owns no vineyards, and the grapes are sourced from all over California and also Oregon.
Pali Wine Co Huntington Pinot Noir 2012, California
The Huntington is 100% Pinot Noir sourced from several different vineyards within the Santa Barbara appellation. The wine was aged in 30% new French Oak for 10 months. The result is a very bright wine. The red fruits are ripe, clean, and clear. There is an overall freshness atypical of Pinot Noir. This is tempered with complexity from spice notes and some deeper notes like fresh tobacco. This is a really nice wine, but it does not read as a pinot. For that reason, it was favored by our non-Pinot drinkers, and not enjoyed as much as a Pinot by our Pinot drinkers.
I conducted this tasting at Jet Wine Bar during Philly Wine Week. At the time, our “Route 66 Wine Tasting” was met with a bit of uncertainty, as one local wine expert (Alexandra Cherniavsky) was only certain it would be “fantastically fun”…! It was absolutely a blast (we got our kicks, as they say), and the wine was definitely good – in some cases surprisingly so for people not familiar with the quality of southwestern wines.
Where will be travel next? Who knows, but stay tuned!