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Friday, September 21, 2007

Getting Bombed

On July 16, 1945, nuclear chemist John Balagna was perched on a mountain peak near Albuquerque, N.M., to observe the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site nearly 100 miles away.

After more than 40 years working for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory, he starting experimenting with an entirely different form of chemistry--wine making.

"I grew up making wine with my grandfather," Balagna says. So when he retired from the laboratory, he started the Balagna Winery at his home in White Rock, N.M., on property that he bought from the Atomic Energy Commission for $25 an acre in the mid-1980s.

If you blink, you might miss the tiny sign that says "winery," at the end of a long driveway that leads back to the edge of the mesa, where Balagna and his wife, Jean, live.

On the day I visit, John is in the garage constructing a table for his daughter, who saw one in the JCPenney catalog and wanted an exact duplicate. Meanwhile, Jean, also a retiree from Los Alamos National Laboratory, is carefully shaping a piece of white marble in the front yard. She doesn't sell her work; once she sold a piece to someone ("my favorite," she says) and now wants to buy it back.

Balagna leads me to the tasting room in a casita he built alongside their home. The various wines are lined up ready to dispense upon request. I can't resist trying "La Bomba Grande" ("The Big Bomb"), which was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1993. Balagna explains the formulation is a a blend of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Zinfandel grapes.

With wine in hand, I step outside onto the back porch and am treated to spectacular desert vistas. Below me, the muddy Rio Grande snakes through the desert for miles in each direction. The setting feels just as remote as the location chosen for the atomic blast.

And you can get just as bombed, too.

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