Alibi V.28 No.34 • Aug 22-28, 2019 

Restaurant Review

It’s Like Coming Home

Casa Rondeña’s kitchen is a bold new direction for the winery

ice cream
Who knew ice cream could be this good?
Eric Williams Photography

I’ve been lucky to spend the better chunk of my post-college career working in events. On the development end of the nonprofit sector and via catering companies, I’ve been gifted the opportunity to be a part of some truly beautiful, wonderful events. Something that has always amazed me about New Mexico is the amount of absolutely stunning locations where these events are held. From historic hotels to old railyards, well-maintained plazas to fancy estates, there never seems to be a shortage of locations that awe my jaw into dropping. Of those places that truly stood out, one stood up higher than the rest: Casa Rondeña Winery.

Casa Rondeña Winery
There’s a lot to take in on your entry into the front.
Eric Williams Photography

Situated out in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, the first thing that will catch your eye upon entering is one of two things: You’ll either be awestruck by the sprawling fields of grape vines growing in all directions, or you’ll see the enormous two-story namesake mansion. Throughout the rest of the property are a handful of other buildings, smaller though no less impressive, with ample seating areas in different places throughout the estate, a pond, a small grassy space and a handful of other architectural oddities that give a sense of grandeur not typically seen in Albuquerque. Most notable was the set of arches that run across the lawn that are reminiscent of the Roman aqueducts, though the stone statue of a figure performing a pirouette in front of the house is equally eye-catching.

friends
A totally natural and not staged photo of very comfortable friends.
Eric Williams Photography

Besides the most obvious fact, what had brought me to Casa Rondeña? I had a few friends I hadn’t had the time to sit down and catch up with in a very long while, and what better way to do that than over a few glasses of wine and dinner? I’m lucky that I get to go try a lot of food within our wonderful city, but most of my review places hadn’t felt like the right fit yet. When I heard that Casa Rondeña had a new executive chef, Jerome Miller, and sous chef, Derek Ingwaldson, and had done a full kitchen renovation to operate as a full service restaurant, I knew I needed to strike while the iron was hot, so to speak. So with a booking for four, my dress jacket in hand and an evening of storytelling to get down to, I walked down the road to the main house.

Charcuterie
Charcuterie is always worth talking about.
Eric Williams Photography

Now, before we get into any of that, I should point out a few important details. The first and arguably the most important of which is that currently, dinner at the residence is for members only, specifically the 1629 Club Membership. At a cost of $87 a month, plus tax, or $957 a year plus tax, you’ll be granted not only exclusive access to the club and patio areas with their seasonal menu, but also two bottles of wine per month, a complimentary tasting for two for every visit to the tasting room, 20 percent off any wine purchases, advance purchase and tastings for new wines, invitations to members-only events, as well as a discount on any rental of their space for events. From our discussion with Ansel Lane, the 1629 Club manager, we were told membership was currently limited, as this was a new approach to fine dining, done the Casa Rondeña way. Secondly, this dinner was a little different than the usual offerings, as it was a prix fixe menu with suggested wine pairings, rather than an open menu for us to pick and choose from. With those bits of information in mind, here’s what we learned.

wine
Very light and refreshing.
Eric Williams Photography

The first thing to hit the table was the wine, and the as lushes we all were, wasted no time testing its quality. The wine in question was the merlot rosé, their 2018 vintage. It was 100 percent merlot, which is normally a red wine grape but featured a much lighter color, referred to as “electric salmon.” As with all wines, the color, taste and structure comes from the time it spends in the barrel and in the skins, and this wine spent 19 hours with the skins and stems. Slightly fruity and very refreshing, I personally found it to be a nice, light crisp delicious take on a rosé. Paired with a charcuterie board, as far as I’m concerned, it was a masterpiece. Featuring four types of meat and four types of cheese, along with a set of crackers and fresh baked bread, this was truly one of the most stacked and delicious charcuterie offerings I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying. This board had red wine marinated spanish chorizo, spicy pepperoni, pancetta (smoked with Texas mesquite and hickory), prosciutto, both sliced in house. For the cheese, there was St. Clemens copper-inoculated Danish blue cheese, drizzled with Las Cruces wildflower honey, a smoked Irish Tipperary cheddar, sundried tomato and basil jack, and a Chimayo red chile cheddar. In addition, they had their house-made red chile cinnamon candied nuts, which were simply divine. I was surprised by the Danish blue cheese, as I normally don’t love blue cheese but it was absolutely wonderful. Additionally, the smoked Irish cheddar tasted like biting into a campfire, in the best way possible.

