In Vino Vendimia
This year marks the 20thanniversary of Fiestas de la Vendimia. You know, the two-and-a-half-weekharvest festival held between the first Friday and the third Sunday in Augustthat combines visits to state-of-the-art wineries, Italian tenors, alternative-stylecircuses, Kafkaesque plays, mime, modern dance and performance art?
Not ringing a bell? Vallede Guadalupe—the 14-mile region about 90 minutes south of San Diego and fourhours from Los Angeles—is arguably Mexico’s premier artisanal wine–growingregion. The valley and the nearby city of Ensenada are where the majority ofthe fiestas take place, bookended by the Muestra del Vino—showcase of wines—andthe Concurso de Paellas, an über-paella contest featuring more than 80 equipos,or teams, making every conceivable incarnation of the dish. Gargantuan pansfilled with seafood, rabbit, sausage and cordonices—valley gamehens—fill the air with heavenly aromas. But don’t get too excited. Paellatickets are long gone at this point. We’ll get to that later.
Good wine in Mexico, you’rethinking? Tequila-laced margaritas, for sure. Tall glasses of icy cerveza—ofcourse. But good Mexican wine seems like an oxymoron. Not so, says SteveWallace, owner of Wally’s Wines & Spirits in Los Angeles. “Mexico is makingsome impressive wines. We have plans to carry a number of them.”
We’ll give you a moment toreconcile Baja California with the idea of what’s being called a nascent Napa.Because the quiet valley, with its rusty-hued boulders—large as bulldozers—thatsit among vineyards and groves of olive trees, is a revelation light-years fromthe margarita ambience of the touristy coast.
So how come there’s such anabsence of good Mexican wines in California—a mere five labels at the Wine Bankin San Diego and zero bottles at Silver Lake Wine, both shops specializing inwine from around the globe? “The big distributors don’t want to invest inmarketing until they have a proven product,” says Wallace. Throw in the smallwineries’ limited production and the Mexican government’s hefty 25-plus percentIEPS tax on special products and services, and you get two more reasons for thedearth of Mexican vino stateside.
Oscar Escobedo, secretaryof tourism for Baja California, says Baja wines, which make up 90 percent ofMexico’s production, have garnered more than 230 awards worldwide in the lastfour years. L.A. Cetto, one of the largest valley wineries, won the covetedgold medal for its petite syrah last March at Paris’ Vinalies Internationales.“We’re starting to make some great wines and get the wordout,” says Escobedo.
“If you come down, you’llget to see the birth of a region,” says leading valley wine enologist HugoD’Acosta, whose wine school Estacíon de Oficios del Porvenir—aka La Escuelita,or little school—has both educated and assisted in the production of wine for acrush of would-be vintners.
The destination is worththe drive. After exiting the new four-lane Carretera 3 that goes through thevalley, you take washboard dirt roads peppered with sleeping Mexican dogs, andat the end of that bone-jarring trip, you’re rewarded with such wineries asParalelo, designed by Ensenada architect Alejandro D’Acosta. It’s a modern-dayMayan temple, rammed-earth walls imprinted with nopal cactus, olive branchesand rubber tires found on the site, with function following form in the guiseof a ramp to the roof, enabling trucks to ascend to offload grapes into waitingstainless-steel vats below.
Although big commercialwineries such as Domecq and L.A. Cetto have been around since the 1970s, andSanto Tomás since 1888—not to mention the Spanish friars who planted vines inthe 16th century—the Guadalupe Valley’s boutique wineries have largely evolvedsince the late 1980s. “At last count there were 38,” says D’Acosta, “and if youlook under that rock over there, you’ll probably find another one.”
One of the first boutiquewineries making quality wine in the valley was Monte Xanic. Tomás Fernandez,director general of Baja Naval marina and boatyard in Ensenada, started thewinery in 1987 with four others, including renowned enologist Dr. HansBackhoff. “My friends at the time said to me, ‘You’re doing what?’ Mexicanwines had a very bad reputation.”
Fernandez was one of themembers of the Ensenada wine society Cofradía del Vino de Baja California thatsprang up in 1986. The common denominator: a passion for food and wine amongwell-educated, well-traveled Mexicans. “The idea of the fiestas started in thewine society,” says Dr. Fidel Cantú, who led the popular paella contest for thefirst five years of the festival and has watched the event grow from a singleday into a weeks-long maridaje—harmonious union—of wine, food andcultural events.
“We are working to protectthe valley long term,” says D’Acosta, who headed up the first harvest-festivalevents two decades ago. “We think a wine festival will help. People who attendbecome ambassadors for the region.”
Most of last year’s roughly20,000 attendees hail from Ensenada and other areas of Mexico, says GloriaAcosta of RCV Travel Shop, which provides some tickets for the events. “In thelast two years, the demographics have changed vis-à-vis the Americans…thebiggest problem is the economy—they have to pay for a hotel, food, tickets,”she says. Throw in last year’s swine-flu scare and the continuing concern aboutthe war on drugs, and many Americans who actually knew about the festival juststayed home.
“I would argue it is morelikely for a tourist to have some kind of incident in California—drive-byshooting, carjacking, robbery—than here in Baja,” says Escobedo. “We have 25million people a year visiting us from all over. According to U.S. HomelandSecurity, there has been a 25 percent increase in Americans coming betweenJanuary and May of this year. We are getting our message across that Baja issafe.”
