August 2010

In Vino Vendimia


The Fiestas de la Vendimia is the best wine, food and music festival you’ve never heard of—maybe that’s because it takes place in Baja by BARBARA THORNBURG

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Fiestas de la Vendimia. You know, the two-and-a-half-week harvest festival held between the first Friday and the third Sunday in August that combines visits to state-of-the-art wineries, Italian tenors, alternative-style circuses, Kafkaesque plays, mime, modern dance and performance art?

Not ringing a bell? Valle de Guadalupe—the 14-mile region about 90 minutes south of San Diego and four hours from Los Angeles—is arguably Mexico’s premier artisanal wine–growing region. The valley and the nearby city of Ensenada are where the majority of the fiestas take place, bookended by the Muestra del Vino—showcase of wines—and the Concurso de Paellas, an über-paella contest featuring more than 80 equipos, or teams, making every conceivable incarnation of the dish. Gargantuan pans filled with seafood, rabbit, sausage and cordonices—valley game hens—fill the air with heavenly aromas. But don’t get too excited. Paella tickets are long gone at this point. We’ll get to that later.

Good wine in Mexico, you’re thinking? Tequila-laced margaritas, for sure. Tall glasses of icy cerveza—of course. But good Mexican wine seems like an oxymoron. Not so, says Steve Wallace, owner of Wally’s Wines & Spirits in Los Angeles. “Mexico is making some impressive wines. We have plans to carry a number of them.”

We’ll give you a moment to reconcile 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—that sit among vineyards and groves of olive trees, is a revelation light-years from the margarita ambience of the touristy coast.

So how come there’s such an absence of good Mexican wines in California—a mere five labels at the Wine Bank in San Diego and zero bottles at Silver Lake Wine, both shops specializing in wine from around the globe? “The big distributors don’t want to invest in marketing until they have a proven product,” says Wallace. Throw in the small wineries’ limited production and the Mexican government’s hefty 25-plus percent IEPS tax on special products and services, and you get two more reasons for the dearth of Mexican vino stateside.

Oscar Escobedo, secretary of tourism for Baja California, says Baja wines, which make up 90 percent of Mexico’s production, have garnered more than 230 awards worldwide in the last four years. L.A. Cetto, one of the largest valley wineries, won the coveted gold medal for its petite syrah last March at Paris’ Vinalies Internationales. “We’re starting to make some great wines and get the word out,” says Escobedo.

“If you come down, you’ll get to see the birth of a region,” says leading valley wine enologist Hugo D’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 a crush of would-be vintners.

The destination is worth the drive. After exiting the new four-lane Carretera 3 that goes through the valley, you take washboard dirt roads peppered with sleeping Mexican dogs, and at the end of that bone-jarring trip, you’re rewarded with such wineries as Paralelo, designed by Ensenada architect Alejandro D’Acosta. It’s a modern-day Mayan temple, rammed-earth walls imprinted with nopal cactus, olive branches and rubber tires found on the site, with function following form in the guise of a ramp to the roof, enabling trucks to ascend to offload grapes into waiting stainless-steel vats below.

Although big commercial wineries such as Domecq and L.A. Cetto have been around since the 1970s, and Santo Tomás since 1888—not to mention the Spanish friars who planted vines in the 16th century—the Guadalupe Valley’s boutique wineries have largely evolved since the late 1980s. “At last count there were 38,” says D’Acosta, “and if you look under that rock over there, you’ll probably find another one.”

One of the first boutique wineries making quality wine in the valley was Monte Xanic. Tomás Fernandez, director general of Baja Naval marina and boatyard in Ensenada, started the winery in 1987 with four others, including renowned enologist Dr. Hans Backhoff. “My friends at the time said to me, ‘You’re doing what?’ Mexican wines had a very bad reputation.”

Fernandez was one of the members of the Ensenada wine society Cofradía del Vino de Baja California that sprang up in 1986. The common denominator: a passion for food and wine among well-educated, well-traveled Mexicans. “The idea of the fiestas started in the wine society,” says Dr. Fidel Cantú, who led the popular paella contest for the first five years of the festival and has watched the event grow from a single day into a weeks-long maridaje—harmonious union—of wine, food and cultural events.

“We are working to protect the valley long term,” says D’Acosta, who headed up the first harvest-festival events two decades ago. “We think a wine festival will help. People who attend become ambassadors for the region.”

Most of last year’s roughly 20,000 attendees hail from Ensenada and other areas of Mexico, says Gloria Acosta of RCV Travel Shop, which provides some tickets for the events. “In the last two years, the demographics have changed vis-à-vis the Americans…the biggest 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 about the war on drugs, and many Americans who actually knew about the festival just stayed home.

“I would argue it is more likely for a tourist to have some kind of incident in California—drive-by shooting, carjacking, robbery—than here in Baja,” says Escobedo. “We have 25 million people a year visiting us from all over. According to U.S. Homeland Security, there has been a 25 percent increase in Americans coming between January and May of this year. We are getting our message across that Baja is safe.”

“Sometimes when foreigners come, events become more touristy. The most important thing is that the fiestas stay authentic, a unique expression of each winery.”

