It's hard to believe sometimes what some of us go through for an excellent bottle of wine.
My best friend from high school, my nephew and I drove down to Baja California, Mexico, over the weekend to pick up five cases of wine I bought there about 16 months ago. It was a wonderful pure Grenache made from 60-year-old vines in the main growing region of Los Valles de Baja California-Valle de Guadalupe. I bought a barrel of the stuff with three other friends, and we divided it up. The name of the wine is El Sueño, "the dream."
I had been trying to figure out for months how to get my five cases of wine out of Mexico. The U.S. Customs officials on the border with Tijuana and San Diego always told me that Americans were only allowed to bring in 1 liter of wine through the border.
But last week I decided to look at the regulations issued by the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. And I found out that I could legally transport into California up to five cases, or 60 liters of wine, as long as I was not a resident. The 1-liter limit was only for California residents! I have my residency in Europe.
So I called the ABC office in Los Angeles and asked someone to fax me the actual regulations. They were kind enough to send them. I was set for the trip. If Customs stopped me, I had the documents to prove I had the right to personally import my wine. El Sueño would be coming to America.
I picked up my fellow travelers early on Saturday morning at their houses in Corona del Mar, and we headed down to the Tijuana border. The trip from Orange County to Mexico's wine country takes about three-and-a-half hours by car. I must admit that my family and a number of friends were concerned we were going down to Baja considering all the press about drug cartel deaths and carjackings. But I thought that was all overblown. Friends in the wine country said it was calm in the region.
I had rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle for my holiday stay in Southern California, but I was told that I couldn't drive it to Baja California because it was too risky. The rental company had had too many of them stolen while in Mexico.
We went to the company's office in San Diego to exchange the Jeep for a battered black Chrysler PT Cruiser. You know you are getting the bottom of the line if you are driving the only car a rental company will allow into Mexico. But we were in high spirits and didn't care. The little car drove just fine.
We headed down the interstate, crossed the border and followed the coastal toll road to Ensenada. The road is beautiful, with gorgeous coastal views of cliffs, the Pacific Ocean and empty beaches with fabulous waves. It has some of the best surfing in the world. I remember catching so many great waves there in my teens and traveling down the entire length of Baja with my late grandfather, finding some of the best fishing spots in the world.
We arrived in Valle de Guadalupe around 10:30 a.m., met a friend from Monterrey, Mexico, and started visiting wineries. Valle de Guadalupe encompasses about 1,500 acres of vineyards. A good part of those are old, head-trained vines of Grenache, Carignan and Zinfandel. I love looking at those old gnarly vines. I can't believe that, a little over a decade ago, the poor farmers of the region ripped up hundreds of acres of the stuff because the handful of big wineries there cut the prices for grapes. But that's history now.
I've been to Baja wine country a few times now; I even did the harvest in Valle de Guadalupe in mid-September 2008. Many winemakers use grapes from the arid vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe, but they also may go to nearby areas with different climates and soils, such as Ojos Negros, Santo Tomás Valley and San Vincente Valley. Wineries can be anything from a garage with a few plastic fermentation vats, hand presses and old barrels to high-tech, modern, architecturally designed cathedrals to winemaking. I guess Napa Valley was like this in the 1950s and 1960s.
The wineries that we visited on Saturday were all making very good to excellent wines. I am not convinced by the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the region. Those wines are light and simple, like so many others from those varietals around the world. But Rhône and Italian varietals are really impressive. Tempranillo can be very good as well.
The wines from old vines seem to have the most concentration and character. My El Sueño reminds me of a top-notch Priorat from Spain, with its slightly jammy character and fresh, clean finish. It's very elegant for wines from the Valle. And when you throw it in a decanter, it bursts with flowers, raspberries and ripe strawberries.
Sunset at Adobe Guadalupe
Around 100 bodegas are making wines in Baja California. Just 10 years ago, the number was about a dozen. A large percentage of the total wine production is made up of light, simple reds and whites for Mexican consumption. Names such as Santo Tomas, Domecq and L.A. Cetto dominate this market. It's the boutique wineries that are really interesting, and they seem to be growing in number every year.
Some of the area's producers, including Adobe Guadalupe, Tres Valles, Paralelo, Mogor Badan, and Vinisterra understand that they can make wines that combine the richness of the New World and the complexity of the old. Last weekend, I tasted barrel samples of wines from Adobe and Vinistera, and I was impressed with the wonderful aromatic quality, fruit and fine tannins. I also tasted some wines from some other places, such as Nembus, Montano Benson, Viñas Bravos and Viñas de Garza.
I prefer the wineries I first mentioned because they focus on finesse and length in their wines rather than sheer power and concentration. Many wines from Baja now taste like they are on steroids, with so much concentration and wood that you can't tell what they are made from or where they came from. It seems the market in Mexico City, where most of the boutique wines of Baja are sold, prefers the overdone style and they pay stupid prices for the wines-sometimes hundreds of dollars a bottle.
The view from the Adobe Guadalupe Jacuzzi wasn't bad.
Adobe Guadalupe is one of my favorite wineries, mostly because of the owners Don and Tru Miller. They are from Laguna Beach originally and have a lovely six-bedroom hotel at the winery and a collection of fine horses. Their wines are going from strength to strength. I tasted a new wine-the 2008 Rafiel, which is a blend of Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon-and it knocked my socks off. I also loved the 2007 Keriubel, a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Syrah and a dash of Viognier.
Other wines I thought were outstanding during my trip were 2007 Tres Valles Kojaa (pure Petite Sirah) and a 2002 Vinisterra Grenache and Tempranillo from magnum. I just wish I had more time to spend down in Baja.
If you go wine touring in Baja, make sure you get your wine allocations right. If you are a resident of California, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not let you take more than a bottle across. And they can really be hard asses. Do not piss them off. It took me four hours to get through customs with my five cases of El Sueño. It was a harrowing experience. It's a long story; you can read it in my blog on Cigar Aficionado.
But it was worth the nightmare at the Tecate border. El Sueño is a hit with all my family and friends. I drank it the other night at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles with rock-star vintner Maynard James Keenan and some lady friends, and they all loved the Grenache. Maynard's 2007 Judith was beautiful too, along with a fascinating Sangiovese called Marzo.
We sent some El Sueño to Robert Knepper, who you know from the television program Prison Break, and he loved the wine. He wanted to buy some! Funny. He didn't believe me that it was a wine only for friends and family. "You can't buy the dream," I told him, with a smile.
Arturo Alvaradejo B — Mexico city — January 15, 2010 7:43pm ET
James Suckling — — January 15, 2010 8:58pm ET
Arturo Alvaradejo B — Mexico city — January 15, 2010 9:20pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — January 15, 2010 11:26pm ET
Lynn Alley — Carlsbad — January 16, 2010 6:24pm ET
Horacio Campana / Butler Me — Monterrey, Mexico — January 17, 2010 2:23pm ET
David Nerland — Scottsdale — January 18, 2010 12:37am ET
Lynn Alley — Carlsbad — January 18, 2010 9:16am ET
James Suckling — — January 18, 2010 11:51am ET
Morewine Bishar — Del Mar, California — January 19, 2010 2:59pm ET
Robert Horvath — michigan — January 19, 2010 5:01pm ET
Tom J Wilson — Canada — January 20, 2010 11:55am ET
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — January 20, 2010 2:39pm ET
Juan — Baja , Mexico — April 3, 2010 2:20am ET
Michael Lemesevski — Jersey City, NJ, USA — November 9, 2010 2:02pm ET
Adrian Gonzalez C — Monterrey, México — July 27, 2011 2:34am ET
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