Friday, December 28, 2007

Baja's Wine Surprise - Discovering the Baja Wine Country Vineyards and Wineries

Baja's Wine Surprise
A short drive from Ensenada, vineyards and tasting rooms are flourishing

by Greg Lucas

Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California -- Where I expected to see saguaro cacti, I found tidy rows of vineyards. Where I expected to drink from a mescal bottle with a worm at the bottom, I sipped a surprisingly agreeable Cabernet-Zinfandel blend.

Just 10 miles from Ensenada, I'd stumbled into something I had no idea existed: Baja's wine country. Connected by the ruta del vino in the rugged Valle de Guadalupe are a dozen wineries, many accessible only by dirt roads. The valley has the feel that Napa or Sonoma did half a century ago, when a couple of sawhorses, an unhinged door and a checkered tablecloth passed for a tasting room.

Visiting these wineries, and the valley that cradles them, is an unexpected delight. But be careful that your trip doesn't end as tragically as ours did.

Like most adventures, this one began by accident. While dining in Ensenada at Sano's, an American-style steakhouse with huge portions, we took a chance and ordered Mexican wine -- a Calixa Chardonnay and a Chateau Camou Cabernet-Zinfandel.

After our first sips, my wife and I exchanged "wow" looks.

"Where are these wines from?" we asked our waiter.
"The Mexican wine country," he replied.
"Where is that?"
"It's here. Just 3 miles up the road."

Our drive back to San Diego instantly became five hours longer.

The valley is the site of the last of the Spanish missions to be built, Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte, founded in 1834 by Dominican priests. In 1903, 50 Russian immigrants arrived with top-quality grape cuttings from Europe; some of their vineyards are still around. Bibayoff is the most accessible old Russian winery.

Sitting at an elevation of 1,000 feet just 13 miles from the coast, the valley benefits from an oceanic condition known as "upwelling." Summer daytime temperatures can reach 100 degrees, but every evening moist marine air comes flooding in to cool things off.

All manner of grapes thrive here: big, sun-loving reds, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Malbec and Zinfandel, as well as a wide range of whites, from Chardonnay and Viognier to Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. The area produces more than 80 varietals and accounts for more than 90 percent of Mexico's wine production.

Seven miles after we turned onto Highway 3 from Highway 1 -- the periodically breathtaking coastal route that leads back to Tijuana and San Diego -- a cluster of restaurants appeared on the right: Casa de Campo, Leonardo's, Hacienda. Just past them on the right was Vina de Liceaga, which offers tours and tasting by appointment on Saturdays.

The biggest, most tourist-friendly winery, though, is L.A. Cetto, founded by Italian immigrants and now run by a third-generation Cetto. About 16 miles into the valley, there is a prominent turnoff -- and plenty of billboards advertising it along the way. Just follow the road around the wall of bougainvilleas to the spacious tasting room. Avoid Wednesdays and Fridays -- cruise ships docked in Ensenada send large crowds this way.

Cetto is the largest vintner in Mexico, exporting 25 percent of its annual production to 24 countries. Besides a broad array of pleasant wines, particularly the whites and a Petite Sirah that goes great with Mexican food, Cetto bottles a fabulous olive oil.

Gilberto Plateros, behind Cetto's pouring counter, alerted us that by turning around to avoid a dirt road pocked with car-swallowing craters, we had missed two of the wineries we wanted to see.

So we backtracked to the spot where we had previously turned back -- the Muddy Road of Giant Pot Holes. Zigzagging back and forth to avoid ruts -- and oncoming cars doing the same thing -- we arrived at Monte Xanic, whose second label, Calixa, was the Chardonnay we wanted more of.

Israel Zenteno Ruiz poured and, in English, led us through the winery's offerings. We bought half a case, which, on top of the wine we'd purchased at Cetto, pushed the day's bottle count into double digits.

Ruiz called ahead to Chateau Camou, where there was a $5 tasting charge and no credit cards were accepted. We wanted four bottles of the Cabernet- Zinfandel, begging the non-English-speaking winery worker to accept a check, which he did.

A couple of hours later, we arrived back at the U.S. border and dutifully showed the customs agent our modest haul of fine Baja vino. He shook his head, scribbled something on a piece of paper and sent us over to the customs office with the drug-sniffing dogs. There we experienced a moment of horror. The rules were firm and non-negotiable: Just one bottle of wine per visitor.

"You can return to Mexico, try to get your money back or take your haul over to that stainless steel sink and dump all but two bottles," said the no- nonsense Customs agent. "Now would be a good time."

It would not be a good idea, warned another Customs agent, to divert any of it down our throats. Drinking and driving never mix.

At least we brightened the day of a young man pouring a case of Pacifico beer down the same sink. He was gratified his mistake had cost only $15 -- one-tenth of ours.

Live and learn. Next time we invest in a customs broker.

Getting there

Just north of Ensenada, 67 miles from the Mexican border south of San Diego, take Highway 3 northeast toward Tecate.

For L.A. Cetto (, follow the billboards heading east on Highway 3 toward Tecate. The turnoff is at the 73 km marker. For Mount Xanic winery (011-52-646-174-6155,, cross the Guadalupe Valley bridge and veer left into Francisco Zarco. The main street turns to dirt after a stop sign. The entrance is to the right through a large green gate. Chateau Camou (011-52-646-177-3303, is beyond Mount Xanic; look for the sign pointing down another narrow dirt road. Tastings are $5.

Where to stay

  • Las Rosas, 0-11-52-646-174-4310, Small hotel with spa facilities, 2 miles north of Ensenada. Doubles from $152 March 11-Sept. 16; winter weekdays from $80.
  • Punta Morro, (800) 526-6676, All-suite oceanfront resort at kilometer 106 on Highway 1 north of Ensenada. $108 (studios) to $290 (three bedrooms). Meal for two with wine at resort restaurant, $50-$75.
  • El Cid Best Western, 011-52-646-178-2401, Downtown Ensenada. Queen rooms from $52; King Jacuzzi suites from $120. Two- day weekend minimum.

Where to Eat

  • Sano's, 011-52-646-174-4061. Top-notch steak house. Steak fillet $26, chicken in plum sauce $20, spinach salad $10.
  • Casamar, 011-52-646-174-0417. On downtown Ensenada's oceanfront. Plenty of seafood; lobster a specialty. Entrees $15-$25.

