Laurent Gruet is an animated character, to say the least. He possesses an unsettling self-assuredness, balanced with a quick grin and easy laugh. He talks fast with a thick French accent while wildly gesturing with his hands. It would be foolish, though, to not look deeper than his surface qualities, because beneath his playful, even boyish, demeanor is an intense man driven by a singular passion: wine.
Specifically, Laurent is fiercely determined to create world-class sparkling wines in the unlikely locale of New Mexico. By most accounts, he has succeeded. In fact, it wouldn't be wrong to credit his efforts for putting New Mexico on the wine map. From Gruet's first release in 1989, Laurent's bottles of bubbly have received high praise from wine lovers and critics alike. Robert Parker calls Gruet “a winery that merits attention”; The Wine Enthusiast describes Laurent's wines as “particularly well balanced, achieving a focus that some famed California sparklers often lack”; and Howard Goldberg, New York Times, writes: “For stylish sparkling wines that are the peers of many French Champagnes, turn to New Mexico.”
And it doesn't end there. Upon hearing I would be interviewing Laurent, Harry Heitz, whose parents own Napa's venerable Heitz Cellars, insisted I pass a message on to him: His family loves Gruet's sparklers and buys them by the case. Laurent also shared that the esteemed wine writer Jancis Robinson dropped in on Gruet last year as part of her work on the latest edition of the World Atlas of Wine.
Gruet certainly seems to have made a good impression on the wine world, but just how did a wine from here make its way to the pages of magazines and newspapers?
Champagne--or sparkling wine as we must call those made outside Champagne, France--is distinct from other wines because it bubbles, as well as for more esoteric reasons we can't quite explain. It's a celebratory imbibement; but it's also one of the few alcoholic drinks deemed appropriate for consuming before noon (as long as it's served at brunch). Marilyn Monroe bathed in it, and rap stars douse themselves and bikini-clad video extras in it. It's the perfect gift and the most regal of guilty pleasures. We serve it at weddings, christenings, graduations, retirements, New Year's and damn near any occasion we can contrive, but few can put into words why. “Even when you feel bad you can drink a glass," Laurent offered. "Then you drink a few more glasses and everything's good.”
When I moved back to New Mexico seven years ago, I was more than surprised to learn the Zia state was making wine. I was less than surprised to discover how many of those wines lacked complexity and catered to simple palates with added sugar and flavorings. A Luna Rossa wine managed to catch my attention, but I was losing patience. Just as I was about to give up on New Mexico wine, a friend suggested I try Gruet. After two sips, I was sold. Clean and frothy, I was taken aback by its acidity and stunned by its balance.
Though I proudly served Gruet wines to guests, I secretly harbored suspicions. Was it actually shipped in from California or France and then re-labeled? Because seeing is believing, I headed down a dirt road outside Truth or Consequences to meet Laurent at his vineyard for harvest. I got lost and missed the actual harvesting, but Laurent showed me around the vines and told me Gruet's story.
Laurent Gruet is the son of Gilbert Gruet. On a plot of family land in Champagne, France, Gilbert planted his first vines about 60 years ago and began producing Champagne. The Champagne house, named Gruet et Fils ("Gruet and Son"), was successful, and in the early '80s expansion was on Gilbert's mind. Land prices in Champagne were (and are) astronomical, so taking direction from European grape growers that extolled the virtues of New World land, the Gruets took a look at America.
As hard as this might be to believe, southern New Mexico—at least to the Gruets—resembled Champagne. Somehow they were able to see past the dust and yuccas and envision rows of Pinot Noir grapes slowly ripening to perfection.
Champagne is a cool region in France with soil largely composed of chalk. Truth or Consequences, though very warm during the day, experiences drastically cooler nights, and beneath the dust is a layer of caliche--hardened mineral deposits that in some ways resemble chalk. The land in both places is virtually useless for agricultural pursuits—unless it's grapes you seek to grow. In order to produce good wine grapes, some stress is required. Restricting nutrients and water leads to highly concentrated yields of fruit, which in the right hands makes for great wine.
So Laurent, his sister Nathalie and family friend Farrid Himeur left France for Truth or Consequences. They took over a vineyard, pulled and planted vines, and began making sparkling wine. Today, Laurent makes the wine, Farrid sells it and Nathalie mans the winery's tasting room. Other family members have since joined the operation, including Farrid's son Sophian and Laurent's stepson Hayden.
As we made our way through vineyards stripped of their berries, Laurent would point out different varieties (“See, here is Chardonnay which we make Blanc de Blancs from”) and stop to show me the differences between young and old vines (“These here, they are only five years old”). We discussed the difficulty and expense involved in hiring crews to pick the grapes, as Gruet only harvests by hand. We talked about soil composition and warding off the ravages of frost. But Laurent always came back to family. Even when introducing me to the vineyard manager, Victor--who's worked with him for 20 years and isn't related to the Gruets by blood--Laurent referred to him with a familiarity in his voice usually reserved for relatives.
We watched the truck loaded with Syrah grapes head to Albuquerque to be pressed. Laurent showed me the small bins in which the grapes are placed. He stressed the importance of only allowing a certain amount in each bin in order to prevent premature crushing. With no small amount of disgust in his words and body language, he voiced his disapproval of wineries that harvest with machines. He shared his opinion on every aspect of winemaking from the ground up. Each logically derived opinion was backed with fervor and that “something” possessed by those who have found love, or perhaps, by those answering a call from God. He also hoped that New Mexico would emerge as a premier wine region, not only for the sake of his wines, for but the sake of wine as a whole.
At the winery in Albuquerque, Laurent whisked me through the cavernous production area, under arched doorways, around barrels stacked mightily high and past bins filled with fermenting Pinot. There were great modern machines charged with pressing grapes with as little friction as possible--because, as Laurent explained, friction can “crush the seeds and you will taste bitterness in the wine.” I also saw a simple wooden stick used to push grape skins under the released juice. Old and new work side by side here. Like blending several wines of several vintages--a common practice in making sparkling wine--Gruet has brought together the best of the past and present in order to craft a wine worthy of bearing the family's name.
It's clear that the Gruet name goes deeper than just a few letters on a label. Those letters hold a desire to pass on generations of work, pride and skill. From unyielding ground they raise vines; from those vines they pluck unpalatable acidic fruit; from that fruit they produce simple wines; and from those simple wines they blend marvelous mosaics of effervescence.
At the end of our tour, Laurent leaned against a barrel that was taller than us all, glass of sparkly in hand, and lit up a cigarette. He talked about how family is ultimately what makes Gruet "Gruet." Smoke trailing toward the ceiling somewhere far above us, he explained that people are more important than business itself. I began thinking about the 56 million bubbles in each bottle of sparkling wine. I considered how every sip we take devours a half-million of those fine little bubbles, and how each little bubble tells the story of a person involved with making those bubbles rise to the surface of our glasses.
The Gruet story, one of family and tradition, is repeated generation after generation throughout the wine industry. It's also one being slowly replaced by tales of business dealings and marketing strategies. Old wine families are giving way to corporate boards. Generational chain-of-command means less and less in an atmosphere of mergers and acquisitions. But tucked away in both the Old World and New, small families are still doing big things in wine. Whether in Champagne, France, or the high desert of New Mexico, perfect unlikely stories thrive in perfectly unlikely places.