Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Great Baja Wine Story

Part of the joy of selling Baja Real Estate in Puerto Nuevo is easy access to the sites and flavors that Abe descrives in this great story!

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 wine makers, 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.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Baja Wine - The next frontier of great wine?

Friday, February 8, 2008

This is a great article about Guadalupe Valley wine by The Napa Register

L. PIERCE CARSON Napa Register Staff Writer

Savvy vintners from all over the world are betting that Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley may well be the next frontier for New World wine.

Located less than 100 miles southeast of San Diego — and only a few minutes drive from Ensenada, Baja California’s third largest city — Guadalupe Valley is only now being recognized for its potential as a world-class winegrowing region.

Although wine has been made in the region for centuries, it’s only in the last two decades that producers from around the world began investing in its winemaking operations.

The present and future of Guadalupe Valley was the focus of a seminar and public wine tasting at Copia two weeks ago.

Three representatives of the region’s wine trade brought locals up to date during a morning question-and-answer session, aided by a local vintner who knows Guadalupe Valley well — Mexico-born Amelia Ceja, partner in Ceja Vineyards.

The visitors from Guadalupe Valley represented cellars with varied production totals: Marco Antonio Amador, senior marketing director for the 600,000 case L.A. Cetto; Israel Zenteno, vineyard manager for the 40,000 case Monte Xanic; and Thomas Egli, winemaker for 3,000 case Casa de Piedra.

They spoke about the region’s ideal climate for growing grapes, similar to that of San Diego. Temperatures top out at 90 to 95 degrees on average during summer months and rarely soar above 110 on a few hot days, with winter lows bottoming out at 25 degrees.

Water is scarce, they noted. The winter rain season is short and the area is prone to prolonged droughts.

During the growing season, the temperature ranges from 60s at night to 90s in the daytime, and the area is prone to fog.

Situated at 1,400 feet above sea level, Guadalupe Valley is about 10 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.

On average, soils on the flat valley floor are sandy, those on the hillside more alluvial in composition.

At present, the loosely knit association of 27 producers is undertaking a project mapping the region’s diverse soils, and trying to define the valley’s terroir.

About two-thirds the size of the Napa Valley, some 2,200 hectares are planted to grapes. Dry farming is rare, they said, as most vines are irrigated.

The first cabernet sauvignon was planted in Guadalupe Valley in 1974, Zenteno noted, and cabernet is the largest planted grape variety at present. Malbec, tempranillo, grenache and syrah also do well in this clime, he added.

The majority of the (grape) plantings are red,” Zenteno said. “It’s a little tricky to make white wine, although chenin blanc does develop nicely in the valley. But we are just now experimenting (with various grape varieties).”

Amador revealed that his company, L.A. Cetto, has just launched a 10-year vineyard experiment incorporating 50 varietals.

“Guadalupe Valley reminds me of what Napa Valley was in the 1970s,” interjected Ceja, “especially with the experimentation. I believe you will see exceptional wines coming from Guadalupe Valley.” Ceja feels the region will become a prime supplier of first rate cabernet sauvignon.

“Water is the key to growing grapes in Guadalupe Valley,” declared Egli. “We’re running out of water.” He said valley grapegrowers have to share existing water supplies with the city of Ensenada, which is experiencing considerable growth at the moment.

Also discussed were the difficulties in the export/import business involving Mexico and the United States. Ceja said regulations contained in NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have seriously curbed wine trade with our neighbors in Canada and Mexico.

“We can ship (wine) to the rest of the world, but we can’t ship to our neighbors,” she noted.

On top of that, border states impose their own restrictions. For example, an individual returning from Mexico may only bring one liter of wine into California. In Arizona, that amount jumps to six liters.

“Most producers (in Guadalupe Valley) are interested in quality, not in making huge volumes for export,” concluded Egli.

And quality was indeed evident in the wines Egli offered during the afternoon walkaround tasting:

Arenal 2005 Ensemble ($35): a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, barbera and petite sirah for the experimental effort label from Casa de Piedra. A spicy, fruity nose leads to a mouth full of ripe blackberries, with a sweet/tart finish of cassis. A lush, well structured wine from a leader in Guadalupe Valley wine quality.

Casa de Piedra Vino de Piedra Tinto ($55): Piedra is Spanish for stone and this particular medium-bodied red has a mineral edge that undoubtedly speaks to the vineyard’s stony makeup. It’s an attractive blend of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon (50/50) with lots of strawberry and spice.

For lunch that day, Jeff Mosher, executive chef of Julia’s Kitchen, put together a tasting menu featuring a few of the wines from Guadalupe Valley.

Monte Xanic 2005 Limited Edition Malbec ($15): Paired with the chef’s seared ahi dish — which incorporated quinoa/citrus salad, avocado puree and chipotle beurre blanc — this lush, velvety, well-balanced malbec offered red fruit flavors, integrated with ripe tannins, a touch of mint on the lengthy finish and a hint of oak, that made this exceptional dish even better. It was the best pairing of the day, a smooth, easy-to-drink Bordeaux grape south-of-the-border style, and a bargain at that.

L.A. Cetto 2003 Nebbiolo ($15): Paired with pan-seared beef tenderloin slices and sweet potato puree, this Italian varietal seems to like its new Guadalupe Valley home. An elegant, silky nebbiolo with soft tannins and tasty ripe blackberries from entry to finish. While it’s a bit short on finish, its soft palate and fruity flavors made this an exciting pairing.

