Valle de Guadalupe

As we approached the border crossing, the fear began to set in. Within a few hundred yards of crossing, we encountered a full-on cartel battle. Thinking quickly, we turned down a side street, and got out of there as fast as we could. But, where was the highway? After a few turns, we were lost. Fear was now really setting in, as the locals began to gather around our car. Kidnapping crossed my mind. Could this really be happening, or was it a dream? These are the images that most people have of entering Mexico. Nothing even remotely close to this happened. It had been at least 30 years since I last drove to Mexico, so I wasn't really sure what to expect.

Sunset at Poco Cielo
We got our Mexican auto insurance, and headed to the border. Expecting a long line to get in, there wasn't a single car in front of us, and we drove right on through. Within three hours of leaving my home, I was in Rosarito Beach, having lunch with a friend, at a tiny little taco shop that the locals refer to as "Juniors". The toll road is definitely the way to go. For only $2.40 we were able to zip past the largest city in Baja (Tijuana) and drive right on down the coast. We drove the old (free) road from Rosarito, to our hotel, so we could check out the coast, and the little communities along the way. Checking into Poco Cielo, we were greeted by the owner Cheryl, who took us to our ocean view room. This little hotel is located right on the ocean, and a number of the themed rooms have ocean views. We stayed in the new "Western" themed room. That night, we ate dinner at the hotel, with the guitar playing, and the ocean waves gently hitting the shore. (video from Poco Cielo)

The next day started with a quick breakfast, then we headed down the toll road to Valle de Guadalupe, the heart of the Mexican wine country. After another toll of $2.40. we turned inland, just before Ensanada. Hwy 3 led up the hillside of an east-west positioned valley. The dry terrain didn't change much as we gained about 1,000 feet in elevation. We entered the little town of San Antonio de las Minas, and saw our first signs of a grape growing community. The maps we had were dated back to 2003, so our first stop was at the Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Museum of Vine and Wine), to see if they had anything that was updated. The maps were free, and to enter the museum, was only 50 pesos/person. This was one of the nicest buildings we had seen in Baja, and they have done a nice job of chronicling the history of wine in the country. The only issue is that everything was in Spanish. With my limited Spanish vocabulary, I was able to figure out most of the information. (video from the back of the museum)

Entrance to L.A. Cetto
With our new map in hand, we traveled first to the northeast end of the valley, just past the little town of Francisco Zarco. We turned down the dirt road, bordered on each side by vineyards. The area is very hot and dry, and most of the vines looked very stressed. There is a riverbed that runs through the center of Valle de Guadalupe, but locals told us that it hasn't had water in for at least 10 years. We pulled up to L.A. Cetto, one of the first wineries in the area. This is a large operation, and (from what we could tell) the most commercially successful. Two tour buses were there. They had a full gift shop with shirts, wines. glassware and cheeses. The tasting fee was $5/person to try four of their reserve wines. The favorite was the Don Luis (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec). However, since we are limited to only 1 liter of alcohol, per person, to bring back across the border, we didn't purchase here. The Valle de Guadalupe is not very big, so if we didn't find something better, we could always come back. (Video from L.A. Cetto)

Next we headed back down Hwy 3, and then branched off to a parallel road  (Hwy 1 according to the maps, but I'm still not sure if that is the right information). Driving through these little towns, you see the poverty of Mexico, and then you turn down a side road, drive a ways on the dirt road, and come up to a fancy new winery (Vinicola). There is a dichotomy in the Valle de Guadalupe between the "haves" and "have nots".