For more information

  • Baja California Tours, (800) 336-5454 or (858) 454-7166, Wine tours include lodging and transportation from San Diego. $79-$299 per person, double occupancy.
  • Mexico Tourism Board, (800) 446-3942 (brochures) or (310) 282-9112 (Los Angeles office),
  • Baja California Tourist Office,

Greg Lucas is a reporter in The Chronicle's Sacramento bureau. To comment, e-mail

Original Article

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Winter Picnic in the Valle de Guadalupe - Baja Wine and Lebanese Food

Lebanese Food and Baja California Wine

A Winter Picnic in the Valle de Guadalupe

by Burleigh Sullivan

Looking for a totally different experience, we were driving around Ensenada and ran into a Lebanese Arabic Food Restaurant called Al Manara just off 9th and Gastellum. We really love the Mediterranean Arabic style food so we went in and immediately were taken by the good fresh food.

Al Manara is owned and operated by Souhaila Maynies. She is originally from Lebanon and has been living in Ensenada for over 35 years. The food is truly authentic from the old country and tastes like it came direct from Beirut, yet we where here in Baja California Mexico! Amazing!

Being inspired by the food, we got an idea - let's take out, get a bottle of some local Mexican wine and do a Baja Wine Country drive and picnic.

So we purchased some Kibbee, Hoummus, Lebne and Taboule and headed out to the Baja Wine Country.

The 20 minute drive from Ensenada to the Valle de Guadalupe was truly pleasant. It was sunny with nary a cloud in the sky - about 70 degrees in winter. Yeah it was Dec. 26th . Winter!

We stopped at Las Cavas, a local all-purpose market located just past San Antonio de Las Minas, the first small town that appears as you arrive into the valley, to buy a bottle of the unique Mexican vino . The local owner Ignacio was quite courteous. He has a nice selection of all the local wines in his wine cellar part of the store so it was tough to pick.

From the biggest producers e.g. L.A. Cetto to smaller boutique wines from Mount Xanic and others, we picked we picked up a bottle of Liceaga Gran Reserva Merlot, cost $ 30 usd. Ignacio even opened up the bottle for us and we were about to go off when we noticed he had Ostriches on his huge lot.

Igancio began to tell us that he operates an Ostrich farm and that he sells the lean meat at this store. Hum? Ostrich BBQ and some Mexican Wine? Sounds like another trip back may be placed on the things to do list.

So we drove a bit into the valley and found a lovely California Oak Tree area with a few picnic benches, sat down, poured a few glasses of the delicious red baja wine and put out our "Arabic Mazza", commonly known in Spanish circles as Tappas.

And oh wow, the Kibbee was so delicious. I ate more than my share. Could not get enough! Thank goodness for the wine to wash it all down. Oh my this was turning out to be a tasty affair.

My friend Frank and his wife Dolores broke out the scrabble board and we drank, ate, played, laughed and enjoyed the serene quiet for a few hours. It's was a special day in the wine country. Unexpected pleasure the day after Christmas! Who knew that winter in the Baja wine country could be so merry and delicious.

  • Al Manara Restaurant is located in downtown Ensenada at 9th and Gastellum. The food is fresh Mediterranean and Lebanese. Prices range from $ 5 to $ 10 usd per dish.

There's hot new wine country in Baja California

by Barbara Hansen

ENSENADA, Mexico - This is not the place where you expect to find wine country. You're racing along Highway 3, after all, the road that links Tecate to the coast. And when was the last time you connected Ensenada and wine, anyway? Tecate? Isn't that beer country?

But here you are, on a spectacular drive through hilly vistas studded with huge boulders. You're passing ranches and stands that sell locally produced honey and dates, fava beans, chorizo, cheese and olive oil. There's even an ostrich farm - the word on the sign is avestruz.

And then you're at Kilometer 86.5, at the ranch called El Mogor, where winemaker Antonio Badan lives.

Badan is among a small group of serious vintners transforming the Valle de Guadalupe, or Guadalupe Valley. Not so long ago, this was a sleepy agricultural area. There were some wines, but none of them memorable. Now, small-scale winemakers from Mexico, Europe and Chile have moved in, improved the vineyards and begun to compete with the world's best. They have the right climate: hot summer days tempered by ocean breezes and cool nights. And the vineyards are filled with almost every grape on the planet: Cabernet, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay, Chasselas, Syrah - all, and more, are being grown here.

And slowly, the world is beginning to discover the wines.

At El Mogor, Badan lives in a charming old ranch house with a beautiful kitchen, a wood beamed ceiling and old Mexican tile. Here you might find Badan himself, pouring wines as he did for me on the wooden kitchen counter beside the windows that look out on the grounds. The ranch's 2,000 acres include a farm that produces vegetables and greens for restaurants from Ensenada to Mexico City. Chickens wander freely. Some of the eggs turn up at breakfast in the nearby inn, Adobe Guadalupe.

His winery, Mogor-Badan, produced just 300 cases last year. Badan handles every aspect of the winemaking himself, from crushing the grapes to pasting on the labels, which he designed using type from an old print shop in Paris.

"I think the point of the wine is that is it is absolutely personal," he says.

The Mogor-Badan red blends Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, most of it from a vineyard planted 50 years ago by Badan's father. The 2000 red was so delicious, I dreamed about it until I finally drove back to the winery to buy a bottle.

The white is 100 percent Chasselas, probably the only Chasselas on the continent, Badan says. His family originated in Switzerland, where this grape, known as Fendant, is the predominant white wine grape.

"It is the authentic wine for making cheese fondue and to drink with it," says Badan. "It's light. It's dry. It goes absolutely divinely with the local oysters and mussels." An oceanographer and self-taught winemaker, Badan found the vines in a neglected vineyard planted decades ago.

In fact, wine grapes were planted in the region as early as the 17th century. But it wasn't until the 1980s that winemaking began to come into its own. In the 1980s and '90s, Hugo D'Acosta of Bodegas de Santo Toms winery and Hans Backhoff of Monte Xanic winery became stars as they improved winemaking techniques and produced higher quality wine than the area had seen. D'Acosta now has his own winery, Casa de Piedra, makes wine for Adobe Guadalupe and teaches fledgling winemakers. The last 10 years have brought more wineries to the Guadalupe Valley and many more premium wines, some from small scale "garage" producers.

Among the newest is Macouzet, a label of Vinisterra, which was founded by Guillermo Rodrguez Macouzet, an Ensenada businessman. Don't even try to find the winery without calling first. It's a converted house in San Antonio de Las Minas, the first town as you enter wine country, well off the highway and unmarked.

The vineyards have not yet matured, so the wines are either blended from purchased wine or made from grapes grown in leased vineyards. The first releases, out last fall, are three reds and a Chardonnay. In about five years, the company will release wines from its own vineyards, made in a projected $2 million winery near the present facility.

Winemaker Christoph Gaertner, who is from Switzerland and who worked previously at Santo Toms, loves the area and won't compare its wine to that of other parts of the world. "It's like Baja California, with full, ripe grapes, full body," he says. "It's an excellent region. It's like a treasure island. I have to let people know what we have. Nobody believes Mexico can produce such wine, but we know and believe in it."

