Thursday, December 27, 2007

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.

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