A couple of other wines worth seeking out:

L.A. Cetto 2005 Petite Sirah ($6): An inky, perfumy red with sweet tannins and cherry/grape flavors. Lots of stuffing, a vibrant example of this variety with a pleasant ripe blackfruit finish. A great deal.

Monte Xanic 2006 Chenin Blanc/Colombard ($10): Since there’s little more than 1 percent colombard in the blend, it’s anybody’s guess why the firm displays the varietal name so prominently on the label. Slightly off-dry, it tastes of ripe peaches and honey and smells the same. A little zing on the finish makes it a nice sipper to be paired with any number of hors d’oeuvres.

At this point, you’ll have to drive down to Baja to taste and pick up the Casa de Piedra wines. The wines of L.A. Cetto are abundant in the Los Angeles area and are winging their way northward as winery principals have complied with U.S. label regulations. Monte Xanic will be available in California any day now, its owners having jumped through all requisite NAFTA hoops.

Robert's comments: The new Marketplace at El Milagro Baja will feature these wines and more. http;// They are also available at Ophelia's Restaurant in Ensenada. Check out our other bolg on Ensenada

Until later - gotta go open a bottle of casa Piedra!

Posted by Robert at 6:40 PM 0 comments

Labels: baja wine, el milagro, valle de guadalupe

Monday, February 4, 2008

Baja Wine - More interesting wineries to visit

This link is for another blog on Mexican wines. They have a series of links to wineries that offer public tours.

Enjoy the fruits of Baja! Wine is Food.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Baja Wine Region - Bacground and links

This is excerpted from - nicely done.
Baja California's three wine-producing areas are all located within 120 miles of the west coast.
San Antonio de las Minas (which includes the Valleys of Guadalupe and Calafia), San Vincente Valley, and Santo Tomás Valley on the Baja Peninsula grow nearly ninety percent of all Mexican wine grapes.
Ensenada, 50 miles southeast of San Diego, is a center of Mexican wine growing with a convenient day trip to the beach and nearby winery visits complete with tours and tasting. A must-see visit during the summer is the Fiestas de la Vendimia, the vintage festival in August, which is fun for both locals and tourists alike.
Indeed, an increasing number of wine connosiuers from Callifornia make regular trips to the region - which has been recently giving its Northern neighbor a run for the money in terms of wine quality and consistency.
On the Web, find out why everyone else is suddenly talking about the newest 300 year-old secret from Mexico ...
Ensenada Wineries, Festivals and Wine Tasting - Looking for wineries in the Ensenada area? That includes San Vicente, Santo Tomás and Guadalupe, probably the best known of Mexico's wine areas. Check out the map with contact information and location details. The Fiestas de la Vendimia lasts for 10 days in early August and gives you a chance to sample the young vintages.
Château Camou - One of the top rated wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe, you can peek into the wine cellars, see their long list of awards and scan through magazines that have featured their wines. Information on tours is available. Skip the guest book which seems to be a repository of trash email.
Monte Xanic - We include this Spanish-only site because it's a winery that you will hear about if you look anywhere for Mexican wines. If you don't habla, click on the ¿quienes somos? section where the pictures tell the story.
The Spirit of Wine - Exploring Mexican Wine - The exploration is limited to the Baja area wines, but that's hardly a limitation. Flowery prose on the spirit and basics of wine grapes and types leads to a good review of several Mexican wines.
Mexico's Baja Region - An enthusiatic article offers specific wine tips from the wineries in this area. This virtual tour of the Baja wineries presents a balanced picture of the wines, but picks out winners from the "Big Three" as well as smaller boutique wineries in this Mexican region.
Yo Quiero Baja Wine - The Wine X style comes through in the punchy prose that gets the point across that wines from Baja are "good in an 'I-would-actually-buy-this' way!" A nice skip through history and reviews of the top wineries lead to several recommendations to sample for yourself. Now you can't say no one told you...
Valle de Guadalupe - Sign on San Diego takes you on a tour of the Guadalupe wine scene with more than a few hints that Napa may have some stiff competition in a few years if the area develops to its full potential.
Baja Wineries - Ignore the stuff on the top of the page and scroll down to the meat. The list of Baja wineries is extensive and, while there are no links to the sites, there are some contact email addresses and telephone numbers.
Casa de Piedra - A small winery, where the products range in quality and color. The 2000 white made here was a production of a little over 400 bottles and is sold out.
This is a nice article from the San Francisco Chronicle about Baja Wine!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cruise from LA to Ensenada Wine Cruise

This seems like an interesting cruise and way to see Baja's Wine Country!

May 12-16 Wine Cruise! Baja Mexico & Catalina Island
Date: May 12, 2008 (Mon) - May 16, 2008 (Fri)
Time: 1:00 PM - 8:00 AM
Cost: As low as $425.00/pp +taxes

Place: The Andrade Wine Group w/ Carnival Cruise LinesLong Beach, CA

Phone: 925-370-0274 Email: getEmail('events','','Email Event Organizer','161297');
Email Event Organizer Id: #161297

Baja Wine Tasting in The Napa Valley 1/26/08

Wines of Baja Tasting Event: January 26, Napa.

Link for this article (and a great wine blog)