Monday, June 27, 2011

Zen in the Baja Wine Valley

The last time I visited was years ago when I was commissioned to write an article for the vacation special of the publication I was working for. I have always loved the place. It is unlike anything the rest of the country has to offer. And don’t get me wrong, I love Mexico and all of its different landscapes, but there is something about vineyards that I find truly peaceful, romantic and bohemian.

Back then Tania and I had been dating for a while and our relationship was pretty much going in the right direction. I can say that from the get go we knew we were serious about each other, but still dealing with some personal issues from the past. Normally, I would take my own pictures, but she went with me on that trip and I had her take on that task. She used to be a professional photographer before going into psychology, so I knew she would get me a few cool shots.

One of the pictures she took was of the ground, or rather of something she had written on the dirt of the valley. She wrote “I Love You” inside of a heart and took a picture of it. I didn’t find out about it until later when I was reviewing the roll for shots to use with the article. Fast forward a few years and here we are again, this time with our 2 year old boy.

Dear Friends

We primarily went to visit two of Tania’s best friends, one of whom we had not seen in over a year. She now has a 7 mo old baby we had not met. They went to college together and stuck with one another through thick and thin. They were radiant when they saw each other, both of them moms now and in a completely new place in life. She married a chef and we had dinner at their restaurant which has an amazing set up right on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

We first arrived to their house around noon and took a break from the long drive, which is really only about an hour and a half from San Diego. There were lots of hugs, laughs and baby introductions right away and then off to the restaurant to check it out. It is called Gazuza and it is located about a mile after the Ensenada toll booth. The highway runs along the ocean and the restaurant is off a gravel entryway going into the beach. It is easy to miss as the signs out there are not particularly imposing, so you have to be on the lookout.

Once in the parking lot, the entrance to the compound is a long wooden corridor that ends on a stairway to the beach. The restaurants rest atop of a sea cliff; they share a terrace and the Pacific. While we were taking pictures and walking on the beach, our friend made quick arrangements to meet the winemaker of one of the local wineries.

Wine Country

The countryside is literally ten minutes away from Ensenada, and it stretches on for miles and miles of olive trees, foliage, wine and friendly folks. As soon as one enters the valley, the landscape changes from a heavily busy highway into a serene two-way road that runs between two mountain ranges that cross the peninsula eastward. You might as well travel back in time, park on the side of the road and just walk the rest of the way amid the vineyards.

The entrance of the winery is oddly decorated with two twenty-five or so footer vessels, one of which never made it to the sea while the other spent more time wrecked than in the ocean. The ranch also has the peculiarity that some of the vineyards are arranged in a circular pattern instead of a straight line. This makes it a little bit more arduous to work on, but helps the vines “hug themselves” in hopes that the affection they give each other will result in a better quality wine.

We had a great conversation with the winemaker. We spent the afternoon talking about wine, growing techniques, soil quality and the individual and collective efforts of the local wineries to make a quality product. These people love what they are doing and thrive in sharing their work with the rest of the world. It is no wonder that wines from this region have been awarded international recognition.

We took a stroll on the grounds then diligently proceeded to the wine vault, a wood, rock and concrete building that stands twenty feet high and drops about forty into the ground. It is heavily insulated as to preserve a cool temperature which is necessary for the wine to rest. We walked downstairs to where the wine sat silently in the heart of the hills. Some of it in barrels, some of it in tanks, depending on the stage of development, regardless each wine had a story to tell.

The grapes for each wine came from different parts of the hills and grew under different conditions, despite being in the same property. The ones that grew over the hill facing the ocean had the cool fall sea breeze caressing them at night. This of course influenced their texture. Other bulk of grapes had been ravaged by wild coyotes, affecting the size of the crop and making it necessary to combine them with others to make a blend. A few did not reach full maturity in time but were still good enough to use while some others grew under ideal conditions and were pampered up until they were pressed to get their nectar.

Still, as we were sampling each varietal the notion of the craft, effort and the art used to create the final product was palpable on each sip: The citric tones and floral bouquets of the Sauvignon Blanc, the blackberry mixed with oak and leather from the Cabernet, the blueberries and orange zest of the Grenache, all of which a testament of nature’s complexity and generosity even when treated unfairly.

Who would have thought that tasting wine would be a humbling experience?