Via de Liceaga, not far beyond San Antonio de Las Minas, is easy to spot from the road because the front of the winery is painted bright yellow. In addition to barrels and fermenting tanks, it contains a brand-new Italian grappa still that will go into operation after this year's grape harvest. (Fernando Martain of Valmar is also trying his hand at grappa, but none has been released. Valmar brandy, however, may be out by the end of the year.)

Liceaga's production is 3,000 cases, primarily reds. Like other winery owners, Eduardo Liceaga-Campos is proud of awards that show Mexican wines can compete internationally. In the cool wine cellar of his home behind the winery, he pours a glass of 1999 Merlot Gran Reserva, which won a silver medal last year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

On the other side of the road is D'Acosta's Casa de Piedra (Rock House), faced in part with rocks from El Mogor. The two wines from this label are a Cabernet Sauvignon-Tempranillo blend and a Chardonnay. A second label, crata (Anarchist), allows D'Acosta more freedom. "It is very open, very experimental, a very small project - 500 cases total," he says. Crata wines include a red made only from Grenache, another that blends Grenache, Syrah and Carignane, a white made from Ugni Blanc, and a ros for which five varietals are crushed together.

Not far away, Ensenada, too, is beginning to feel like a wine town, with new wine-oriented restaurants and wine bars. S de Vino is the city's first wine bar and store, the third in a chain started by the partners of Monte Xanic. Across the Avenda Ruz, inside Plaza Hussong's, is a seafood restaurant and a bar, both called Las Conchas. The owner is Guillermo Rodrguez Macouzet of Vinisterra.

About half an hour heading inland on Highway 3 you'll find markets and a community museum in the town of Francisco Zarco. And just beyond the main street's dead end, along a dirt road, are the turnoffs to Monte Xanic, Chateau Camou and Adobe Guadalupe.

Although premium wines are becoming common, Monte Xanic has introduced a new, more affordable line called Calixa. The winery already has one of the most expensive wines in the region. This is Gran Ricardo, a Bordeaux blend bottled in magnums that sell for $180. Calixa is aged in barrels used first for the premium wines. "The barrels are free," says Hans Backhoff, and that lowers the price to about $12 a bottle.

Also new is a Syrah. The first 500 cases, released in December, sold out in a month. "Syrah has a lot of potential here," Backhoff says. "Our weather is very similar to that of the Rhone Valley."

Chateau Camou winemaker Victor M. Torres Alegre has degrees in agronomy and enology from Bordeaux, and one hears talk of Chateaux Margaux and Cheval Blanc as visitors taste his wines. An intense man, known for his passionate approach to winemaking, Torres adds: "We don't want to produce a lot of wine. We want to produce a wine that is very spectacular, like a precious gem." And Camou wines are treated like gems. The bottles stacked in a quiet room are arranged so that their ends form designs, such as a wine opener and bottle. Outside, rosebushes line the approach to the winery. They're pretty, but their real function is to guard the vines. If a disease should come into the valley, it would show up first in the roses, explains Favela.

Recent Camou releases include a Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend; El Gran Vino Blanco, which is composed of Sauvignon Blanc with a touch of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc; and an old vines Zinfandel that is high in alcohol - 16 percent - and sweet, "nice to go with very strong meat, such as jabal (wild boar)," says Torres. El Gran Divino, a late harvest blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, is suggested with foie gras.

Adobe Guadalupe, located well beyond Camou, is rather hard to find. Only a tiny sign marks the entrance to this elaborate Arabic-Moorish hacienda. Vineyards surround the property, and a small, cool winery with a tasting bar is at the back.

Adobe Guadalupe was founded in 1998 by retired California banker Donald Miller and his wife, Tru. The first wines, released at the end of last year, were three red blends, Gabriel, Kerubiel and Serafiel, named for archangels. The Millers have planted 11 red varietals and some Viognier, which will go into a red blend. "The area is much more conducive to red varietals than it is to whites," says Miller. "It's a very hot area, and it seems the reds do better."

Original Article

Wine Tasting Note: L A Cetto Petite Sirah, 2005, Baja California, Mexico

Many moons ago I ran, rather successfully I should add, a little wine merchants for a now defunct chain. One of the first wines I recall that caused a storm - in terms of sales and discussion - was an unknown red from Mexico of all places.

I am sure it won some sort of Best Wine of the Year award at the International Wine Challenge which caused the sudden increase in sales. It was a long time ago, so long in fact I can't remember if the retail price was £3.99 or £4.99 and I fail to remember if it was the Cabernet Sauvignon or Petite Sirah bottle that won.

I mention all this as, in a brief hunt for a bottle of Petite Sirah for this months Wine Blogging Wednesday, I found a bottle of that very same Mexican wine in Waitrose. Not the same vintage, of course, and now sporting a more modern label but great to see the wine still kicking around.

Red WineWine Tasting Note: L A Cetto Petite Sirah, 2004, Baja California, Mexico.

One of the deepest coloured reds I have seen - opaque, but young with a vibrant purple rim. Lovely perfumed edge to the aroma. Palate is big, flavoursome and ripe. An interesting rustic edge leeds the finish with an inky, dry, well rounded. Needs some substantial foods. Alcohol 14.5%.

Original Article

Baja California Sur: Wine Market's Last Frontier.

Baja California Sur: the wine market's last frontier.

By Jane Firstenfeld

At the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, Baja California Sur (BCS) is Mexico's newest and most isolated state. Its capital, La Paz, beside the Sea of Cortez 120 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, lies just above the Tropic of Cancer, 1,000 miles of torturous, two-lane highway from the California border and 100 miles by ferry from the nearest mainland port. Though the state boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in Mexico, cost of living is correspondingly elevated: with an economy based on tourism, agriculture and fishing, and virtually no manufacturing or industry, most of life's necessities and luxuries must be imported from either the U.S. or mainland Mexico. It's like living on an island, and a single hurricane or tropical storm can make the island metaphor a literal fact, blocking maritime traffic and severing the thin lifeline of the trans-peninsular highway.

These hardships are offset by year-round sunshine; world-class tropical beaches, diving, sailing and sportfishing; a unique desert environment, and countless miles of wide-open spaces. With an area roughly the size of Florida, BCS has a population of only 350,000; about half are La Paz residents. The 50,000 permanent inhabitants of Los Cabos (Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo) play host to more than a million tourists every year, and these two areas are also home to a growing population of foreign residents: retirees, cruising yachters, and entrepreneurs cashing in on the tourist market.

