Baja Burgandy

On Air Magazine – March 2007

It hit me as I traversed the sinuous toll-road that hugs the cliffs south of Tijuana.  Though I’d driven Baja California a dozen times, I had never once enjoyed a glass of wine here. Baja’s spectacular beaches practically scream for cerveza. But I’d recently heard about Las Brisas del Valle, a new inn owned by a Hollywood producer gone AWOL in the Guadalupe Valley – an up and coming wine region just 90 minutes south of the US border. This trip would be all about vino.

Wine is not exactly new to Baja. What is now La Ruta del Vino was once a migratory route for Spanish missionaries. The monks planted vineyards near the mission, cultivated and crushed grapes, and got drunk on sugar-sweet red wine. But it wasn’t until the early nineties that serious winemaking took root. That’s when Baja wines first became sought after by global conniseurs. Today Baja wines are shipped to fine restaurants as far away as Thailand, and over the last fifteen years, they have won gold medals from the Vinales International and Challenge International competitions in France and from dozens of wine festivals in California.

I had my first glass after arriving at Las Brisas, a palatial yet earthy Tuscan style B&B accented with colorful local art. The last few miles on a rutted dirt road had given me, and my Honda Hybrid, the shakes. Nothing a little Grenache couldn’t cure. This was Phil’s Grenache. Phil & Eileen Gregory own Las Brisas, and after just over a year in the Valley, Phil had already bottled a vintage. It had a certain brashness that would become familiar over the next few days. We enjoyed it over an incredible dinner of shrimp carpaccio drizzled in chili oil and Mako filet in mole sauce.

The next day, Eileen, the former movie producer, led me on a tour of her favorite wineries. “I’m excited for you to meet the people here,” she said. “They are the most fantastic people I’ve ever met.” It didn’t take long to see her point. Scattered among the Guadalupe Valley’s patchwork of vineyards, interspersed with scrub brush, boulder fields, and surrounded by stunning mountain views, is a vibrant community of oceanographers, architects, artists, and chefs who are all diving into second careers as wine makers.

Consider Antonio Badan, a tenured professor and Global Warming researcher at the University of Baja California who started making wine on the ranch where he was born 20 years ago. He uses a sustainable approach to create Mogor-Badan’s Cab-Franc. His cattle fertilize the vines. Eggs from his chickens clarify it, and the limestone cellar where the wine is aged is built underground and remains cool naturally. Even in the fierce August heat, his cellar hovers at 16 degrees. Over time it will come down to 12, the optimum temperature.

Like most of the region’s reds, his Cab Franc is bold and full-flavored with earthy overtones. Due to a lack of rain and high soil ph, Guadalupe Valley is a special place for rich reds, which are almost always blends because the fruit is often stressed and acidic. Badan prunes his vines severely and ages the wine in French Oak barrels. “Oak releases the flavors,” says Pau Pijoan, another scientist (actually a veterinarian) turned wine-maker. At his hillside winery, he poured a fruitier than expected Merlot-Syrah blend that was one of the smoothest I tasted in the Valley.

For the most part, however, Guadalupe Valley’s finest should be paired with big food lest the hearty reds overwhelm. And that is not a problem here either, whether your snacking on savory lamb ends accented by tart oven-roasted tomatoes and olive-oil sorbet at the valley’s original destination restaurant, Laja, enjoying the fine Las Brisas dining room, or lunching at Sylvestre, a spectacular outdoor restaurant overlooking lush vineyards, where I feasted on fresh Ensenada oysters and barbecued quail. At Sylvestre, Eileen and I sat beside a local architect whose recent winery design for Paralelo, a large local label, is a rammed-earth, high-design masterpiece that was the last stop on our incredible tour. Yes, the monks are gone, the creatives have arrived and the Guadalupe Valley, once just a dry, landlocked, and forgotten corner of Baja, has officially arrived.