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We crossed into Mexico from California and headed west through Tijuana on a road that ran close to the tall, rust-colored slats that mark the border.
Pedro, the driver, who was Mexican, said dryly, "There's the wall," then resumed in excellent English his analysis of what had gone so bewilderingly wrong with the San Diego Padres, his team, this past baseball season. I listened while I stared at the wall. I had not seen it before, only photos. It was actually two parallel walls with a kind of no man’s land in between. The dual barricades ran along the flat land where we were passing, then ahead of us, they plunged down a hill out of sight and then rose again up the steep incline out of the ravine, then disappeared again behind a more distant hill. In New York, where I live, the wall is an idea, a political statement. even a metaphor. Seeing it on the U.S.- Mexico border, it was real, forbidding and, to me, disturbing.
We turned south and soon were traveling on the coastal toll road with the Pacific Ocean spreading endlessly beside us. The driver was one of those garrulous people for whom a mere grunt of assent is taken as encouragement for further discourse.
Now, because we were headed to Mexico's major wine producing region, he was generously providing his perspective on Mexican drinking habits..
"In Mexico, we like beer," he said. "We like Coca-Cola. We don’t drink much wine. It is not something we are used to. Some people mix cheap wine with Coca-Cola. We call it calimocha.”
My destination was the Valle de Guadalupe. Ever since I was introduced to an astonishingly good Mexican wine from this region of Baja California at a wine bar in Manhattan, I had been curious about Mexican wine. Then, a few months ago, I happened to read that the wine industry was exploding in the Valley, about an hour south of the border. where 90 percent of Mexican wine is produced. I decided then to visit the area and sample the wine, even though I am far from a wine connoisseur.
As we turned inland toward the valley, I asked Pedro if he had ever had wine from the Valle de Guadalupe. He said yes, and that he liked them generally and liked some of them very much. He told me to be sure to try a local mezcal called Lucifer.
We wound our way through low mountains that spilled onto a vast plain that extended to another mountain range in the hazy distance. El Valle. It was an enormous canvas of greens and browns — olives trees, vineyards and desert scrub and parched fields.
We passed a succession of blue signs.
“Each blue signs is for a vineyard,” Pedro said.
We went through through a couple of areas that could only generously be described as towns. They were more like a random collection of houses and a few stores. They were the first places in Mexico where I hadn’t seen a single Oxxo, the omnipresent mini-marts.
Pedro dropped me at my hotel, Adobe Guadalupe.
The property was stunning. The vineyard in its neat rows spread into the distance toward a range of mountains. There was a small corral containing about half a dozen white horses. The dune-colored inn itself was built around a small courtyard with a fountain in the middle. On the one side were the six guest rooms. On the other was an opulent dining room, a tastefully decorated drawing room, a sumptuous library and tucked away in a corner out of sight, the office of the owner, Tru Miller, who along with her late husband, Donald, a retired California banker, opened Adobe in 1997. At the time, there were half a dozen wineries in the entire valley. Today, there are close to 200.
I went for a walk, wandering down by the vineyards. There was a large, boisterous party in progress populated by a group of animated, smartly attired women and men. Children raced around, laughing and giggling.
At 4 pm, there was a wine tasting at Adobe. I was one of three guests in attendance. The other two were a woman, a gynecologist from Tijuana and her adult daughter down for a weekend of wine and relaxation. Their English was far better than my Spanish, so we spoke English.
Each of the Adobe wines was named after an archangel. I would learn later why.
Suddenly, our conversation was drowned out by the loud drone of a helicopter. The noise abated but then it returned, even louder. The three of us stepped outside to investigate. The chopper was only 40 or 50 feet up, hovering close to where the partygoers gathered. Police? But there was no insignia on the aircraft. I watched as someone on the helicopter leaned out and poured a blue powder from a container. The crowd below cheered wildly. Then the helicopter leaned to one side and flew away.
The younger woman said, “Oh, it's a gender reveal party.” She paused, then added, “Rich Mexicans.” It was more commentary than description.
I spent the next day with a guide who had been arranged by a friend of a friend who lives in El Valle. She was a charming, elegant woman from Ensenada who was doing this for the time.
We went for breakfast at La Cocina de Doña Esthela, a legendary local restaurant famous for hearty breakfasts. There was a long line of cars queued up on the dirt road leading to Esthela’s, testament both to its popularity and the fact they take no reservations.
Doña Esthela started out selling burritos from a stand in front of the nearby La Loma winery. The stand became popular, word spread, which allowed her to open a small restaurant and, with ever greater success, the restaurant kept expanding.
My breakfast was hearty, alright, and excellent. We had machaca (shredded beef), then borrega (lamb), washed down by sweet Mexican coffee spiced with cinnamon. Doña Esthela insisted we try a plate of ribs, so we had that too.
Finally, she offered us her signature pancakes. By then, I was so stuffed, I declined. Mistake. My demurral appeared to insult her. She clucked her tongue and abruptly turned away. Fortunately, she had gotten over it by the time we said our farewells.
Our first vineyard stop was Santo Tomas, the oldest in the area. It opened in the late 19th century. The winery features a beautiful two-tiered outdoor area with a commanding view of the valley.I will refrain from grading or analyzing the wines I sampled during my time in the valley. My knowledge of wine goes no deeper than knowing what I like. With that caveat, I enjoyed several of the wines I had at Santo Tomas.
