“A great wine education class. I was amazed by the instructor's wealth of knowledge, the
great wines to taste and talk about, and the small, intimate class size. A fun way to learn a lot
—Will, Ritchie Creek Vineyards
In northern California the phrase "weekend in the wine country" is met with instant recognition and a smile connoting mutual appreciation. The finer things in life. Sophistication. Maturity. The phrase "weekend in Mexico," on the other hand, more often occasions a quick glance around the room and the type of conspiratorial grin one expects from a ticket scalper. Let's be honest. There may be $100 bottles of aged tequila on the market, and poseurs who extol the taste characteristics of same, but ask anybody in the U.S. to describe their most memorable experience with tequila and 99% of the time you'll get a tale of unimaginable drunkeness leading to wanton disregard for one's health and fiscal well-being. The image of Mexico and the image of fine wine/food are not compartmentalized together in the minds of most Americans. If you are over 25, it may be time to adjust that picture. A wonderfully exotic adventure, replete with world-class wine and food discoveries, is only about an eight-hour drive away. Perfect for a four- or five-day escape.
Let's start with some background. Mexico has the longest wine history in the New World. Classic vinifera grapes arrived there with the Spaniards in the early 1500s, a century before other European colonists began experimenting (unsuccessfully) with them on the east coast of North America. Mexico even shares with Canada and the U.S. a tradition of Prohibition because the Spanish Crown eventually forbade planting grapes in the New World hoping to use wines from the motherland as a trade commodity. The man most remembered as the instigator of Mexico's war of independence from Spain in the early 1820s, Father Hidalgo, originally rebelled against the Crown's prohibition on vines because he wanted to help his impoverished Indian parishioners grow a product they could sell. He was arrested and martyred for this effort. The oldest winery in the New World is in the Mexican Highlands in Parras, between Torreon and Saltillo. Vinifera grapes grow well enough there, because the climate is moderate at 5-6,000 feet of elevation, even though the latitude at 25Â° is not much north of the Tropic of Cancer. Quality, however, is not very distinctive and most of the grapes in that region today are distilled into brandy.
The ban on grape growing was historically much harder to enforce as settlements moved further away from the seat of Spanish authority in Mexico City. That explains how vineyards only developed as mainstays of mission life in what became the states of New Mexico and California. Quality was also better at latitudes further from the tropics. The centerpiece of fine wine production in what remains Mexico today is her most northerly state, Baja Norte California, primarily in the Valle de Guadalupe, an east-west running valley which opens on the bay at Ensenada, Bahia Todos Santos. The Guadalupe Valley is at 32Â°N lattitude. That makes it further north than the most productive wine regions of Arizona, New Mexico or Texas. It puts it on a par with the Swan River and the Hunter Valley regions in Australia, as well as with the most productive districts of South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Moreover, the same maritime effect which makes coastal valleys up and down California cooler than inland locations (even as far north as Redding), produces cooling afternoon breezes in the Guadalupe Valley all summer long.
The effect of winds from the Pacific Ocean funneling across Bahia Todos Santos into the Guadalupe Valley can't really be considered too much of a secret. One of the top three surfing locations in the world for big waves is on an island in that bay (the other two are Maverick, just north of Half Moon Bay, and the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii). In 1999 a surfing magazine offered $50,000 for the picture of a surfer on the biggest wave photographed that year. The winner was snapped from a helicopter on a 45-foot crusher at Isle de Todos Santos.
Ensenada is 90 miles south of the US border. The drive takes about an hour and a half on a well maintained toll road down the coast. Far from being a desolate, unpopulated region, this stretch of coastline is developing very rapidly as a site for semi-luxurious second homes and time-share resort operations. Freehold ownership right on the water is not allowed, but the Mexican government does grant 30- to 50-year leaseholds. The result has been a steady influx of artisan craftsman, street vendors and entertainment facilities on the traffic snarled coastal business street which runs from Rosarito south around Bahia Descanso. The toll road remains unaffected though. This district has become so popular with young U.S. daytrippers it could easily be mistaken for a modern-day Fort Lauderdale, or Myrtle Beach during Spring Break, were it not for the omnipresent smell of diesel fuel and frying corn which clearly confers Mexican authenticity. Organized bicycle and distance footraces are a frequent morning diversion. Motorcycles and vintage cars also receive an unusual amount of attention, adding to the already hormonal brew. But the coastline becomes more rugged further south, and the last twenty miles of drive time into Ensenada features a sense of isolation and the spectacular cliff-side ocean views one might more readily associate with Big Sur.