Lakeside tasting at Monte Xanic
We next stopped at Monte Xanic, for an outdoor tasting alongside their "lake". No tasting fee here, but then again, you only get a taste of their "standard wine". If you want to try their reserve wines, you need to make an appointment. We found similar situations at Chateau Camou and Adobe Guadalupe (both were only open to those who had appointments). Next, upon the recommendation of a friend, we traveled up the northern side of the valley to Las Nubes. This is an ultra modern winery, overlooking the entire valley. As of this visit, they have not produced wine from their own grapes (the vines are too young). Very nice Grenache, Nebbiolo, and Carignan. we picked up a bottle of their "Cumulus". (Video from Las Nubes)

Las Nubes Winery
Baron Balche was the next stop. Outside, the temperature was getting hotter, and the humidity was picking up (tropical storm Ivo was passing through). Baron Balche has a gravity fed facility, and the lower floors are all underground. The cooler temps in the cellar room, and the tasting rooms was comfortable. Most of the people in this winery did not speak English, so we were a little challenged, but as luck would have it, there was a taxi driver, hosting some German tourists, who spoke perfect English and did some translating, which led to some long discussions, and eventually some tastes of their $120/bottle Grenache, and their Grenache based dessert wine. Yes, I did write $120/bottle. It was good, but I wasn't about to pay that price.

Pijoan Tasting room
Our last stop for the day was at Pijoan. This is a quaint little winery on a small knoll. Three dogs wandered in and out of the wine tasting room. Here we had a very nice tasting, along with some local cheeses. In addition to the regular wines, we were able to get some additional tastings including a very nice dessert "port". We would have bought a number of their wines, but we had already purchased the maximum we could bring across the border. Next time!

There was another American couple in the tasting room, and the conversation turned to restaurants in the area. They had eaten at Laja the night before. An eight course meal that they said was extraordinary. This night they had reservations at Hacienda Guadalupe. The tasting room manager also recommended his favorite seafood restaurant in Ensenada, Muelle Tres.

Valle de Guadalupe from Las Nubes Winery
Most of the wineries close between 4:00 and 5:00, so we had run out of time for this trip. We headed back down the road, and reconnected with Hwy 3. Here we noticed the fruit stands, wine & cheese shops, and local restaurants that we missed on our way into the valley. Since we were so close to Ensenada, we drove into town to see if I could find Hussong's Cantina (the home of the original Margarita). Last time I drove to Ensenada, Hussong's was on a dirt road in the outskirts of town. Now it is in the center of town, and surrounded by large, loud tourist bars. Still, I found it with no problem.

Poco Cielo
So, we didn't get kidnapped, or mugged, or caught in a cartel shootout. The biggest danger we had was finding too many good wines, and no way to get them back to the U.S.  Other than the limited amount of wine, the biggest "hassle" of the entire trip was crossing back into the U.S. The wait at the border was 90 minutes, and some serious questioning from the border patrol.

Barrel art at Baron Balche
Is Valle de Guadalupe the "Napa of Mexico"? For Mexico it probably is. For someone who has tasted wines in Napa, or even Paso Robles, there is still a long ways to go, but they are on the right track. You should visit it now, because twenty years from now, you may not recognize the place. Then again, it may stay the same, as the growth in vineyard land is limited by the lack of water. New wineries are having to import their own water. What is sure to improve is the infrastructure, the restaurants, the shops. Money is flowing to the area, and it is bound to change. I look forward to going back, soon...there are over 60 wineries to still check out, restaurants to try, and cheese shops to visit.

Hasta Luego!


A couple weeks ago, I conducted a blind tasting of five red wines. Anyone who has been a follower of this blog, or attended one of my tastings, knows that I like to add a “twist”. This time I through in five red varieties that were similar to some of the more familiar grape varieties, but just different enough that “something didn’t taste quite right”. I included Italian grapes grown in California, French Grapes, Spanish grapes, and one South African grape.

As a wine producing country, South Africa is considered a new world wine country, but is has been producing wines since the mid 1600’s, when it was a way station for the Dutch East India Company. Apartheid pretty much isolated the country and its’ wines, and ever since, it has been trying to carve a new identity for itself.

People either "love" or "hate"  South Africa's famous red wine grape variety:  Pinotage. The jury is still out on whether or not this is quality grape.

