Often in the summer, a cloudy marine layer hangs just over the coast of Baja California, marking a tenuous line between the hot, dry air of the desert and the dampness of the ocean, and as the grey retreats to the open sea, in the morning, the inhabitants begin to stir. Roadrunners move along the ground and swallows flit silently scooping insects out of the sky, and locals brave the sharpening sun and set up roadside booths with stacks of fresh tamales and grapes and cactus fruit. In northern Mexico, modest agrarian labor is commonplace, and often toilsome work, a utilitarian function rarely celebrated, but somewhere inland, in the fertile Guadalupe Valley I had heard there was a man, descended from Russian émigrés, who worked the ground, plucked grapes from rows of vines, and made wine.
As the early sun began to heat the day, our drive south into Mexico in search of desert vineyards was made past the chaotic border crossing at Tijuana, at moments a sea of hagglers and dealers in all manner of tchotchka, where the visitor is immediately profiled and doused in gimmick and cheap pitches. High on its staff, an oversized Mexican flag moved gracefully in the wind, protruding high above a dry canal cut through a landscape of steep hills coated with interconnected tract housing. It was the same unsettling discord that provincial Americans flout, awash in horror stories of daily muggings and slaughtered innocent bystanders caught in cartel gun fights. Outside of town, dwellings became sparser, and hand-drawn signs reading barbacoa and pitaya were propped up around broken cinder block walls. Families sat and talked on plastic chairs and children played football in the dirt amidst the concrete skeletons of tall, half-constructed buildings originally made to lure the moneyed retired from up north. Here again were the embodiments of half-hearted capitalist opportunism mixed with the poverty that lays over Latin America like a fishing net, a poverty that engenders surprise and fear in the reluctant, sheltered traveler. But regardless of the scars left by entrepreneurs or the impoverished streets and roads, this peninsula is a place where one must abide by a slower clock and accept manners of simplicity, a place where charms rely less on aesthetic and more on a vitality of life. And the idea of a wine tasting in this context was at the same time ridiculous and intriguing.
We opened a paper road map that eventually proved useless because a section of our road had slid down a cliff and into the ocean. We had every reason to expect it was still that way, so we followed ad-hoc detours. Not far east of Ensenada, there is an informal path called the Ruta del Vino, a theme adopted elsewhere with varying levels of success and credibility, but we were interested in the Mexican version, expectedly a rudimentary one, and hopefully one with the missing road signs and illogical directions that are conducive to getting lost. And getting lost is what an optimist, or a masochist, calls an opportunity for forced encounters.
Our first pit stop through washboard roads was the vineyard at Adobe Guadalupe, a posh bed and breakfast and horse stable that, although sandwiched by tracts of swirling dust and shoddy fences, immediately quelled my fancies of the humble Mexican winemaker. The ornate gate and clipboard-bearing guard were early indications of the habit of style in the estate, a place meant for those going from point A to point B, paying little attention to the path between. We continued in, driven by thirst, and a dark-haired, articulate woman named Minerva lead us through the guest houses and by the fountain and sitting room, and then to the wine tasting area in the cool, immaculate cellar. Opened bottles were arranged in a line and she set out a plate of olives and some white bread. The quasi-Eastern Mediterranean scene was complete with the sun reflecting off the white walls and shining through the tall wooden doors and a bottle of artisan olive oil for those who knew what do to do with it.
She wasted no time in preempting criticism of would-be wine snobs, defending their apparently prosaic use of Tempranillo grapes in wine blending.
“We don´t have any rules down here,” she said.
But it was immediately apparent that the ambience was obvious and intentional, down to the silver tea ware, the sprawling kitchen and the equine statues. And if too much effort is made to contrive a conflict that doesn’t really exist in the first place (the Tempranillo grape is just fine, and is rarely a point of contention in judging a wine except in the most confrontational mind), even the disinterested eye can sense that something is not true or right.
Surrounding us were expressions of themes that reflected the tastes and preferences of someone who had the money to actualize an idea. The wines encompassed the standard range of palates, from sweet to dry, bottled with minimalist, almost abstract, modern labels. The new courtyard and walkways showed a Persian motif, with bleached white walls and archways, and a conspicuous shiny blue dome near the vineyard. Indeed everything was so tidy and comfortable, the scene was idyllic not as a place in the desert, but as a refuge from it. Our tasting was an informed one, as Minerva carefully described each generic with the cool, trained language that pacifies connoisseurs without alienating the layman. And as the fourth half-glass of wine was sipped, it was easy to forget we were in Mexico, cool within the walls of the inn.
That was until Minerva brought out the tequila. Or specifically, a bottle of mezcal named Lucifer. It was a refreshing surprise.
“If that´s not appropriate, you can try another version, called Lulu,” she said, careful to maintain her purposeful manner.