Next, we visited Casa de Piedra, where I embarrassed myself trying to tell the young woman at the entrance that I liked the belt she wore — with a peace sign buckle. Confusing the Spanish word cintura for cinturon, I inadvertently had said: “I like your waist.” She looked puzzled, then Ivonne quickly rescued me by explaining my error. Laughter ensued, but I was mortified.
“You’re going to tell this story to your friends, aren’t you?” I said to Ivonne.
She smiled. “Yes.”
I had a private tasting at the Casa de Piedra winery. The sommelier taught me to inhale, drink, swirl, taste and exhale — a ritual I would’ve found pretentious had I witnessed someone else doing it before today. But it really did enhance the taste and the experience. Who knew? Okay. A lot of people knew. But it was new for me.
My final stop was at Bodega de Cieli, a winery/craft brewery founded and run by Ron McCabe, that friend of my friend.
I found Ron on the veranda overlooking his small vineyard and the valley locked into an animated conversation in Spanish at a table with friends or maybe they were customers. I got the sense that distinction didn't mean much there.
Ron, who is 75 and a writer, turned out to be one of those energetic, effortlessly charming characters with whom you feel instantly like you’ve been pals for years. By tradition and long experience, I am at heart a beer guy. I started off with a flight of six beers that Ron produces and they were great.
“I was in the Valle three years when the bug to make wine hit,” Ron said. “I got into beer by accident when I figured out that to make good wine I needed time for the wine to age in barrels and condition in bottles. Making beer was the perfect solution in order to have something to sell while I built a wine inventory.”
That first year, Cieli produced three barrels of wine which yielded 70 cases. Ten years later, they produce 50 barrels or 1,200 cases, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Brunelo, Barbera and Grenache.
Wielding a “wine thief” — which looks like a giant metal syringe — Ron took me to the basement to taste the Nebbiolo and Sangiovese straight from the barrel. It reminded me of the time in Greece many years ago when I drank goat milk straight from a goat. You can’t get much fresher than that. Although a serious oenophile would no doubt be disgusted at the idea of tasting wine after downing a flight of beer, it didn't impede my enjoyment of them.
On my final day in the Valley, I finally got to meet Tru Miller. She is a wonderful, warm woman and a natural storyteller with an easy laugh. She asked me if I wanted anything to drink. Because she is originally from Holland, joking, I asked for jenever, a Dutch liquor loosely related to gin. She had a bottle chilling in the freezer, so we bonded over Dutch jenever in Mexico.
That afternoon, I took a long way and wandered into “town.” It's called El Porvenir, the future in English. It seemed very much stuck in the sleepy small-town past. I came across a total of four people on my walk. One was tending the plants in the median of what appeared to be the main street, one of the few that was paved. Two others were customers in a mini-mart and the gruff woman running the cash register. Outside, a dog barked. An occasional car passed. The sun beat down. Still I wondered how long before El Valle de Guadalupe is "discovered"? It's already well on its way. With continued growth, is the "other side" of progress inevitable? Crowds. Traffic. Overdevelopment. Rising prices for land and lodging. Pressure on the already scant water resources. Oxxos on every corner.
That evening, it poured rain, apparently very unusual in this desert region. I dined with Tru and her agronomist, Jose Fernandez. Adobe's restaurant, El Cuervo, was closed that evening, so the chef from there cooked just for us. The meal was exquisite. Miso soup. Salad. Mushrooms. An amazingly delicious cut of beef. White and then red Adobe wines. We each had a shot of Lucifer mezcal, which is made by Adobe, to cap the meal.Tru and her late husband first came to El Valle after their son, Arlo, died in an automobile accident. He had loved Mexico and, on a visit to Notre Dame de Paris, they had seen a Mexican serape on a chair. A sign? They thought so, so they bought land in the Valle de Guadalupe, built the hacienda and started making wine.
“I just knew that I wanted six wines named after archangels for my son,” Tru said. That explained the labels, Miguel, Rafael, Kurbiel, etc.
In Mexico, the local wines are finally taking off, last year finally surpassing sales of imported wines. Yet Mexican wines remain difficult to impossible to find outside of Mexico. Only one person I know personally had any idea there is such a thing as Mexican wine. To much of the world, it’s a secret. It shouldn’t be.
The morning of my last day, Señor Fernandez took me out to the vineyard where the final grapes — cabernet — of the fall harvest were being collected. Four workers — men and women — were squatting and down on their knees in the mud, cutting the grapes from the vines and tossing them into straw baskets. Tough, exhausting work.
Later that day, I got a ride to Ensenada. The driver told me he had come to the valley to become a winemaker and produced a small quantity that he bottled and sold. Each year, he learned more and his wine got better, he told me.
I spent the next day in Ensenada, which was pleasant enough, but felt jangly and intense after the tranquility of the Valley. I missed it already.
The following morning, Pedro picked me up and took me to the Otay Mesa border crossing in Tijuana. I had to get out of the vehicle and wait in line to be processed by U.S. Customs. Almost everyone was Mexican. They waited quietly and patiently as vendors and entertainers worked the line. I waited quietly and impatiently. Then, it was my turn and I was across the border and back in America. Everything seemed bright and new and sterile. I was home.