Recently I joined a group on a culinary trip to the Valle de Guadalupe organized by members of the Mexico Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international non-profit organization of women in the food, beverage and hospitality professions. We have a mission “to inspire, advance and support women in food, beverage and hospitality to achieve excellence in leadership and philanthropy.” Our vision is “to be the preeminent global professional association for women leaders in the food, beverage and hospitality industries.” We also like to have a good time while learning about the culinary traditions in different parts of the world.
Valle de Guadalupe is in the Mexican state of Baja California, about two hours south of San Diego. It is on a peninsula which is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Gulf of California on the east. The terrain is very similar to southern California. Baja is responsible for 90 per cent of wines produced in Mexico. The problem is that we don’t see many of those wines in the U.S. So, I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit a few wineries and taste their wines.
We stayed at El Cielo Winery and Resort. They own 95 hectares of vineyards, 35 of which are in the area around the Villas. They also have vines in several other areas including San Jacinto and Ojos Negros. Jesús Rivera, who grew up in the valley where his family grew wine grapes, has been the chief winemaker since 2010. He studied winemaking in Bordeaux with Dr. Victor Torres Alegre, who was the first the first oenologist in Mexico to earn a Ph.D. in Oenology. Rivera also worked with Michel Roland. In 2013, Rivera’s son Jesús Rivera, Jr. became the assistant winemaker. Rivera Jr. has a certificate in Gastronomy and Enology from the Autonomous University of Baja California. Members of the winemaking team lead us in a fun blending exercise with their 2019 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Both wines had luscious ripe fruit, and my first thought was that my blend would be Malbec dominant, but I made two blends, one with Malbec 60 percent, Cabernet 40 percent, the other Cabernet 60 percent and Malbec 40 percent. While both blends were good, I was surprised that my favorite was the Cabernet-dominant one, because of the elegance of the wine’s structure.
Casa Pedro Domecq, established in 1972, is named for the founder of the Sherry house in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain in 1730. The winery facility is quite large, perched on a hillside with an underground tunnel system, lined with barrels and 150,000 bottles. When we arrived, we were served a refreshing white wine called XA Domecq White, made of 58% Chardonnay, 22% Grenache, 20% Sauvignon Blanc. It gets its name from the registration number on the planes that were they only transportation into Baja in the early 1970s, which is when this wine was created.
Our host was winemaker Alberto Verdeja, who studied enology at University of Ensenada and has been with the winery for 20 years. He was a lively and engaging host, drawing wine from different barrels with a wine thief to for everyone to taste, quite a logistical feat. In addition to stacked rows of barrels, several large clay amphorae lined a wall of the barrel room. While he was enthusiastic serving barrel samples, he became a man on fire about a wine in a clay pot. Until 2016 when ownership of the winery changed from a French company to a Spanish company, he was not allowed to use the pots to make wine. He even created metal devices to attach to a pot to allow it to function as modern fermentation vessel. Then, he made a wine. He provided samples for us, and to my taste, it was the best of his wines. The winery is a popular spot with a large covered outdoor space for enjoying the Domecq wines. Sadly, these wines, like many Mexican wines, are not available in the U.S.
Our visit to Tres Mujeres (which would translate as, “Three Women”), was a complete departure from the grand scale of the previous wineries. Ivette Vaillard was our hostess on her ranch. She and her partners have created an ingenious micro-winery. It was a bit of a surprise, but an example of their ingenuity, to find two red railway shipping containers set on opposite sides of a deck for wine storage. They make six to 17 barrels of wine each year depending upon the harvest.
Victor Segura, owner and winemaker for Bodegas Viñedos Las Nubes, started planting grapes in 2008. Today he has 19 hectares of vines planted with as many as 25 different varieties for production as well as research. The winery is on a hillside with a panoramic view of the vineyards below. That view was the inspiration for the winery name. Las Nubes means clouds. The most striking element is a very large reservoir of water, below the winery level, which is fed from the winery roof that collects rainwater. It is above the vineyards, because a portion of this water is directed to the irrigation system. Segura is dedicated to using water wisely.
One of the members of our group has been working on a book about the history of wine in Mexico entitled, Winegrowers of the Hispanic Californias: 300 Years of a Mexican Tradition. The Spanish version will be available soon on Amazon. Then, she will translate it into English. Her name is Rondi Frankel. She was born in Illinois and grew up in Mexico City, where she went to primary and secondary school. She returned to the U.S. to attend U.C. Berkeley, where she majored in Social and Cultural Anthropology for a Bachelor of Arts degree. She has worked in the fields of music and environment, but for the past 30 years she has worked in the business of wine, where she says she has been “a witness and participant in the ‘Renaissance’ of Mexican wine. I may say that my major, as well as being bi-cultural, both color the outlook of the book.”
She explained further that, “it begins with the planting of the first vineyard in the southern part of Baja California in 1703, by the Jesuit missionary Juan de Ugarte. As I did the research, I realized that I had to include the state of California, as winegrowing started there when it was a Spanish colony. Oftentimes the history of wine sounds like things happened on their own. ‘Winegrowing arrived in the New World’, etc., and the missionaries are always spoken of as isolated actors. I wanted to know who they were, what their names were, where they came from and why they were there. I found that there were many protagonists, and so the book is about them, the people who made the wine - soldiers, ranchers, Indians, immigrants, pioneers.”
In the process she “discovered that several myths on the subject are not true, for example, Fray (now Saint) Junipero Serra did not plant the first vineyard in California, etc. I also discovered that some American historians mis-translated some of the original Spanish documents, or don't really know how wine is made!” I can’t wait to read the English version of this book.
Valle de Guadalupe is a ruggedly beautiful place with world-class wines and, fresh, delicious, complex food and welcoming people. It is possible to find a few of their wines in the U.S., but the best place to experience them is in the Valley.