My childhood in Pagosa Springs, Colorado was full of what have now become precious memories to me … wonderful lingering memories, revolving around times that can never be again. I choose to embrace the mystique of those years by grasping onto fond memories, while simultaneously allowing the negatives to dissipate into oblivion. There are so many “firsts” to remember and savor, but some stand alone in
their significance, and many of these come full circle as life progresses.
Tia Jenera was my Great Aunt on Mama Rose’ side of the family. Now I’m not going to get into all the family stuff or it will never end, but it is important you know about Tia Jenera. Tia Jenera lived in her modest two story home where the Senior Citizens Hall now stands, down by the natural hot springs in Pagosa (We all referred to it as just “Pagosa” when I was a kid). When I say modest I am referring to modest in terms of 1950’s Pagosa. Tia Jenera still cooked and heated her home with a wood burner, and the second floor was livable if you were her size, which by my memory would have probably been around 5’ tall .. or shorter. She was born and raised, like all my “Familia Latina” right there in Archuleta County. I now understand she was the richest of resources and quite possibly among the last of her kind in referring to the “horse & buggy” World War One era of that region. Hers was the last generation to truly live off the fruits of one’s labor and what one could provide from the nature of the place itself, not from the idea of obtaining currency from an endeavor in order to purchase sustenance at the store. Her generation knew the necessity and intricacies of growing in three or four months what would be needed for the other nine. Her generation knew the back breaking work of collecting enough wood in those same few months to provide heat through the icy cold Colorado winters. Her generation knew how to utilize every bit of every animal that was raised in captivity or hunted in the crisp San Juan Mountain autumns. Her Brother, my Grandfather Roberto Lobato, was one of the last generations to walk and herd his sheep to high pasture in the summers. These were times that became suddenly extinct when landing on the moon became a reality, McDonalds started selling 15 cent burgers, and my generation of over indulgent post war kids began molding the society that now zips and zooms through our very consciousness... ah, the joys of technology. I’m thankful every day of my life that I got a small glimpse of the world my Tia Jenera & Grandfather Roberto entrusted to us.
Through Pagosa weaves the wonderful San Juan River. The San Juan was the lifeblood for countless sheep and cattle ranchers during my childhood. Tia Jenera and Grandfather Roberto had both been recipients of the river’s life giving properties throughout their lives. The family made their meager way during the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s by sheep ranching. Without the San Juan, well fed herds of sheep simply would not have been possible. In addition to old “herding sagas” I also heard many stories about fishing the river “in the old days”, and learned in my teens that Sucker could be a delicacy if prepared properly. But one of the most overlooked and least utilized gifts of the San Juan River generally ended up in a Mason Jar. This gift, and the events leading to my enjoying it, left an indelible imprint on me.
Chokecherry bushes can defy what a person thinks of as fruit in the high Rockies. Growing a meager patch of strawberries, now that’s fruit. Having a decent apple tree or maybe a decent patch of rhubarb are truly gifts from God at seven thousand feet. It’s hard to grow stuff in a short, cold season! So when you see it, the plant itself defies reason. Seeing a Chokecherry Bush that’s loaded with fruit is the real deal, and it grows all by itself, compliments of the San Juan River. I’m talking about a bush that can be 7 or 8 feet tall and can easily exceed 20 feet in circumference; loaded with huge bunches of fruit. This is a unique gift of the river, growing on the banks alongside pure snowmelt waters. However, the name Chokecherry didn’t come by accident, and one taste of ripe fruit will hang in the memory banks of “what not to do again” for eternity.
I don’t recall exactly what year it was, though I would guess around 1959 or 1960, when we all trekked down to Tia Jenera’s home for Christmas. Like all mountain Christmas gatherings of the time it was very cold and the wood burner felt wonderful the instant we entered the room. It truly was one room that provided kitchen, living room, and dining facilities. I recall the old foot pump organ, which now sits in my Father’s home, with photos of Grandfather Roberto in his WW1 uniform and other photos around the room that looked quite ancient. They were absolutely magical likenesses of family. In fact, I don’t recall any other art work, it was all faces from past and present family members that graced the room, creating an aura of true peacefulness and a sense of belonging that was as near Mothers womb as one could get. The smells were a blend of lamb, green and red chili, fresh tortillas, papas y frijoles, and for some reason the "fresh" vegetable always seemed to be either canned spinach or corn. Green salad in those days consisted of only Iceberg lettuce, a couple of tomatoes, and the inevitable Ranch Dressing (Green Goddess if we were lucky!). We feasted. We laughed. We loved. We were Familia.