The reality is that theMexicans don’t need gringos to make their festival a success. And in fact, somesee it as a celebration for Mexicans first, and if others come, well, fine. Onelongtime Guadalupe Valley resident, Natalia Badan, general coordinator atCEARTE (Ensenada’s new modern center for the arts) says, “Sometimes when manyforeigners come, all of a sudden events become more touristy. The mostimportant thing is that the fiestas stay authentic, a unique expression of eachwinery.”
Her own event—500 visitorssitting under fragrant Mediterranean pines listening to jazz at sunset atMogor-Badan winery—is a case in point. Appetizers from the winery’s organicgarden—cherry tomatoes, olives, figs and grapes—accompany its light, dry SwissChasselas, followed by homemade empanadas, all served by family and friends.“The purpose of the Vendimia is to take time out and be joyous about all thehard work and the harvest to come.”
The good news is thatVendimia events are far reaching and have something for nearly every gusto andpocketbook. The Verbena Santo Tomás, a street fair held in downtown Ensenada,and the Fiesta en el Valle, at a park in El Porvenir, feature local food,wines, games and music—free to all.
Pricier events—in the $100range—taking place at upscale wineries include sunset concerts at Monte Xanicand Château Camou, the alt-circus Zirk Ubu at La Villa del Valle and a formaldinner and wine auction at Adobe Guadalupe. Nearby Bibayoff winery, with itsRussian legacy of 20th-century Molokan pacifists turned winemakers, features afun-filled fusion evening of Russian-Mexican music, food and wine.
Tickets for smaller, moreexclusive engagements are rarely—if ever—available. Events at Casa de Piedra,one of the leading vineyards, are as progressive as the sustainable wineryfashioned of corrugated metal and local amber stone. One year, Mexico Cityactor Humberto Dupeyrón provided food for thought, performing “The Gorilla,”based on a Kafka story. Last year, the L.A.-based avant-garde music groupString Theory played a harp-like instrument whose strings stretched more than100 feet into the air. After the performance, guests donned gloves and tooktheir turns on the stage playing the harp, then descended to the courtyard forsteaming bowls of seafood pozole and music by a local rock band.
So just how do you gettickets? “It can be frustrating,” says seven-year Baja resident Carla White, anAmerican who writes for the Baja Times. “Years ago, I would callthe travel agent Viajes Damiana every week starting around March 1, to see ifthe schedule was out. When tickets came in, we’d literally run down to getthem. In those days, you had to physically stand in line—it was like buyingtickets to a rock concert.”
Things have improved,although it can still be a task for out-of-towners. This year, the schedule of41 events with 22 wineries was released mid May, with tickets available to buymid June, just a month and a half before the opening event. All this puts wannabefiestagoers in a catch-22, since hotel rooms in Ensenada and the valley havebeen booked for months.
Part of the conundrum lieswith how the tickets are distributed. “Each winery determines its event and thenumber of tickets,” says Gerardo Alcalá, Provino events and public relationscoordinator of the arm of the Asociacíon National de Vitivinicultores thatofficially runs the fiestas. “Some give us tickets to distribute, and othersdon’t. Some tickets are given to Ensenada travel agencies but not all.” Moreintimate events—such as Pau Pijoan’s dinner and wine pairing at La Contra(formerly Restaurante Del Parque), one of the most popular eateries inEnsenada—are sold privately and never distributed at all, period.
This year for the firsttime, Vendimia tickets are available on the Internet. That’s the good news. Thebad news is a few of the wineries are not participating in online sales.Tickets are sometimes available by contacting the wineries directly and gettingon a list—speaking Spanish is always helpful. Or you can plan a visit to thevalley beforehand. That’s not too bad a choice—spend a lovely weekend touringthe wineries that are open all year and sample delicious vintages.
And if you’ve a littlemoxie like Carla White, you can just show up at a winery event at the lastminute and hope for a ticket. “It’s always challenging,” she says, “but in theend it’s so worth it.”
BARBARA THORNBURG isa freelance writer who cooks up stories—and orange marmalade—on her Baja ranch.She is the author of L.A. Lofts.
Really want tickets to XXFiestas de la Vendimia (August 6–22)? Some can be had—alas, as we said, mosthotels are booked. Here are a few tips—but if the fates don’t shine on you,there’s always next year.
Provino: Thearm of the Asociacíon National de Vitivinicultores, which runs Vendimia events,has 2,000 tickets each for the opening Muestra del Vino ($30) and closingConcurso de Paellas ($35)—but they go faster than a Mexican roadrunner. Not aprayer for this year. Call in April 2011 to get on their waiting list,646-178-3038, email@example.com. Provino carries other Vendimia tickets. Stopby the downtown Ensenada office to buy them—cash only; 496 Teniente Azueta andVirgilio Uribe.
Fiestasdelavendimia.com: PressGoogle Translate if you don’t read Spanish. Click Calendario de Eventos toorder by credit card or PayPal. Note: If there is no shopping cart at the endof the description, tickets aren’t available. (But check back—they’re sometimesadded). Tickets can be mailed or picked up at Provino.
Winery: Atthe Website above, click on Vini colas Participantes for a list, then call tosee if any are selling tickets—some do, some don’t. You may have to send a wiretransfer to a Mexican bank and/or go to the Guadalupe Valley beforehand, paycash and pick up your tickets the evening of the event. Be sure to bring yourreceipt with you!
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Wing It: Likean out-of-towner who wants to get into that sold-out Broadway play—localsoccasionally stop by at the last minute to see if anyone has an extra ticket.If you don’t have a place to stay, this is probably not such a great idea.Still, tickets are sometimes available. Buena suerte!