Abraham Perold
Pinotage is the direct result of a somewhat unusual cross, developed in 1925 by Abraham Perold.  Pinot Noir and Cinsault (as it's known in France) or "Hermitage" (as the same grape is referred to in South Africa) were successfully crossed at Stellenbosch University. The intention of the cross was most likely to capture and expand upon Pinot Noir's delicate elegance and Cinsault's hardy-nature. The result being a new red wine grape that not only blends the two grapes together, but also their names ("Pinot Noir" and "Hermitage"). This new grape is easy to grow. It is early ripening with moderate yields. Unlike Pinot Noir, the grapes are highly pigmented, with only moderate acidity.

In general, Pinotage tends to take on a rustic profile and often shows earth-driven notes on both the nose and the palate, followed by red berries, plums, banana, smoke and even acetone characteristics. 

New vinification techniques have led to a more acceptable, and even sought after taste. Both the Aussies, and the French have contributed more modern production methods (controlled fermentation temperatures, oxygen control, and a more artisan approach in general.

With a profile like that, people either tend to have a "love it or hate it" relationship with Pinotage. If you fall into the "love it" camp, then this wine can be a fairly flexible pairing partner, going well with the likes of game, steak, brats, burgers and pizza.

The wine we had at the blind tasting was the Spier 2011 Pinotage. Based on the feedback, this wine didn’t have a love hate relationship with the tasters. It did receive overwhelming support. The wine was very deep red in color, which was a prelude to the red berry flavors. The tannins were soft and round. Many mistakenly chose this wine as a fruit forward Syrah.

Stop and Smell the wine glass

This week, I have stopped and started with my blog writing. I've been side tracked with numerous business dealings, talking with old friends about wine distribution, consulting another on purchasing a foreclosed on vineyard, among other things. I had planned on writing about another unusual grape...maybe next week.

Exene Cervenka
Following my blog from last week, I ventured out to a local concert. Even my friend, David Wilson at Grape Encounters Radio got into the music and wine theme. I hadn't planned it this way, but last week's blog has really played out in an unusual way. I was surprised by the visit of Exene Cervenka at one of my wine tasting events. (Exene was/is the lead singer for one of my favorite bands during my college days: X). Tonight, I attended the Michelle Mangione concert, and it got me thinking.....The band members are extremely talented. They played, and people either stayed and listened, or just walked on by. How often do we just "walk on by" rather than stop and pay attention to what (or who) is in front of us?

All five members of the band have very interesting backgrounds. All of them have played with famous bands, and band members. But, you need to take the time, and observe. Last week, I had the opportunity to have breakfast with the three of the band members in Superlark, along with Exene. People walked in and out the restaurant, and probably never realized who they just passed up. I wonder how many times I have done the same thing?

So what does this have to do with wine? Everything!

How many wines have you not tasted, because it didn't get a 90+ rating by so-and-so? How many wineries have you not visited because they haven't been written up by your favorite wine magazine or blogger? How many wines haven't you tried because you had no idea what grape it was made from?

Brandon Sparks-Gillis
It is time to change the way we look at things. What may just appear to be an everyday winery trying to make a buck (or a band playing a local concert) may be a diamond in the rough. I have been guilty of this. A number of years ago, I had planned a wine tasting trip to the Central Coast of California. I had laid out all the wineries I wanted to visit, based on the recommendations of a well known wine magazine. We visited one of the wineries (whose wines were very good). They shared their crush facility with a small, unknown (at the time) winery. As we were getting ready to leave, the winemaker sheepishly approached us, and asked if we wanted to try his wines. Over the next half hour, we fell in love with his enthusiasm, and his wine. Dragonette Cellars, and winemakers Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette have become friends, and their wines are now gaining a huge following. These talented winemakers would have been passed up, if we had not stopped, listened, and tasted. As a Sommelier, I am always looking for the next "up and comer", the next grape variety, or the next trend.

My challenge to all readers of this blog is to try something new. Don't buy the wine based on a rating. Buy something different. For the last couple weeks, I wrote about Amarone and Barbera. If you haven't tried these, you are just "walking by", and missing out on what is right there in front of you. When you do purchase the wine, stop, slow down, savor the aroma, the taste, and finish. Evaluate the wine, learn about its' background, and enjoy the experience.

