Roads Less Traveled

by Pamela Walker

Monticello, New Mexico, home to fewer than 100 people, was founded in the mid-1900s and is nestled in a canyon at the end of NM 142—25 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences and 160 miles south of Albuquerque. The area lies within the northern Chihuahuan Desert, and the highway winds first through a plateau of lechuguilla, creosote bush and ocotillo, and then continues downward into Cañada Alamosa, named for the cottonwood trees that long ago took root near Alamosa Creek. Here, cattle roam freely, horses graze in paddocks, alfalfa grows in small, diked plots and old adobe homes alternate between more recent framed houses and a handful of trailer homes.

Among the town’s residents are Jane and Steve Darland of Old Monticello Organic Farms—the sole source of travel lodging in Monticello. The Darlands cultivate roses, lavender and other herbs and a vineyard of mainly trebbiano grapes. From their flowers and herbs they make floral waters and essential oils, and from the grapes they make their primary product: traditional balsamic vinegar—distinct from common balsamic because of its pure, unadulterated grape juice that’s been fermented and concentrated in casks for at least 12 years in the centuries-old Italian manner.

The Darlands first visited Monticello in the early 1990s as Steve, an executive at J. Walter Thompson, was planning an early retirement. They lived in San Francisco, and though growing grapes appealed to them, joining the increasing numbers of winemakers did not. Traditional balsamic, however, was another story. No one in the U.S. was producing it commercially, and they felt drawn to the challenges of being the first. They also liked New Mexico’s 500-year-old viticulture, and as they studied Monticello’s high-desert environment (elevation 5,280 feet), its aridity and reliable water source—a thermal spring feeding Alamosa Creek—seemed propitious. The Darlands bought several properties—including a number of dilapidated adobes—and in 1997, after much renovation, became full-time farmers. In 2010, their first bottles of balsamic were ready for market, and they began visiting chefs and holding tastings in many U.S. cities.

monticello4Steve and Jane Darland, outside their acetaia.

I bought the Darlands’ balsamic—a gustatory pleasure not to be missed—through their website and added Monticello to my next New Mexico road trip, booking a casita for two nights. I arrived on a bright, blue afternoon and—following Jane’s directions—drove past the San Isidro church and the plaza to a cattle-gate marking the gravel drive to my casita, a renovated adobe. The casita had a bedroom, bath, kitchen, living room and screened porch, and sat between a garden of lavender and an orchard of olives, pomegranates, pears and apples. As I took my things inside, I watched bees, butterflies and moths working the lavender, and I breathed in its scent and listened to the bees’ humming surge and fall.

Around 5 p.m., Jane came and drove us up the road to their house and vineyard. She and Steve—fit, strong and seemingly tireless even at the end of a workday—walked me through terraced rows of vines on a gentle hill, and then into a wooden building above the vineyard. Its lower floor houses stainless steel vats for simmering fresh grape juice into syrup, which, after fermentation, is transferred to the acetaia—an attic where eight sets of seven casks of decreasing size are used to concentrate the syrup for the minimum of 12 years required to produce traditional balsamic. The casks were made in Italy of seven types of wood, each vital in creating the final bouquet.

Over wine on the Darlands’ patio, I learned they do most of the farm work themselves, assisted only by one employee, except during the annual grape harvest when family and friends pitch in. The Darlands also work on community projects: Steve helped organize the Monticello volunteer fire department and led a successful effort to prevent the closing of Monticello’s post office, and Jane led the organization of the Truth or Consequences farmers market (where they are regular vendors) and initiated the market’s acceptance of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards from customers receiving government food assistance.

Hiking around town and up the canyon the next day, I decided that visiting Monticello would be a must on upcoming trips to New Mexico. The bucolic beauty of the canyon, the quiet and quaintness of the town, the comforts of the casita and the Darlands’ conviviality and balsamic delighted me. Perhaps lavender and fruit trees will no longer be blooming when I return in the fall, and I may not see or hear many bees, but the cottonwoods will be blazing gold and lighting up the canyon with their fire.

Pushing north, I discovered Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm nestled in Albuquerque, a city that, although only an hour south of Santa Fe, travelers often bypass. A single stay at Los Poblanos, however, can make Albuquerque an equally desirable destination for any New Mexico itinerary.

monticello2La Quinta at Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm.