This ever-increasing influx of foreign tourists and residents has left its mark on the formerly remote and untouched character of Baja California Sur. The foreign influence is most obvious in Los Cabos, where every beach is surmounted by a luxury hotel, and the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood share pride of place with Domino's Pizza and Burger King. So far, La Paz has resisted the franchises, but a visit to any of the city's three major supermarkets reveals an evolving lifestyle increasingly based on U.S. tastes and products: Lean Cuisine and Sara Lee; frozen bagels and Cajun sausage; and, in recent months, a noticeable expansion of the wines, particularly imported wines. The Central Commercial California (CCC), La Paz' largest supermarket, now devotes one entire aisle of shelf space to wine; this equals the total shelf space allotted to all other alcoholic beverages (excluding beer) but including tequila, brandy and rum, the traditional Mexican favorites.

Though by California standards the selection is still quite limited, today's stock of close to 20 foreign labels represents an increase of almost 1,000% in comparison with just a year ago, when E. & J. Gallo varietals, Farron Ridge (Chateau St. Michelle) red and white, and Boone's Farm flavored wines were the only U.S. imports consistently available. Among the current offerings: Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Chardonnay and Cabernet (about $10.50 U.S); Kendall-Jackson '95 Reserve Chardonnay (about $19); E. & J. Gallo Chardonnay and Cabernet ($7.50); Merlots by Louis Martini ($18) and Round Hill ($11); Korbel Brut ($10); and Sutter Home "Fre" alcohol-free Chardonnay ($10). Other imports include a Barton & Guestier 1990 Medoc ($21); a Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($25); Casillero del Diablo Chilean Chardonnay ($9.50) and another Chilean offering, Santa Lucia 1996 Cabernet, which, with its nouveau lightness and accessible price of less than $5 per bottle, has quickly been adopted as a house wine by many baby-boomer expatriates.

Given the diminutive size and grand isolation of the market, the elevated prices are understandable, although many foreign residents, living on fixed incomes, feel constrained from daily consumption. What is surprising is that, with the exception of jug wines like the ubiquitous Padre Kino, Mexican varietals (most produced on the upper Baja California peninsula) can be as pricey as many of the imports. Pedro Domecq 1993 Cabernet is priced at about $6, and Santo Tomas 1991 Cabernet is $11, while Cetto Chardonnay goes for $10.

Juan Olave is head of purchasing for all CCC operations, which include two expansive U.S.-style supermarkets in La Paz, a wholesale department serving restaurants and hotels statewide, and an importing branch for all types of merchandise including liquors and wines. He explained that the increase in imported wines was spurred by the wholesale clients, especially hotels and restaurants in Los Cabos catering to foreign tourists; the La Paz retail market is simply a bonus.

The demand for expanded and more sophisticated wine lists prompted the CCC to engage what Olave termed "probadores" (tasters) in San Pedro and San Francisco to upgrade the chain's stock of imported wines. Longterm provider E. & J. Gallo maintains it own distributor in Tijuana, and major Mexican distillers have recently entered the import market, Cuervo with the Chilean vintners and Domecq With Spanish wines.

Admittedly, all this bustle of activity doesn't amount to much in the world market: according to Olave's records, total retail and wholesale sales of Mexican-made wines amount to 300 cases of red and 200 cases of white monthly; all imports account for just 100 cases of red and 100 cases of white per month.

Olave, though, is optimistic about the future of the wine market in Baja California Sur. While readily acknowledging that Mexico, and BCS in particular, has no tradition of wine consumption, "We are just beginning to develop a culture of wine here". Already he sees increased consumption "at a certain level" of La Paz' professional and bureaucratic society.

"At this level, people are becoming conscious of the benefits of drinking wine", he believes. With ever-increasing tourism and residents, and improved availability of fine Mexican and imported wine, the last frontier is about to fall.

Original Article

Bordeaux in Baja - Chateau Camou

Bordeaux in Baja - Chateau Camou

by Larry Walker

Had an opportunity after harvest for a walk through and tasting at Chateau Camou, one of the wineries that is taking a leading role in establishing the credentials of Baja California as a producer of premium wines.

In 1985, a group of Mexican businessmen formed a partnership with the intended goal of making fine wine in Baja's Guadalupe Valley, a coastal region a few miles from the Pacific just east and north of Ensenada. They bought an existing vineyard that had been planted in the early 1930s and built a winery on a knoll overlooking the vineyards, which are mostly located in a box canyon snaking between two steep hills.

It's a beautiful spot. There had been rains a few weeks before and the desert mountains had responded with a bloom of green. On the drive to the bodega, which is at the end of a dirt road off Mex 2, the highway that runs from Ensenada to Tecate, we spotted a curious coyote watching us from the hillside. The turnoff to the winery is at the village of Francisco Zarco, which the locals call Guadalupe.

The valley was first settled by Russian immigrants early in the last century. They dry-farmed wheat and some still refer to the area as the Valle de Trigo, or Valley of Wheat. We didn't see any wheat fields, but there are still a lot of Russian surnames around. The Camou estate is called Canada del Trigo. There are about 37.5 hectares of vines planted. The density is 6,000 vines per hectare (one hectare = 2.47 acres.) The original vines from the 1930s are still in production, yielding about 1.5 tons per acre.

New plantings were made between the old vines about 12 years ago. The new vines are planted on rootstock, rather than own roots as was the original planting. There have been no reports of phylloxera in the valley, which is well isolated from vineyards in California and has deep sandy/rocky soils. The new vines yield between 3.5 and 4.5 tons per acre, with a green harvest keeping the crop levels low. Because the old vines and new vines ripen at different times, the vineyards are picked twice.

Varieties grown are Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet franc. The white varieties are harvested at night. The harvest generally runs from mid-August until mid-September. Although days can be very warm, with temperatures sometimes reaching 100[degrees], the temperature drops by 40[degrees] to 50[degrees] after sundown.

In the Winery

The winery, which is designed as a gravity flow operation with the grapes entering on the top floor, is being expanded now, as part of the goal of moving toward 30,000 cases annual production. This past year production was 15,000 cases, according to Gary Sehnert, the U.S. sales manager for the winery, who is based in San Diego.

Besides additional barrel storage, there will be two floors of small stainless steel tanks--no more than 500 gallons each, Sehnert said--so wines can be made in small lots before blending.

There are three levels of wine made at Camou. The top of the line bottling is on the Chateau Camou label and is called El Gran Vino Tinto. It's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Merlot. Following fermentation the wine goes into used barrels (from one to three years old) for a few months, then into all new French oak barrels from Seguin Moreau. Time in barrel depends on the vintage, but in general 15 months is about average.

The Vinas de Camou label includes a Fume blanc and a Chardonnay. However, the Fume blanc will be replaced beginning with the 1998 vintage with El Gran Vino Blanco and moved to the Chateau Camou label. In keeping with the goal of the owners to make wine on the Bordeaux model, the Chardonnay is being de-emphasized.

