One of my fondest memories from my winery-consulting days starts out like an off-color joke: A gay Iranian scientist walks into a Mexican winery and sees a blond Californian (that would be me) talking in fractured Spanish with an increasingly annoyed winemaker over a bubbling fermentation of Syrah grapes. The scientist gallantly steps onto the wet, purple floor to help but finds that instead of English, Spanish or his native Farsi, it is his French that the winemaker, trained in Bordeaux, understands best. At considerable risk to his Prada loafers, my friend, Ali, provides some essential translations, making an international incident a happy and productive one.
You’re probably thinking, Mexico has wineries? That’s precisely what I said when a client of mine, a winemaker in San Diego’s North County, told me eight years ago that he was getting some great grapes from Valle de Guadalupe, a little valley in Baja California, Mexico, about 10 miles inland from Ensenada.
I am a native of San Diego, so my knowledge of Baja was limited to what I learned on teenage surfing safaris, where the proper pairing with fish tacos was mas cervezas, por favor. This consulting gig opened my eyes and perked up my nose to what was then a truly undiscovered wine region. Its location was perfect for growing grapes: just close enough to the sea to get cool nights, warm days and a temperate fog now and then. Some pioneering wineries made very good wines, mostly in the European style rather than that of their fruity neighbor to the north. The valley itself was austerely beautiful, with long vistas of chaparral on wavy hills. Meandering roadways revealed solitary houses festooned with hanging laundry lines.
In the years since my first visit, I’ve often said to clients, If I were crazy enough to start a winery, I’d do it in the Guadalupe Valley. Land is relatively cheap. The valley is close enough to Ensenada for tourist traffic, yet it feels worlds away.
Well, more than a few locos have had the same idea. There are now 27 wineries, a vintners’ association and two bed-and-breakfast inns here that cater to wine lovers. Two pioneers&emdash;L.A. Cetto and Monte Xanic&emdash;are still going strong. Monte Xanic, in fact, is not only digging new caves but also is building a restaurant and deli on its property. And newer visionaries such as Hugo d’Acosta of Casa de Piedra are raising the bar so fast that each vintage outshines the last.
Because it’s a young wine region with little governmental regulation, maverick vintners freely explore grape varieties and viticulture practices. Blocks of vines have been planted, tested and ripped out in favor of better performing replacements. For example, the white Bordeaux grape Semillon has lost ground to Chenin Blanc, a white grape from the Loire Valley that shows great promise here. Red wines include Tempranillo, Grenache, Carignan, MourvÃ¨dre, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Petite Verdot and Malbec as well as plenty of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Blends are common, with uncommon bedfellows such as the Casa de Piedra Ensemble of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera and Petite Sirah.
Mexico’s long history of winemaking started with the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Casa Madero, founded in 1597 in northeastern Mexico, is said to be the oldest operating winery in the New World. Winemaking in the Guadalupe Valley dates back to the 1500s as well. But modern wineries in Guadelupe have only sprung up in the past 20 years or so. Like the Napa Valley, Valle de Guadelupe historically has attracted a diverse group of immigrants, including Italians, Germans and Russians. Now, winemakers and investors from California and Europe have started to poke their heads in like wasps on the yucca flowers.
So the next time you find yourself fantasizing about a wine-soaked holiday, think about Baja. You’ll find sincere and generous hospitality. (Note: As the Guadalupe Valley becomes ever more international, English is widely spoken. But unless you’ve got an Iranian friend who is fluent in French, I recommend bringing a Spanish dictionary.)
Elaine’s Picks of the Month
2006 Monte Xanic Chenin Blanc ($10)&emdash;Refreshing, just off-dry and oh so peachy.
2006 L.A. Cetto Viognier Don Luis ($10)&emdash;Slightly green in color; complex nose of peaches, apricots and hay (in a good way!). Zippy balance, full mouthfeel, clean finish.
2004 Monte Xanic Gran Ricardo ($50)&emdash;A concentrated and polished blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Verdot. Smells of dried herbs, spun sugar, layered berries. Old-world bones with ripe, new-world flesh.
2005 Casa de Piedra Ensemble ($35)&emdash;This unlikely blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera and Petite Sirah has an extremely concentrated, piney nose saturated with raspberries and cassis. Velvet on the tongue, with a surprisingly sane alcohol content (13.3 percent) for the upfront fruit.
2005 Casa de Piedra Vino Tinto ($60)&emdash;A magnetic nose of berries, cassis and herbs draws you into a savory, almost meaty palate and velvet finish. Stunning wine.
Wine Trivia Contest
>> We’ve got a winner! In February, we asked: Celebrity playas from Bruce Willis to Diddy swear by the romance of filling a bathtub with what? The correct answer: Champagne. The winner, Renee Croffoot of Napa, received The Wine Wheel.