Why stop with wine? As we go through life, we need to slow down and observe. You may just discover new things surrounding you. You may find a new winery, and new grape, and new friend, new community, and new band. Life is too short to do what everyone else is doing, or in this case, drinking.

Wine and Music

Summertime in our mountain community, usually means music. We have Jazz festivals, Art Association shows, and a Summer Concert Series in the lake side village. When we attend, we always bring wine and appetizers. As the evening moves along, and the wine bottles empty, it occurred to me that wine and music must have been made for each other.

I was reading the latest issue of Food & Wine magazine, and there was a short interview with Mike D, of the Beastie Boys, and he is quoted as saying, “There’s something that fires when your taste buds are dazzled in a certain way with wine that is almost beyond words. It’s the same thing that happens when you listen to Mile Davis’s On the Corner in the right setting, at the right time”. I think he is right…music is art to the ears, and wine is art to the nose and mouth. Liquid art in a glass. 

Drinking wine with Exene Cervenka
There is variety in music styles, just as there is variety in wine. I imagine listening to Beethoven, and sipping a fine Bordeaux, or jammy Zinfandel with modern Jazz.  What goes with punk, or classic rock? Most rockers probably drink beer or hard alcohol, heck, Sammy Hagar (a local in my community) has been successful with his own line of Tequila: Cabo Wabo.

What surprised me is the number of musicians that have gotten into the wine business. A quick search gave me a number of familiar names:

  • Mick Fleetwood has the aptly named Mick Fleetwood Private Cellar.  Founded in 2001, it is a collaboration with Langtry Estate and Vineyards.
  • Olivia Newton-John owns Koala Blue Wines. 
  • Dave Matthews owns Blenheim Vineyards.
  • Boz Scaggs owns Scaggs Vineyards in Napa Valley.
  • Maynard James Keenan owns Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards in Arizona, and has been getting rave reviews for his wines. I have had the opportunity to try a number of them, and I am impressed on what can be done with Arizona grapes.
  • Some other musicians that have labels include, Barbra Streisand (Streisand Wine), KISS, Madonna (Ciccone Vineyard and Winery), The Rolling Stones, Smothers Brothers (Remick Ridge Vineyards), Les Claypool (Claypool Cellars), Lil Jon (Little Jonathan Winery), Fergie (Ferguson Crest), Vince Neil  (Vince Neil Vineyards), and Sting  (Tenuta il Palagio).

So what is it with wine and music? There has been some experimentation with the effects of different music on wine. A study by Adrian North, at Heriot-Watt University, shows that our perception of the wine is influenced by the music we listen to.

Here is a summary of the results, as published in the BPS Research Digest:

In a new study, Adrian North has shown that when people drink wine to the accompaniment of music, they perceive the wine to have taste characteristics that reflect the nature of that concurrent music…North tested out the taste perceptions of 250 university students as they drank either Montes Alpha 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (red wine) or Chardonnay (white wine) — both are Chilean. Crucially, some of the participants sampled their glass to the tune of music previously identified by a separate group of people as powerful and heavy (Carmina Burana by Orff); others drank their wine to music rated earlier as subtle and refined (Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’); others to the tune of zingy and refreshing music (Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague); and lastly, the remaining participants drank their wine with mellow and soft music in the background (Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook). There was also a control group who drank the wine with no music.

After they’d savored their wine for five minutes, the participants were asked to rate how much they felt the wine was powerful and heavy; subtle and refined; mellow and soft; and zingy and refreshing. The results showed that the music had a consistent effect on the participants’ perception of the wine. They tended to think their wine had the qualities of the music they were listening to. So, for example, both the red and white wines were given the highest ratings for being powerful and heavy by those participants who drank them to the tune of Carmina Burana.

So, next time you sit down for a glass of wine, consider the background music. Maybe that glass you thought was bad, in your last restaurant venture really wasn’t bad….they were just playing the wrong music!