The road through Guadalupe Valley departs from the main route into Ensenada a couple miles north of the town center. It is marked Hwy 3 to Tecate. The wineries are well back into the valley, at an elevation of some 1,200 to 1,800 feet, 16 to 25 miles from the coast. Small, dry-farmed, head-pruned vineyards will be seen tucked in among olive groves at a lower elevation about halfway to the wineries. That district is called San Antonio de las Minas. Keep an eye out for it. It gives an impression of pastoral fecundity by comparison to the treeless, wind swept slopes of the canyon leading up from the coast. The San Antonio Valley is also cooler than the more easterly reaches of Valle de Guadalupe further up, and you may get a chance to sample some wines which are made primarily from San Antonio fruit, e.g. the Zinfandel at Ch. Camou labeled Fleur de Guadalupe. Throughout northern Mexico the single largest impediment to wide scale agricultural development is access to water. I believe grapes grown in the San Antonio section of Guadalupe Valley have certain climatic advantages, but because of their downstream location on the Guadalupe River, vineyards there have a difficult time getting obtaining water rights. Hence expansion there is not very likely unless some sort of gray water reclamation scheme can be hatched.
The first two wineries reached from the west in Guadalupe Valley make the most expensive, and arguably the best quality wines. Those are Monte Xanic (Indian word for a specific local flower; pronounced sha NEEK) and Chateau Camou (pronounced kam OOH). Do not expect Napa Valley-style signage to aid in your search. Hwy 3 crosses the (often apparently dry) Guadalupe riverbed into the small hamlet of Francisco Zarco. Hwy 3 continues on to the east, but a paved road cuts off at a sharply oblique angle to the left (i.e. back toward the west). Take that road. You can't miss it. The key phrase is 'paved.' Slow down to 10 mph and keep a sharp eye out for anything which could possibly be construed as a stop sign. Historically, by which I mean prior to the advent of the Vicente Fox federal administration, the municipality of Francisco Zarco has not been able to pay their three-man police force a living wage. Hence those worthies support themselves in a manner not entirely dissimilar to that of San Francisco. They hand out traffic tickets. Sure, in Francisco Zarco the officer is about 16-years-old, armed with an automatic weapon, and only speaks Spanish, but the result is exactly the same â€“ a US$20-35 nudge, depending (it seems) on how many people are in your vehicle and how much the vehicle cost new. Just as you can mail in this compulsory contribution for the privilege of doing business in San Francisco, in Francisco Zarco you can hand it over on the spot and save yourself the trouble of going 'downtown' to speak with an even less sympathetic individual in English. In Mexico this standard practice is called mordita (little bite), in San Francisco it is called a parking ticket. It occurs with about the same amount of frequency, and you should treat it with about the same amount of concern and/or righteous indignation.
Continue straight along the road, even after the paving ends, bearing right at the only fork. The fork is at Cucino Fuentes, your best bet for lunch. Ask for the pork tortas. About a quarter mile past the fork you will see grapevines and the gate for Monte Xanic. They are open to the public on Saturdays, or you can make an appointment by sending an email inquiry to their Marketing Director Mark Hojel email@example.com. Monte Xanic is partially owned by the Edmund de Rothschild family from Ch. Lafite in Bordeaux. They are distributed in the U.S. by the Chalone group. Read both these points as saying, 'They do not give the wine away.' Their Cabernet Sauvignon and their Cab/Merlot blend are both aged in French oak purchased new each year. The winery is thoroughly modern. Hans Backhoff, winemaker and part-owner, was born in Mexico (of German parents), but educated in Britain. There are better wines than Monte Xanic made in Norte California, but there are also a huge number which do not rise to Monte Xanic's standard. In fact most judges would count on the fingers of one hand wines from Livermore Valley which they could call reliably superior to Monte Xanic.