The Flor de Guadalupe label is a successful "good value" label, offering a Clarete, a Zinfandel and a Blanc de Blanc. The Clarete is a Bordeaux blend, but receives far less time in oak than the Gran Vino Tinto. The Zinfandel, which is purchased from a grower with 25 to 30 year old vines, is blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet franc and receives 10 months in barrel. The Blanc de Blancs is a blend of Chenin blanc, fermented in stainless steel, Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay.

Winemaker Victor Manuel Torres Alegre, was trained at the University of Bordeaux and Bordeaux winemaker Michel Rolland has been a consultant at the winery since 1995.

"The owners met Rolland at a conference in Napa and convinced him to come and take a look. I'm told he was reluctant, but when he got here he saw the potential of the Guadalupe Valley and signed on," Sehnert said. "He comes in four times a year and spends several days during the time the wines are blended."

Sehnert said Rolland is really a hands-on consultant. "We have a triage table with a moving belt, and when he was here at harvest he spent half the day at the table, showing the other workers what to look for. A lot of grapes went on the floor," Sehnert added. The triage table is from Demoisy.

Sehnert said his goal was to sell 20% of Camou's production in the U.S. "It is really going very well," he said. "We are getting into the top restaurants and have had some good reviews. Our toughest market so far is California. It's hard to break into."

Sehnert's background includes a stint in retail wine as well as in restaurants. (He has also been a stockbroker and has a degree in law. Four days after receiving his law degree, he went to work in a wine shop. Not sure whether that says more about the wine business or being a lawyer.) At any rate, he knows the ins and outs of the three-tier system and is well aware that he has to keep on top of distributors.

Camou is also aiming at the Asian market, especially Japan, and is interested in the English market.

There are still a number of problems in the national Mexican market, Sehnert said. "Just basic stuff like getting restaurants to store the wines properly can be tough," he said. He cited the case of a recently opened upscale Tijuana restaurant, La Differencia. "They spent a lot of money opening the place, it looks good, the food is good, but they were storing the wines in a shed behind the restaurant. We had to tell them we wouldn't sell to them if they didn't start storing the wine properly."

(The night before, seven of us had dinner at La Differencia. The food was superb and after sampling almost a dozen bottles of wine, including a fair share of Camou, the owners appear to have solved their storage problems.)

"It isn't always easy for Baja wineries," he added. "But the people in Baja Norte are called Cachanillas. Cachanilla is a desert plant and it has to be tough to survive. Once a year, after the rains, a single flower blooms, and it's a beautiful flower."

As we left Camou, we didn't see any Cachanilla blooming, but there was a sliver of moon rising over the mountain and a coyote barked back up the canyon beyond the vineyards.

The Wines

Assistant winemaker Jesus (Chuey) Riberra Covarrudeas led a tasting of Camou wines and a barrel sampling of the 1999 and 2000 vintages for us. He was born in the Guadalupe Valley and his parents and grandparents worked on the estate vineyards.

Riberra was trained on the job and his enthusiasm for winemaking was catching. Even at the end of a long day, he was patient with gringo-nerd wine questions. As the tasting went on, he kept pulling out new bottles to explain a point.

The barrel tasting was particularly impressive, especially the year 2000 wines. Riberra believes they will be the best wines ever mode at Camou.

The tasting of bottled wines included:

Flor de Guadalupe Blanc de Blancs, 1998. A blend of 50% Chenin blanc with the rest split between Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay, the wine, which sells for about $7, was refreshing and crisp, with lively fruit and a medium finish. A very good value.

Flor de Guadalupe Zinfandel, 1998. A blend of 80% Zinfandel, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cobernet franc, it's a zippy, delicious wine with juicy fruit. Terrific with spicy or chili-based dishes.

Chateau Camou Gran Vino Tinto 1997. A lovely wine, balanced and elegant with good aging potential.

Chateau Camou Gran Vino Tinto 1998. Very concentrated fruit with massive flavors. It is muted now but has great potential.

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Food & Wine: A Baja Wine Tour

On a trip to Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico, writer Abe Opincar meets talented new winemakers— some of whom moonlight as pilots and oceanographers—and hears rumors of talking gorillas.

By Abe Opincar

For most of my life, I have lived 20 minutes from the Mexican border. But it wasn't until recently that I drove down to visit Baja's increasingly famous Valle de Guadalupe wine region. My parents beat me to it a half-century ago. They married in Ensenada after my Romanian father spent four years in Mexico learning Spanish and poking around abandoned gold mines. "I was wearing a white shift dress and a little bolero top when your father drove me through the wine country near Ensenada," remembers my mother of her honeymoon. "It was lovely. Everything was lovely. I was so in love with your father."

The wine country my love-struck mother saw 50 years ago consisted mostly of vineyards planted in 1905 by a group of Russian pacifists. The Guadalupe Valley now has more than 50 large and boutique wineries and produces 85 percent of all wine made in Mexico, around a million cases a year. The wines, created from Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Carignane and Malbec, are mainly New World in style, with high alcohol and assertive fruit. But some of the finest bottlings, such as Mogor-Badan and Barón Balch'é, are more Old World–like and now appear on the wine lists of such places as the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún.

For the time being, Baja wines are hard to find outside Mexico, so a trip to the valley is the best—and often only—way to taste them. The area is in the midst of huge changes, with millions of dollars worth of riotous construction along the coast between Ensenada and Tijuana. I went to the Valle de Guadalupe wondering if it was still as laid-back as it was when my parents visited. I went unprepared for ziggurats or talking gorillas.

Following the toll road south from Tijuana, a few miles before reaching Ensenada, you make an abrupt and tricky turn onto Highway 3; that road leads you northeast for 25 miles from the coast to the two-lane Ruta del Vino, a 14-mile strip running through the Valle de Guadalupe. Given all the building going on along the coast, the valley is startlingly quiet. Sun-light here tends to have an odd metallic cast, as if reflected off platinum. It makes the leaves on the olive trees shimmer. In this light, the mountains surrounding the valley appear in shades of aqua and deep blue. Oaks and wild mustard grow on the hillsides. Kids who live around here ride horses bareback down dirt roads flanked by olive groves and vineyards.

The Ruta del Vino remains the only significant road in the 5,000-acre valley. Branching east and west from that route, rutted dirt roads reach the wineries. I rattled down one of those dusty paths to La Villa del Valle, an Italianate six-room luxury inn that opened last year. I'd heard it was the valley's first, and so far only, eco-friendly accommodation. Although some of the area's other high-end accommodations—like the nearby Adobe Guadalupe, which doubles as a winery—are reputed to be equally agreeable, La Villa del Valle's owners, Eileen and Phil Gregory, particularly intrigued me. The Gregorys, I'd heard, went so far as to color some of the walls of their scrupulously energy-efficient villa with pigments taken from the Valle de Guadalupe soil.

