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Baja: A 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.

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.

Published October 2007
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