wine
The Viognier was perfect with the caprese.
Eric Williams Photography

Not content with wowing us once, the kitchen came back with a second course and a second pairing. Featuring the only wine they offer that isn’t New Mexican grapes was their Viognier, with grapes from the Grand Junction, Colo. area. Though the grapes are from Colorado, they are still pressed here in New Mexico. With a little honey sweetness and a good fruity flavor, this crisp white was a versatile wine that was recommended to go with a chicken chowder or a salad, due to how its low acidity cuts through fat, and the lightness of it. Paired with it, as suggested, was a caprese salad. Not content to hit us with a basic version, the ante was upped featuring thick slices of beefsteak, roma and striped Johnson tomatoes layered between fresh cut mozzarella, a local honey, a smoked red onion vinaigrette, fresh berries and olive oil drizzle. There was a lot happening on this dish, and it was an interesting and bold take on the caprese I wasn’t expecting. While I typically prefer my caprese salads simple and traditional, this was a really good take on that tradition that kept the elements of what I loved while changing them up with new flavors that managed to complement each other in interesting ways.

tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a smoked vinaigrette
Three styles of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a smoked vinaigrette. What more could you need?
Eric Williams Photography

I should have known what was coming next. By round 3, I was already feeling the weight of the food starting to hit. After the first two courses, whatever was planned for the main entree was bound to be another stellar creation. What I wasn’t expecting was a 14 ounce T-bone. Featuring Arizona spicy sprouts, a petite mixed greens salad, garlic sauteed asparagus, sauteed mushrooms and fermented red jalapeno chimichurri, this dish would knock me over on a night where I wasn’t two courses in. Additionally, the beef was marinated in a smoked mesquite and hickory butter, giving an amazing smoky taste to the beef you don’t find often. The beef was insanely tender, jam packed with flavor and wave after wave of layers of taste I wasn’t expecting. The wine that was the featured pairing, their flagship 1629, was a cabernet, syrah and tempranillo blend. The 1629 comes from the first year the Spanish were able to harvest grapes in the US. The Emperor of Spain had decreed that no wine could come from heathen lands, so all the wine had to come from Spain. Back then, shipping wine for a trip that long up to Santa Fe would cause the wine to get stolen or go bad, so after 80 years of fighting the law, Franciscan friars made a judgement call, smuggled grape clippings over to California, planted them in San Antonio, N.M. and the rest is history. The culture is apparent in the wine, with its dark color and full-bodied taste. It had a very clean finish and made the steak we were dining on that much more indulgent. I’m not one to keep spare wine around the house, but 1629 has made me reconsider that lifestyle choice.

steak
The steak tasted better than it looks, and it looks really damn good.
Eric Williams Photography

Finally, the last course. To give you an idea of the experience we were having, it was still late afternoon when we sat down and started eating, and at this point, the moon was high and the lighting had changed to a low set of overhanging bulbs that gave the scene a serene and calm mood, our conversations orchestrated by nearby cicadas and crickets. The wine was a port, by the name of Animante, from the Latin “to reanimate,” which after the level of eating and drinking we’d just partaken in, was very needed. Aged in both American and French oak, it had a sweetness that didn’t overpower the wine itself, but lent a classy quality to it that I don’t normally expect from a dessert wine. What was interesting was that it was fortified with brandy, giving it an alcohol content of 20 percent and was the warm kick to the system we needed to keep the night going. This came with a housemade blueberry ice cream, with a smoked strawberry and maple coulis and more of those red chile-cinnamon candied nuts that I couldn’t stop eating earlier. Maybe it was all the wine, maybe it was the fact that I was eating ice cream on a late summer night, but the first bite of this took me back to being 8 years old. There was something unquantifiable about how good it was that truly reminded me of being a kid and just enjoying dessert. Everything we ate that night was amazing, but this ice cream was nothing short of perfect. I finished my bowl and immediately asked my friend if I could finish theirs.

Animante
The night was given a final push to keep going with the Animante.
Eric Williams Photography

The night ended on a tour of the facility and some really jaw-dropping spaces that they showed us, and as much as I would love to share those to you, I can’t do the stories and the scenery justice with words. It’s very much worth your time to go learn and experience it yourself, because the scale of some of those wine barrels is just insane. Lane was talking to us about current members, and the level of detail he knew about every guest and their needs was almost shocking. Not just their likes and dislikes, but their lives and their personalities, the same as he would talk about a close friend. One of the unlisted membership benefits, as far as I can tell, is that you’re gaining a second family through the people who make the heart of Casa Rondeña beat.

There was something about the night as a whole I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something about sitting around with my friends over wine and dinner in this gorgeous space and just relaxing that I don’t think is easily replicable anywhere else. Casa Rondeña wasn’t always a winery; it used to be a home. They told us it’s no longer used as a home, which may be true, but I think the memories of those times still lives on that property. Speaking to Ansel Lane after, he said “People can expect a meal representative of the American farmhouse,” which makes sense. It’s all local ingredients, used in inventive ways. The very nature of the space doesn’t feel like I’m sitting at a winery, like I’m in some sort of secret club. I remember distinctly not pulling my phone out for anything other than pictures, not because I didn’t have notifications and messages to get back to, but because I didn’t care. For three short hours, I sat with people I loved and enjoyed their company in a space that felt like home. There are a lot of places that have a homey-like decor or a home-style menu, but have they ever felt like dinner with your family? I can’t think of any that offer that level of quality and privacy in a place so relaxed.