The second winery is this district is another quarter mile further along the dirt road than Monte Xanic, then a right turn north for about a mile of dirt driveway through fenced farm lands and past the high rocky bluff which defines the back side of Monte Xanic. Ch. Camou is actually in its own little canyon on the Rio San Miguel. Less sophisticated from a marketing and visitors standpoint, Ch. Camou is a more romantic discovery. They have some very old vines and a charmingly designed winery with a very capable winemaker. Their estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc is noteworthy, and their Zinfandel grown in San Antonio represents an excellent bargain. Wouldn't hurt to call ahead, and you might well start with their U.S. sales agent, Gary Senhert, at (619) 233-8466.
The biggest wineries in Mexico are located another five miles further along Hwy 3 out of Francisco Zarco in the direction of Tecate. That district is technically known as the Calafia Valley, although it is easiest to think of it as the high end of Valle de Guadalupe where the river originates. Water is more plentiful here. Several thousand acres of trellised, irrigated vines in very light, sandy soil produce wine for Domecq and for L.A. Cetto wineries. Both have well trafficked tasting rooms and prominent signage on the highway. A tour at Domecq affords one an informative glimpse of traditional Spanish notions about making and aging wines. It's a style dramatically different from current thought in Napa and Sonoma â€“ definitely Old World. Cetto has some wonderfully unique assets. Their founder arrived from the Piedmonte region of Italy in the 1920's with a certain clone of the Nebbiolo grape, which makes Barolo in Italy. No one in Norte California seems to have access to this particular clone of the grape because no one other than Cetto has ever had any notable success with Nebbiolo. Cetto's is dense, dark, tarry, and capable of fine bouquet development over 15 years in the bottle. They also make outstanding Petite Sirah. Both wines match perfectly with grilled beef â€“ a fact brought graphically home by the fact Cetto's winery features a bull ring on the premises. It is part of their entertainment pavilion which they use on alternate Saturdays throughout the summer for concerts and art shows. The biggest week for winery hospitality in Baja is the Fiesta de la Vendemia (Harvest Festival) at the end of August each year. Each winery hosts a separate evening with a different theme. One night is always a paella competition; others range from the gypsy flair of Flamenco guitar to colorful indigenous folk dances.
The best place to take the measure of Baja's oldest winery is in the town of Ensenada proper. They own both sides of Miramar Street between 6th and 7th streets. Bodegas Santo Tomas has a distinquished history, including ownership by the Rodriques family (president of Mexico before Cardenas) between 1925 and 1967. Their modern winery is 30 miles south of Ensenada in the Valle de Santo Tomas. It is a fine piece of architecture which draws inspiration from Aztec rather than colonial Spanish influences. But the older, historic winery in downtown Ensenada is the place with the world-class restaurant. They have turned their old bottling line (La Embottilladora Vieja is the name) into a supremely romantic, candle-lit room adorned with huge casks. The restaurant offers Santo Tomas vintages going back 15 years to accompany very sophisticated preparations of local seafood (try the marlin carpaccio) and creative variations on classic main dishes. The goat osso buco is a superb match with their '90 Cabernet, and you'll never taste a better wine/food pairing than their calamari sauteed with a beet juice reduction side-by-side with their '95 Tempranillo. Service was excellent, and the prices quite reasonable. In fact, the most expensive wine on their list is the co-operative effort they produced with Wente called Duette. Half of that wine came from Livermore, the other half from Valle de Santo Tomas. It was barrel aged in Wente barrels at Bodegas Santa Tomas.
You could drive back to the U.S. after dinner, but you'd be missing a great chance for semi-tropical relaxation at bargain prices. Estero Beach Resort (ph 011-526-176-6225) is on the southern side of Ensenada, well marked by road signs, and priced about half to a third of what you would expect to pay for comparable facilities back home. Clean rooms with an ocean view, opening right onto the swim-up bar and hot tubs, go for US$100. They have jet ski rentals in the lagoon, tennis and a putting green, with horseback riding and a good quality golf course nearby. Bahia Todos Santos is well-known as a refuge for yachtsmen, and you can arrange sailing trips by the hour or by the day at several locations along the Malicon (marina boardwalk in town). Don't forget to try a fish taco. And do pronounce 'Malicon' carefully when addressing one of the locals. Inadvertently turning the 'l' into an 'r' may appear to be an inquiry about your informant's sexual preference, a matter which is not treated quite as cavalierly in Mexico as it is in the San Francisco Bay Area.
See www.enjoyensenada.com for maps and listings of other restaurants, accommodations, and cultural activities.