The others in the group looked at each other in wise hesitation. I held out my empty shot glass and smiled, ignoring the memories of my own horrific nights and ruined relationships at the hand of tequila. The hot, smoky burn of the perfectly refined agave numbed my tongue and brought on a fast, slight dizziness that is particularly welcome on a hot afternoon in the summer. After some careless giggles, we wandered back out past the oaky smell of the cellar, and looked out over the neat rows of vines and the stables of Azteca horses. It was a mostly pleasant, although formalized and generic, start to our wine route, ended with a singularly Mexican touch. I tried to remember the names of the wines we had just had.
A fat, elderly dog awaited us at our next randomly chosen stop, with bristle-like hair poking out of a round torso that looked like an inflated balloon. Groggy in the warm afternoon, it was stretched on the ground next to a brown shack on which was a hand-drawn sign that read degustación – a Spanish word we quickly learned to signify succinctly: take a driving break and come inside and drink a bunch of wine. Don´t worry, its Mexico. The dog slowly struggled up from its siesta and let out a few wheezy barks, then followed us inside and slid to the floor once again. Here, one could feel the quiet of the desert. Only the crackle of our steps on the dirt driveway broke the silence, and bright sunlight poured through the opened windows. Inside, the bar was empty. We stood for a moment, gazing at the unmanned taps and recapped wine bottles, until we went in search of someone to start pouring.
Ana Rosa was across the field, cleaning a guest house room when she saw us approaching. She smiled and put down the rag in her hand and followed us in a golf cart back to the shack. She began pouring straight away, and it was after the second generous tasting that I realized not a word of English had been spoken. She watched me as I talked, the privileged expatriate living in Madrid, and she must have detected what I can only imagine was a vowel-consuming, American-laden Castilian accent, spoken by one brazen by the effects of alcohol, and she repeated my utterances with glee. I asked her which grapes they used to make their table wines.
“Ni idea,” she said. She laughed loudly at her own lack of expertise and she turned one of the bottles around and began reading the ingredients. Each time she laughed, the old dog twitched and woke for a moment. She was a happy woman, with healthy lines on her face drawn by age and smiles, and I found in myself a kind of envy of her easy humor.
She then poured a red wine called Reserva de Familia, clearly the dark horse of the collection, and Ana Rosa seemed to know it. It coated our mouths at first with a warm shot of red fruits, and then moved down the sides of our tongues with the tannin-rich tartness that demands another gulp. It was a liquid, earthy expression of aged vineyards, some planted over 60 years ago, and abandoned until relatively recently. It was a new wine born of old, experienced vines that had grown strong in the soils of the valley.
As I drank, I found a fleeting sense of privilege ingesting a drink still a relative novelty in this culture; wine, the ancient intoxicant blissfully blurring minds in so many corners of the world. Though here, in Mexico, it has not yet reached a formidable status on dinner tables or in kitchens or cafés. I found it obvious and plainly suitable, however, in this climate so akin to the Mediterranean, this desert by the sea, and with the warm, sometimes flamboyant temperament of the locals, and I couldn´t help but suspect we might be on the precipice of a new cultural discovery. I gathered myself and tried to channel my delusions of grandeur into an announcement, or perhaps a profound toast.
“This is good,” I said.
“Gracias,” Ana Rosa said, taking credit for the entirety of the wine-making process.
“What´s this?” I asked, pointing to a hanging t-shirt that read “Whistling Donkey” on it.
She explained that was their brand of mezcal. This again, I thought. She laughed, this time a bit sadistically, and poured three shot glasses. I drank mine. A young girl walked in, and Ana Rosa introduced her as her daughter. She looked at us with the wide eyes of a bored teenager in summer, and I found a renewed feebleness in my Spanish, the sort of sobering self-consciousness that occurs when a drunk person is in the midst of a sober one. I dipped some white bread in a small bowl of chimichurri salsa on the bar, rich with red chili, garlic, vinegar, parsley, tomato and onion. Ana Rosa continued delivering her anecdotes and ear-splitting laughs. She had a lot more to say about Mexican food and tequila than wine.
Indeed the wine was the best we had tasted yet, or maybe it was the mezcal obfuscating our palates for the better; we bought a few bottles to take home (a few, it was collectively decided, was more or less the quantity of bottles allowable to bring back across the border).
After a brief farewell, our arms wrapped around our bottles, Ana Rosa got back into her old golf cart and drove back to the guest house next to the hill, the door to the bar shack left open, an invitation to the next group of wanderers.
* * *
It could be said that the dirt roads of the Guadalupe Valley are like a spider web, fields, farms and vineyards spread throughout, and we had arbitrarily established in our minds the web´s center to be Bibayoff Winery, a peculiar relic and success story of displaced immigrants. We drove on, and found a large sign with a drawing of the Kremlin on it…