Eileen, a willowy blonde who radiates calm and order, worked for many years in London producing music videos for the New Wave band the Eurythmics. She then made her way to a career in Hollywood as a producer of documentaries, ranging from Deep Blues, an exploration of Mississippi Delta artists, to Tip of the Tongue, a detailed examination of the Rolling Stones, to Power of the Game, about the 2006 World Cup. Her bearded cohort, Phil, is one of those upbeat, hyper-accomplished Englishmen who's a marine biologist, an around-the-world sailor, an airplane pilot, a recording-studio manager, a master gardener and now, of course, a winemaker. He and Eileen have surrounded their inn with vineyards, where they plant Syrah, Cabernet, Viognier, Chardonnay, Tempranillo and Grenache, which go into the six wines they started bottling in 2005 under their Vena Cava label. They've also planted the grounds with fig, olive and lemon trees, and with roses and huge beds of lavender. Early every evening, Eileen arranges a few sprigs of lavender from the gardens on her guests' pillows.

Deep porches shade the inn's west and south sides and look out over the Gregorys' 70 acres, including the swimming pool, yoga studio and wine-tasting room. It's so quiet at the villa that you can hear the tinkling bells on the goats roaming the hillside. And it's on the inn's tranquil porches where Eileen and Phil hang out and chat with their guests—who, on the afternoon I arrived, included a pair of empty nesters down from Venice, California, scouting land for their dream home. The wife was an accountant for a major studio. The husband was a jolly divorce attorney whom I'd seen a few months earlier on Court TV, testifying for the prosecution at a remarkably lurid northern California murder trial.

While we got to know each other, Eileen passed around plates of tiny quesadillas made with corn tortillas freshly prepared by chef V. Omar Garcia Salazar in the inn's large, light-filled kitchen, where visitors can take cooking classes. Eileen explained that when she and Phil were introduced to the valley by friends, "I thought it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. It was very much traditional, rural Mexico, but at the same time, it had a lot of sophistication."

Phil told us that some of the scientists who staff a research institute on the outskirts of Ensenada had decided to move to the area because of its natural beauty and its potential for small-scale viticulture; several of those academics are now moonlighting as boutique winemakers, and are partly responsible for the valley's increasing sensitivity to ecological matters.

Since the Gregorys share this concern, they've developed a camaraderie with the winemaking academics. The Gregorys are close enough with the winemakers to know which of them, on a given day, might be around to let you sample wines before or after they officially open their tasting rooms to the public. Without a guide like Eileen or Phil, you might miss the chance to try Viñas Pijoan's very fine Cabernet-Merlot blend, and to meet the valley's only team of female wine producers at Tres Mujeres, and you might not quite nail down when the valley's coolest winemakers meet for their wine-and-fresh-seafood fiestas at Manzanilla restaurant in Ensenada.

This intimacy with local winemakers informs the Greg­orys' dining room, which, in addition to serving some of the best food in the valley, is also open to non-guests if they reserve a table 24 hours in advance. On my first night at La Villa del Valle, Eileen invited a young Chilean winemaker, José Luis Durand, and his wife for dinner. To go with our shrimp ceviche, tangy with ginger and lime, Durand served a mildly effervescent, Prosecco-like Sauvignon Blanc he'd made for his recent wedding. This Italian quality surprised me. Valle de Guadalupe's heat and rocky soil seem sometimes, to me at least, to produce reds with a certain stalwart, raisiny character suggestive of Italian Amarones.

Durand, who works for local wineries Viñedos Mala­gon, Agrifolia and Norte 32, said he'd come to the Valle de Guadalupe from Chile so he could experiment with different styles of wine and collaborate with small boutique wineries. The valley seems to him to hold great possibility. He describes it as a place where winemakers are not bound by rigid rules: "It's about creativity." Durand served us a bottle of Ïcaro, a blend of Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah and Merlot that he makes for his own label, Vinos Y Terruños. Almost unknown outside Mexico but increasingly renowned in Mexico City, Ïcaro has a chocolaty finish and an elusive note of sandalwood. (La Villa del Valle's tasting room is the only place in the valley where guests can sample Durand's wines, along with La Villa del Valle's own and other local boutique bottlings like Lafarga and Mogor-Badan.) After dinner, the studio accountant and I wandered to the fountain outside, where we stared upward, awestruck, at the Milky Way glowing with unnerving clarity.

The next morning I woke up with a sprig of lavender resting on my forehead. Eileen invited me to go with her to what she considers a must-see for any visitor to the valley: the weekly farmers' market, held on Wednesdays at 11 a.m. at El Mogor, a working ranch owned by a Swiss clan, the Badans, who immigrated to the valley in the late 1940s. Antonio, the eldest Badan son, is an oceanographer who's known around the valley for his Chasselas del Mogor, a crisp white wine that he makes from 100 percent Chasselas; the grape is found mainly in Switzerland, and Antonio is the only winemaker growing it in the Valle de Guadalupe.

When Eileen and I arrived at El Mogor, Antonio was nowhere to be found. Housewives from Ensenada had already descended locust-like on the farmers' market, leaving only two small loaves of organic bread and a few organic zucchini. However, Antonio's sister, Natalia, who also lives on the property, was in her kitchen stirring a mammoth pot of the organic tomato sauce she sells at the market.

The valley is still so casual, or perhaps more accurately, unjaded, that encounters like this remain possible. Natalia invited me into her kitchen. A Badan cousin sat at the kitchen table, admiring a large platter of still-warm calzones. He'd just baked them in a wood-fueled oven that he'd made from local clay. He said he'd prepared them with a sourdough leavened with wild yeast. The calzones, which are a hot item whenever they show up at the weekly market, were incredibly good, filled with five different cheeses and spiced with epazote and peppery Mexican oregano. Natalia, still stirring her pot, said that, yes, frankly, Valle de Guadalupe was a "magical" place, and that just the night before, she and several other women had gone into Antonio's vineyard to wander among the Chasselas vines in the moonlight.

In keeping with El Mogor's dreaminess, Eileen then took me to Paralelo, a new winery founded by Hugo D'Acosta, one of the valley's best-known winemakers and also its foremost visionary. He's renowned locally, and throughout Mexico, for his Vino de Piedra, an intense Tempranillo-Cabernet blend, and Piedra de Sol, a bright, clean Chardonnay. D'Acosta seems intent on impressing people visually, as well. Rising from a flat expanse surrounded by 250 acres of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Barbera and Zinfandel grapes, Paralelo is a Brutalist ziggurat made from concrete and driven earth, inexplicably crowned, at the time I saw it, with a yellow vintage Buick. D'Acosta plans, Eileen said, for Paralelo to pro­duce a series of boutique wines under three different labels in 2007. She went on to explain that D'Acosta is the kind of eclectic guy who enjoys entertaining guests at his other winery, Casa de Piedra, with Kafka-inspired plays that feature talking gorillas. As of this writing, the Buick has been removed from the roof of the ziggurat, which is where the crushing is done for Paralelo's wines.