The reality is that the Mexicans don’t need gringos to make their festival a success. And in fact, some see it as a celebration for Mexicans first, and if others come, well, fine. One longtime Guadalupe Valley resident, Natalia Badan, general coordinator at CEARTE (Ensenada’s new modern center for the arts) says, “Sometimes when many foreigners come, all of a sudden events become more touristy. The most important thing is that the fiestas stay authentic, a unique expression of each winery.”

Her own event—500 visitors sitting under fragrant Mediterranean pines listening to jazz at sunset at Mogor-Badan winery—is a case in point. Appetizers from the winery’s organic garden—cherry tomatoes, olives, figs and grapes—accompany its light, dry Swiss Chasselas, 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 the hard work and the harvest to come.”

The good news is that Vendimia events are far reaching and have something for nearly every gusto and pocketbook. 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 $100 range—taking place at upscale wineries include sunset concerts at Monte Xanic and Château Camou, the alt-circus Zirk Ubu at La Villa del Valle and a formal dinner and wine auction at Adobe Guadalupe. Nearby Bibayoff winery, with its Russian legacy of 20th-century Molokan pacifists turned winemakers, features a fun-filled fusion evening of Russian-Mexican music, food and wine.

Tickets for smaller, more exclusive engagements are rarely—if ever—available. Events at Casa de Piedra, one of the leading vineyards, are as progressive as the sustainable winery fashioned of corrugated metal and local amber stone. One year, Mexico City actor Humberto Dupeyrón provided food for thought, performing “The Gorilla,” based on a Kafka story. Last year, the L.A.-based avant-garde music group String Theory played a harp-like instrument whose strings stretched more than 100 feet into the air. After the performance, guests donned gloves and took their turns on the stage playing the harp, then descended to the courtyard for steaming bowls of seafood pozole and music by a local rock band.

So just how do you get tickets? “It can be frustrating,” says seven-year Baja resident Carla White, an American who writes for the Baja Times. “Years ago, I would call the travel agent Viajes Damiana every week starting around March 1, to see if the schedule was out. When tickets came in, we’d literally run down to get them. In those days, you had to physically stand in line—it was like buying tickets to a rock concert.”

Things have improved, although it can still be a task for out-of-towners. This year, the schedule of 41 events with 22 wineries was released mid May, with tickets available to buy mid June, just a month and a half before the opening event. All this puts wannabe fiestagoers in a catch-22, since hotel rooms in Ensenada and the valley have been booked for months.

Part of the conundrum lies with how the tickets are distributed. “Each winery determines its event and the number of tickets,” says Gerardo Alcalá, Provino events and public relations coordinator of the arm of the Asociacíon National de Vitivinicultores that officially runs the fiestas. “Some give us tickets to distribute, and others don’t. Some tickets are given to Ensenada travel agencies but not all.” More intimate events—such as Pau Pijoan’s dinner and wine pairing at La Contra (formerly Restaurante Del Parque), one of the most popular eateries in Ensenada—are sold privately and never distributed at all, period.

This year for the first time, Vendimia tickets are available on the Internet. That’s the good news. The bad news is a few of the wineries are not participating in online sales. Tickets are sometimes available by contacting the wineries directly and getting on a list—speaking Spanish is always helpful. Or you can plan a visit to the valley beforehand. That’s not too bad a choice—spend a lovely weekend touring the wineries that are open all year and sample delicious vintages.

And if you’ve a little moxie like Carla White, you can just show up at a winery event at the last minute and hope for a ticket. “It’s always challenging,” she says, “but in the end it’s so worth it.”

BARBARA THORNBURG is a freelance writer who cooks up stories—and orange marmalade—on her Baja ranch. She is the author of L.A. Lofts.

Insider’s Guide

Really want tickets to XX Fiestas de la Vendimia (August 6–22)? Some can be had—alas, as we said, most hotels are booked. Here are a few tips—but if the fates don’t shine on you, there’s always next year.

Provino: The arm of the Asociacíon National de Vitivinicultores, which runs Vendimia events, has 2,000 tickets each for the opening Muestra del Vino ($30) and closing Concurso de Paellas ($35)—but they go faster than a Mexican roadrunner. Not a prayer for this year. Call in April 2011 to get on their waiting list, 646-178-3038, [email protected] Provino carries other Vendimia tickets. Stop by the downtown Ensenada office to buy them—cash only; 496 Teniente Azueta and Virgilio Uribe.

Fiestasdelavendimia.com: Press Google Translate if you don’t read Spanish. Click Calendario de Eventos to order by credit card or PayPal. Note: If there is no shopping cart at the end of the description, tickets aren’t available. (But check back—they’re sometimes added). Tickets can be mailed or picked up at Provino.

Winery: At the Website above, click on Vini­colas Participantes for a list, then call to see if any are selling tickets—some do, some don’t. You may have to send a wire transfer to a Mexican bank and/or go to the Guadalupe Valley beforehand, pay cash and pick up your tickets the evening of the event. Be sure to bring your receipt with you!

Travel Agents: RCV Travel Shop and Viajes Kinessia are given a certain number of Vendimia tickets. They can also help find a hotel and, occasionally, even find rooms in local homes. Contact Gloria Acosta at RCV Travel, 646-174-0072, [email protected]; Viajes Kinessia, 646-152-1800, viajeskinessia.com. Also, discoverbajacalifornia.com lists area hotels.

Wing It: Like an out-of-towner who wants to get into that sold-out Broadway play—locals occasionally 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!