Owned and operated by Penny and Armin Rembe since 1976, Los Poblanos lies just east of the Rio Grande River in Albuquerque’s North Valley, and is a fine embodiment of innovative agricultural and architectural preservation. The property is a 25-acre remnant of an 800-acre ranch that reached from the river to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. The ranch was owned from the early 1930s until 1976 by New Mexico congressman Albert Simms, his wife, Ruth McCormick Simms, and their family. Though Los Poblanos now stops far short of the Sandias, the eastern orientation of the buildings and fields makes the mountains gloriously present and creates the illusion of the former reach.

The Simmses raised cattle and established a dairy that provided Albuquerque with much of its milk for a time. Two silos erected in 1934 still remain at Los Poblanos, giving the old dairy an iconic life, and a repurposed milking barn houses the Farm Shop, where lavender products, foodstuffs, kitchenware and books are sold. The Simmses also raised feed grains and sugar beets, and experimented (via greenhouses) with new varieties of roses and chrysanthemums. Now the greenhouses are used for starting lavender—Los Poblanos’ primary crop—and for starting vegetables for the inn’s kitchen garden.

Investing in architecture as well as agriculture, the Simmses commissioned John Gaw Meem from 1932 to 1935 to design their residence, as well as a cultural center called La Quinta, in his signature style, Territorial Revival—also known as the Santa Fe style. For the finishing touches, Ruth Simms employed many distinguished artists and craftsmen—including Gustave Baumann, Walter Gilbert, Peter Hurd and Rose Greely—to carve doors, paint murals, do tin and ironwork, fashion tiles and design gardens. La Quinta is widely considered one of Meem’s greatest achievements and one of New Mexico’s major architectural treasures.

The Simmses’ old residence served as the Rembe residence from 1976 until 1999, then the Rembes built a new house on the farm and the Meem house became the historic inn—augmented in 2012 by an addition called “Farm Rooms and Suites” designed to evoke agricultural service buildings. Along with this expansion—which raised the number of guest rooms and suites to 20, and the maximum occupancy to 60—the Rembes also revived La Quinta, which is becoming increasingly prominent and provides a venue for special events such as business conferences, public education programs, weddings and parties. Inn guests may explore it on self-guided tours—obtaining complimentary maps of Los Poblanos’ buildings and grounds from the office.

Amenities abound at Los Poblanos—a fitness center, a solar-heated saltwater pool, bicycles, a bocce court, wood-burning fireplaces, lavender body products—but the one that most delights me is breakfast, served every morning in the dining room and adjoining courtyard in view of sunrise over the Sandias. Flowers and cloth napkins grace the tables, and the chefs use produce from the kitchen garden and other local farms—offering both a savory and a sweet selection that changes daily. Having a savory tooth, I choose shakshuka (eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce), chilaquiles (lightly fried corn tortillas typically mixed with chili sauce, cheese, eggs, beans and avocado) and enchiladas with house-made red chili sauce.

monticello5Left: Executive Chef Jonathan Perno and kitchen assistant Josh Romero harvest ingredients for "La Merienda" from the farm. | Right: Seasonal fare served at "La Merienda" (dinner).

Dinner, or “La Merienda” as it’s known at Los Poblanos, is served Wednesday through Sunday evenings by reservation, with inn guests receiving priority over non-guests. Executive Chef Jonathan Perno was a 2015 James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest, and the local, seasonal menu includes a beer and wine list. Though Albuquerque has a number of farm-to-table restaurants, I enjoy the luxury of simply walking from my room to the dining room to enjoy excellent food—lamb and house-made pastas are my favorites—and to watch sunlight fade on the Sandias. In fact, during my stays, I seldom leave the property. When I have, though, I’ve found myself checking my watch and measuring the time lost at Los Poblanos—the walking time through the allée (walkway) of giant cottonwoods, on the paths of the Greeley gardens, along the perimeters of the lavender field and the kitchen garden and into the grand rooms of La Quinta, and the sitting time near the star-shaped fountain of the inn courtyard, on the portal (porch), in the sala (lounge) and by the pool.

The workaday world rarely brings to us the beauty and power of nature and art at the same time, but the working landscape of Los Poblanos does, and this is its supreme and irresistible gift.

monticello3View of the Sandia Mountains from Los Poblanos grounds.