With Kafka parties and women wandering around vineyards by moon­light, and with grapes being crushed inside a giant ziggurat, a visit to the Valle de Guadalupe in some ways feels like a visit to Mexico's last redoubt of magical realism. I left Eileen at the ziggurat and drove by myself to the valley's northeast corner to call on Doña Lupe, the local organic-gardening doyenne.

In the cozy country store–style boutique on her property, Doña Lupe sells jars of fresh salsa, homemade wine jelly, and persimmon, coconut and cactus jams. She also stocks bundles of local sage that can be dried and burned as incense.

Doña Lupe has lived in the valley for decades and keeps close tabs on the newcomers. Gazing at the mountains, she told me about a rumor that had been going around. Black helicopters, she said, filled with Hollywood executives, had been seen buzzing the valley, looking for land on which to build property.

I had plans to meet Phil Gregory for lunch, so I caught up with him at l'Escuelita, the nonprofit winemaking school that Bordeaux-trained D'Acosta opened in 2004 to promote small-scale winemaking in the valley. The school, a large whitewashed building, sits in El Porvenir, a valley town so small that without the wine school it might easily have been forgotten. Phil brought me to see l'Escuelita's cold-fermentation tanks for grapes; he also showed me a large traditional olive-oil press and said that one of the school's unexpected consequences was the revival of local olive-oil making.

From the school, Phil and I went to Laja, a restaurant on the valley's eastern edge that specializes in local seafood and valley-raised meats. We started our meal with sweet corn and sea urchin gazpacho, the sea urchins having been freshly harvested from the water near Ensenada. We had a glass of Antonio Badan's light, juicy Chas­selas del Mogor with our grilled sardines, which had been caught that morning. Like the restaurant itself, the food was elegant and simple. It reminded me of lunches I've had upstairs in the café at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and I wasn't surprised to learn that Laja's chef, Jair Téllez, had studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and worked at Manhattan's Restaurant Daniel. Téllez himself served us our valley-raised lamb, which had been roasted with black olives and basil. The lamb was juicier and distinctly richer than New Zealand lamb, and after finishing it, I needed to go for a walk.

I left Phil and Téllez to swap local gossip, including a rumor that culinary legend Diana Kennedy, drawn by Valle de Guadalupe's wines and cuisine, had been to the valley, looking to buy property. It later emerged that Kennedy was only helping a friend shop for land—for now, anyway. On my way out of Laja, I noticed in the foyer some huge bouquets of fresh Italian basil and cempoalxochitl, the long-stemmed, highly aromatic wild marigolds used for decoration on the Day of the Dead. The bouquets struck me as an expression of how the valley is marrying its old-Mexico roots with new outside influences: It's a daring union, but the honeymoon so far has been sweet.

Abe Opincar, the author of Fried Butter: A Food Memoir, lives in San Diego.

Original Article

Baja California a Land of Sun, Surf, Sand and ...Wine?

By Robert Whitley

Every weekend thousands of gringos pour across the Mexico-U.S. border into Baja California. Most are going for the sun, the sand and the big surf, or the local lobster with either a cold cerveza or a hand-made margarita. An increasing number, however, are making the trip for the wine.

Mexico's most important wine region is located 60 miles south of San Diego near the fishing village of Ensenada.

The Guadalupe Valley lies northeast of Ensenada, a mere 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and benefits from the maritime influence, which moderates the temperature and makes it possible to grow the classic French grape varieties used for the production of fine table wines.

Prior to the opening of the superb Monte Xanic in 1987, winemaking in the Guadalupe Valley was defined by the mass-produced wines of Pedro Domecq and L.A. Cetto. Monte Xanic's five partners, including U.C. Davis-trained winemaker Hans Backhoff, believed the Valle de Guadalupe had greater potential.

The success of Monte Xanic spawned other ambitious boutique wineries with great expectations for the region. Hugo d'Acosta, longtime winemaker at the Santo Tomas winery in Ensenada, one of the oldest wineries in Mexico, found the inspiration to open Casa de Piedra; and the outstanding Chateau Camou, which is dedicated to the production of Bordeaux-style red and white wines, for a time employed the famed French enologist Michel Rolland as a consultant.

On a recent excursion into Baja (partly for the sun and sand, partly for the lobster and cerveza, and partly for the wine) I found myself navigating the breathtaking two-lane road from Ensenada to Tecate, which is the primary route through the Guadalupe Valley. Breathtaking because the absence of highway guard rails sometimes quite literally takes your breath away.

My first stop was the tiny bodega called Vina de Liceaga, where the production and selection are miniscule. An off-dry Chenin Blanc and a reserve Merlot were promising, though the over-ripe aromas of the Merlot were not particularly to my taste.

L.A. Cetto, well run and with high standards despite its size, was a different experience. Its tasting room and picnic grounds were teeming with tourists, but despite the crowd the staff remained in good humor and extremely helpful.

Much to my surprise Cetto poured an excellent Viognier, a white wine made famous in France's Rhone Valley. A Cabernet Sauvignon, a red Bordeaux-style blend and a Rose of Cabernet were all first-rate, too. I purchased a bottle of the L.A. Cetto Nebbiolo to take home. Though impossible to find in the U.S., I did run across this wine once in a wine bar in Paris. It's probably the finest Nebbiolo I've ever tasted outside of Italy.

Domecq was directly across the highway from L.A. Cetto, but it might as well have been a world away. The tasting room was dreary, which made it a good match for the wines. I wondered as I left if Domecq made better wines than it was pouring in the tasting room, but nothing I tasted during my visit offered the least bit of encouragement.

The highlight of my tour through the valley was a stop at Monte Xanic. As luck would have it, Backhoff was cooling off in the tasting room on this scorching hot day.

Backhoff is an old acquaintance. He and I have both judged at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, and he came to San Diego a couple of years ago to judge at the San Diego International Wine Competition, where I am Director and Chief Judge.

He greeted me with a bit of a gleam in his eye, for he had a couple of special wines to share. Monte Xanic is well known for its Cabernet, its Bordeaux-style red and white blends and its Chardonnay.

On this day, Hans was on to something else.

"These are experimental wines, they are not for sale," he said.

One was a red blend of Aglianico and Nebbiolo, about 90 percent of it Aglianico. This is the most important red grape of southern Italy and produces a world class wine under the right circumstances.

"The Aglianico is doing beautifully," said Backhoff. "The cuttings came from a man locally."

The Nebbiolo Aglianico was exquisitely balanced and beautifully structured, a complex, world class red that's easily among the best wines I've ever tasted from Baja. The other wine that had Backhoff humming was a Petit Verdot, a gorgeous fruit bomb of a wine that reminded me of fresh blueberries.