I remember the first time clearly. Tia Jenera told me to sit and she walked to the cupboard. We had finally finished eating and the adults were gathered in the “living room” enjoying coffee, or whiskey, or both. It was always such a comical game to watch my Mama Rose and the other “girls” sneaking drinks as if they were still children. I now understand this ritual was a show of great respect for the matriarch in her own home, and I’m certain she was in on the festivities because I saw her slip whiskey in her drink as well as Grand Father Roberto’s drink. When Tia Jenera came back from the cupboard she had a Mason jar cradled in both hands. The contents of that jar appeared to be black and the jar was so full she had to set it down in order to open and not spill the special liquid inside. As I write this, it brings great melancholy to recall how she performed the ritual with those weathered working hands, just for me. She very slowly and carefully poured about an inch of this priceless nectar into what was probably a 6 ounce Welch’s grape jelly container (seems that everyone used those for glasses back then!). She gave it to me and proclaimed this was Chokecherry Wine from the large bush just 30 or 40 yards away from her house, down by the river, and I was the only person getting any of it! This alone would have been enough to make me feel like King Billy, but what happened next is one of my most wonderful memories.
But first, please allow me to share another significant moment with you.
One day in 1999 at the Wyndham Albuquerque Airport Hotel I was sitting with a wine purveyor and friend, Alan Schneider. I was the Assistant Director of Food & Beverage for the hotel, and the resident wine geek. Alan had just “tasted” us on some wonderful New Mexico wines when he stated there was a surprise for me. He reached into his carrying case and produced a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. I was being tested. Alan poured a taste into my glass, sat back and smiled at me with a “cat that ate the canary” grin. I’m not certain how many thousands of thoughts went through my mind in the next few seconds, but one of those thoughts must surely have been “Oh shit, I’ll never guess what this is!”. However, the test was on and I couldn’t back out, so I raised the glass to my nose and, like a bolt of lightning, the words “Alan, that’s a Cotes du Rhone!” literally flew from my mouth. I don’t know which of us was more startled, but we both sat there for some time in disbelief. I recall Alan saying something to the effect of “I can’t believe you guessed that wine” and I initially agreed with him. My next emotion was one of total jubilance, not because I had “guessed” what the wine was, but because I had just experienced one of the rarest happenings a true student of wine can ever hope to feel. I had just experienced “nose memory” in its highest form. After years of tasting and studying and analyzing, over and over and over, the answer to the question concerning where that bottle originated suddenly appeared from the most "base" of all places; unconscious association by aroma & bouquet. My nose had instantaneously remembered those wonderful times when beautiful bottles of Cotes du Rhône were either the main topic of discussion, or acted as embellishment to unforgettable conversations with unforgettable friends. The moment had transcended “thinking” and gone directly to “knowing”. Those many years of wine appreciation had just produced a mini triumph and major thrill. My nose “remembered” and it was much like that sensation we enjoy when smells remind us of events from childhood ... and I can now take you back to my Tia Jenera’s kitchen.
Raising that glass of Chokecherry Wine at Tia’s house could have been another forgettable movement, like millions we experience in our lifetimes, except for the constant insistence of my Great Aunt. Tia Jenera kept telling me over and over to “Smell it Belito! You can smell the Chokecherries! Smell it Belito!” And I did smell it, and I do smell it, and it is a part of my very soul ... it was my first wine.
"Cheers!" .. "Salud!" .. "A la votre!"
I salute each of you .. wishing you the fondest of memories ...
from Kauai to Paris ... and all places between
Mahalo, Gracias, et Merci