Contrary to what many people might think, Baja California isn’t all American tourists letting loose at Papas y Beer with bottles of Corona. Baja is home to a thriving culinary and craft beer scene, and just 20 minutes inland from the port town of Ensenada lies a burgeoning artisanal wine region known as Valle de Guadalupe.
About 99.9 percent of wine made in Mexico is sold within the country, so very few bottles make it over the border onto American shelves. There are only about 150 wineries in the whole of Mexico, and around 110 of those wineries are in the picturesque Valle de Guadalupe. With the exception of 3 or 4 large producers, most of the wineries produce between 1,000-5,000 cases of wine. These are small, boutique producers who stress the importance of quality over quantity. This is what makes Baja wines special, but it also means consistently getting your favorite Baja wine can be difficult.
Last week, I was lucky enough to explore this vinedos y vinos of the region along with 29 other wine professionals. The landscape is striking, with vines planted everywhere you look and farm animals, palm trees, plants, flowers and bugs mingling in the habitat. The vineyards are not carefully manicured and structured, rather they are wild and sustainable, allowing organic matter to thrive and contribute to the quality of the grapes.
The Valle is a new wine region that’s still trying to figure out its identity, which means you can find some really cool experimental blends and varietals you might not have imagined. Things like old vine palomino, colombard chenin-blanc blends, tempranillo, nebbiolo, zinfandel blended with french varietals, and even skin-contact chardonnay. It’s like the Wild West: anything goes.
From our first day it was easy to see that this small community of winemakers is tight knit. There is a strong sense of community and doing what’s best for the region, not the individual. Producers work together to share ideas, knowledge and even equipment and storage space when a neighbor is in need. This community can trace its roots back to one man, Camillo Magoni.
Camillo moved to Baja from Italy in the ‘60s and helped turn the wine region into what it is today. Working for one of the big player, Cetto, and consulting for different wineries, he conducted meticulous studies and experiments with different grapes, soils, and growing techniques in Baja. Camillo put his heart and soul into the region. One winemaker described him as, “a wealth of knowledge and wisdom.” The winemakers of this region have the utmost respect for the man who literally wrote the book on Valle de Guadalupe. But you wouldn’t know it by talking to him. He is humble, charming and simply loves what he does.
Camillo and Bodega Santo Tomas (Baja’s first winery) recognized the region’s potential years ago. Located less than 20 miles from the coast and surrounded by mountain ranges, the region traps air from the ocean, allowing for mild temperatures in winter and warm temperatures in the summer. No matter how hot the days are, there is always a breeze, and as I learned the hard way, the nights are always cold. The temperature swing from day to night, especially in the summer, is dramatic. Day time temperatures can reach more than 95 degrees while nighttime temperatures drop to well under 50. Naive and new to the area, myself and the rest of my group were unprepared for the nightly chill. The bundled up locals laughed at us unprepared outsiders and lovingly lent out scarfs and sweaters. While the cold is a bit uncomfortable for humans, it provides the grapes much needed relief from the day’s heat.
The drought has hit this region hard. Water is becoming more and more scarce. With little to no help from the government, the producers have had to get creative. Many producers have built reservoirs and have tried to implement dry farming or sustainable farming practices to work with the environment more effectively. One producer even built their own water retainment system.
This is Vinicola Alximia, known as the flying saucer winery because of the shape of the building. This peculiar shape has many benefits, one of which being that the sides of the building have small aqueducts that catch water and funnel it below, where they can store and reuse it as needed. At only around 15 inches of rain per year, every little bit of water retention matters.
Other producers, such as Finca La Carrodilla, are farming biodynamically and adding gardens to their vineyards in order to teach people in the community about sustainable gardening. Viticulturist Jimena explains that in order to have a successful wine region and vineyards, you must have a sustainable community as well. Finca La Carodilla sells their organically farmed vegetables to local restaurants and gives 50% of the proceeds to the people who farm the crops.
While there are many challenges facing the region’s producers, these wines have love, soul and quality packed into every bottle. One winemaker put it thusly, "Our challenges as Mexican wine makers are the alpha and omega. Alpha is water and how we struggle with a limited resource, and omega is the market that we struggle to identify ourselves in." Don’t think of Valle de Guadalupe as a region that makes a particular style of wine, but as a region with infinite possibilities. So, next time you have a few days off, head down to the Valle and explore the region and meet the people that make it so special.
Can’t wait that long? You don’t have to. This Thursday between 5:30pm - 7:00pm, the Hollywood store will be showcasing four different producers of Valle de Guadalupe and hosting two winemakers to talk to you about the region. Join us to learn more about this up-and-coming region.