"We usually blend this for color, but this was so good we had to bottle some on its own," said Hans.

I remember thinking as I left that I couldn't believe these two incredible wines were made in Mexico. Then I remembered my first visit to Monte Xanic many years ago. I went home with a bottle of Chardonnay and poured it during a blind tasting for a number of wine enthusiasts who met regularly at a local restaurant.

The Monte Xanic bested a stellar selection of French white Burgundies and California Chardonnays. As the winner was unbagged, one of the tasters, a confirmed Francophile, buried his face in his hands and cried: 'I don't believe I voted for a wine from Mexico over the Puligny-Montrachet!'

Au contraire, you better believe it, these guys are good.
Email questions or comments to Robert at
Original Article

A Wine Outpost in Baja

Sometimes quality isn't crucial to enjoyment

by Kim Marcus

The seven-seat, single-engine prop plane rolled to a bumpy stop on the gravel airstrip about 350 miles south of the U.S. border. No jetway or terminal, just a stiff wind, sparse shrubs and plenty of cactus. "This is really desolate country," said one of my seatmates, with a look of confusion mixed with fear on her face.

My wife, Wendy, and I were in Baja California, near the small town of Bahia de Los Angeles, which faces the Sea of Cortez, on the east side of the 1,000-mile long peninsula. We had signed up for a holiday week in the desert sun amid one of the richest and most ecologically important marine environments in the world. We were looking forward to whale-watching, prime snorkeling, desert rambles and magnificent vistas.

But not wine. Our base, called La Unica, was not your typical destination resort. It's comprised of a line of rustic thatch-roofed cabins and a central palapa facing an idyllic 1.5-mile stretch of beach on a deserted coastline. No fancy restaurants or belly-up-to-the-bar pools. A Mexican family would prepare our meals, backed up only by the promise of all the beer and margaritas you could drink.

At first it seemed there would be little chance of bringing wine. Due to the size of the aircraft, our baggage weight limit was just 20 pounds per person--barely enough for a change of clothes, shoes, windbreaker and a good book. Not a big beer drinker, I steeled myself for an excursion into the gustatory nuances of tequila.

Yet a wine lover should never give up hope, not even in the most remote of outposts (and "L.A. Bay" certainly qualifies). As our group waited for the launch that would take us on the hour-long ride to La Unica, I spied a mercado on the dusty strip that qualified as Main Street.

My thoughts immediately turned to wine. I knew that Baja had vineyards. Just north of Ensenada is the region called Guadalupe Valley, which qualifies as Mexico's best district for table wines. Indeed, not all of Baja is desert. On the trip south, we had flown over rolling uplands near the border that had turned an emerald green in the winter rains. I could see the distinctive grids of agriculture but couldn't pick out any vineyards.

In the mercado, next to shelves of canned goods and hot sauce, were some small display racks of wine. All the wines were from Baja: red, white and rosé. I searched for the Monte Xanic label, which I knew might offer the best quality. But no luck. I found wines from L.A. Cetto and from another label, called Calafia.

Time was running out. I must admit I flagged a bit faced with the bins of dusty bottles. "Hurry up, the boat is coming," Wendy said. This was split-second decision-making, and I was in the pocket after a shotgun snap from center. I quickly dismissed the whites--I thought they might be oxidized, or worse. The first bottle of red I looked at was a varietal Tempranillo, but I passed; they have a hard time with this variety even north of the border. Perhaps a Zinfandel would be the best choice--it would at least offer ripeness from the hot desert sun. But nothing on this count, either. So I grabbed a Cabernet from Cetto and a vino tinto from Calafia--I never did discern its varietal content--and sped to the cash register.

After four or five days on the beach--and plenty of tequila--it was time for wine. I had become friends with the family that owns La Unica. Fermin Smith is the patriarch of the clan, and he is proud of Baja's wines. We shared the reds together, and he in turn offered a rosé. I must admit, I didn't take any notes. I remember the thick, raisiny fruitiness of the Calafia blend. The Cabernet was lighter and characteristically herbal.

But Fermin and I toasted the coming New Year with gusto from our small vasos of wine. "Que rica," he said. "Muy sabroso," I replied. At the edge of civilization, wine had helped bridge two cultures and seal a friendship. That's 100 points in my book.

Orginal Article

Sunday, December 23, 2007

MEXICO: Working Hard To Make A Better Wine in Baja California

Baja Wine Mexico Ensenada VinoTop Mexican Wines Are Finding a Larger Audience

By Maria Finn

Legend has it that Hernan Cortez and his men exhausted their wine supply when celebrating the conquest of the Aztecs in the 1500s, so the Spaniards decreed that every recipient of a land grant must plant grape vines so that sacramental wine would be plentiful.

While Mexico is one of Latin America's oldest wine-producing countries, it is not well known for it. There is a legacy of protectionist laws that came out of Spain in 1699 that prohibited wine production in its colonies, particularly Mexico.

The Mexican War of Independence lasted from 1810-1821 and its earliest winery is still in operation today: Bodegas de Santo Tomas, opened in 1888 near Ensenada on the Baja California Peninsula. However, early wine made there tended to be sweet and of low quality.

In 1987 a small group of investors came together with the sole purpose of creating quality wine in Mexico. They founded the vineyard Monte Xanic on the Baja peninsula and achieved their goals.

Their wines have become well known in Mexico City, and according to Carlos de la Mora, who came from Baja to New York City to promote Mexican wine, they soon were served by former Mexican President Carlos Salinas at formal dinners held at Los Pinos, or the Mexican equivalent of the White House.

With the bar raised, Bodegas de Santo Tomas hired Hugo d'Acosta. This Mexico City native received his doctorate in enology in Montpelier, France, and then worked in wineries in Italy and California's Napa Valley.

He turned the winery around and then founded his own, Casa de Piedra, in 1997. He is now working with partners to open more boutique wineries. The first, Paralelo, has recently opened. He also started a winemaking school, Estacion de Oficios del Porvenir, to train a new generation of Baja residents in winemaking traditions.

According to Rodrigo Ofner, the head of the food and beverage at the Maroma Resort and Spa, viticulture in Mexico has persisted, and today there is a renewed interest in Mexico's wine industry.

"You're seeing many more Mexican wines being served to tourists in the luxury resorts of the Yucatan," he said. "But much of the upswing in popularity is due to an increase in interest by middle-class Mexican families, especially in Mexico City."

De la Mora explained that right now is a very exciting time for Mexican wine. More and more vintners are being drawn to the winemaking regions of Mexico and better wines are being produced.

"This is still a work in progress," he said. "Most of the wineries are very young, under 20 years old. There's a lot of potential here. Mexico is working to find it's own style in the world of wine."

Go to original article at ABC News