American Sabbatical 57: 11/28/96

Vino Baja

11/28.. Baja Vino.

On Friday Graham was back in harness as an Irish immigrant, b’gorrah, and we took the kids off for a tour to give Bonny a break. The beach in front of the Grand Baja is a steep cobblestone, sloping into a strip of coarse sand at low tide, not a very playful place, so when the road south skirted a true sand beach we pulled over to play by the waters. You may remember that I made a pledge with Jim Torbert at the beginning of this adventure. We jumped into the brine at Popham Beach in August, and both promised to immerse ourselves on the opposite sides, he in Spain, me in California. Well, folks, I reneged. I'd had visions of tropical seas under sweltering skies. This Pacific surf is strictly wetsuit stuff with a stiff breeze bending the fanpalms. Yes, I could have been bold, but I did a few laps in the hotel pool and then sat in the Jacuzzi under a Baja moon. Does that count?

The Mexican propensity to decorate with film plastic extends to the beach. There is litter everywhere we went in Mexico, and the old saw about a poor people wasting not obviously predated the plastic revolution. Adding to the charm were the horses for hire, an almost universal opportunity in Baja, whose road apples dotted the sands. The kids went riding on some flea-bitten nags, with a colt gambolling behind and a woman guide managing the show, while we tootled along the foamline with the shorebirds. There were half a dozen different striders twiddling their legs up and back with the surges, among which were an entirely unfamiliar crested gull. I was amused that one of these birds looked disheveled and hunched with its feathers all ruffled up, and it was berating the other four of its kind with a fishwife’s nagging. They were smooth, upright, and aloof. There’s one in every bunch.

Bay of Ensenada
John led on to Ensenada, with the Owl in train. The road along the headlands rose up to 1000 feet of dusty chaparral with another Moorish fantasy palace in lurid pinks and lavenders perched on the outer brink. We swung off down a dirt track that plunged in switchbacks down to a campground. The sites were nestled under olive trees in the glaring dazzle, and the view across Encenada Bay was stunning. Bold umber bluffs making a grand sweep around for 30 miles. All the way to La Bufadora, our destination.

But first we had to navigate through the boomtown of Ensenada. We were told that this sprawling burg has sprung out of a sleepy crossroads in recent years thanks to the influx of gringo dollars, but it looked as shabby and half-plastered as anywhere we’d seen. It’s hard to tell which partial shells are once-was, will-be, or might-have been. There were workingmen laboring in desultory among the skeletons. The newest things in town were spanking-bright 1996 VW bugs in a dealer’s lot. They’re still making Beetles here, and you can buy new engines for almost any vintage VW, which is why the roads look like 1964. Most of the fuming, unmuffled vehicles were decades old, however, and looked like applicants for a demolition derby. The drivers acted the same. Trying to keep John’s zigging van in sight and not get side-swiped by a kamikaze compadre left me babbling in tongues. And the signage shouted back at us: Tecate, Corona, Dos Equis!

We finally made it back to the Uno, after a stop for icecream, the purpose of this wild-John chase, as it turned out. The coast road had occasional speedbumps, and at each there was a line of stalls selling pickled peppers, bagged nuts, and other local produce. Maybe we should petition DOT for speedbumps on Maine’s Route 1, for the shrimp and blueberry peddlers.

Roadside Attraction

We were in a line of California rec vehicles which all turned off for La Bufadora: The Blowhole. The byroad passed between dusty palms and across agricultural flats skirting the south side of Ensenada Bay, mostly barren plowed turf in this season, but with occasional green acres of northern vegetables. Peas in November! Then the way rose up with the bounding cliffs, clothed in scrub trees, and then chaparral. Looking back, the shabby shore we’d wended around looked wild and romantic from afar. Cresting the final rise on this rugged peninsula we skidded down into the maw of a tourista trap: a narrow alleyway of gaudy stalls crowded with gawkers and hawkers. Park here: 2 dols. We inched along through the milling press until it became obvious that there was no public parking, or it had all been pre-empted by free enterprise.

We were hardly out of the buggies before extruded snakes of sugared fried-dough were being thrust into our faces. Empty your pockets the eyes said. And the opportunities were rife. Nobody does kitsch as well as the Mexicans, and this streetmart had something of everything for sale. Lurid pottery, painted carvings, wild fabrics, mirrored monstrosities, beads and bells, shell gizmos, switchblades and sunglasses, rubberized gewgaws, tacky postcards, Malasian trinkets.. along with beautiful fabrics, wonderful terracottas, and silver jewelry of all types, from serpents-and-skulls to intricate filigrees. There must be a guild of silversellers here, restricted to short dark Mexicans who have to wear traditional costumes. Either that or the same elderly couple of peddlers arise spontaneously wherever gringo tourists appear. On the horse beach an ageless man in serape, low-crowned hat, and sandals appeared out of the empty sands to offer us silverwork in a peddler’s case slung over his shoulder. His female double made the same silent approach in Puerto Nuevo, out of a blind side. Now in La Bufadora both of them were working the crowd.

Jostled and hustled we wiggled through and climbed down a stonework stairway to platforms overlooking a cove. Holiday-makers were pressed up against the railings, and cries of delight echoed in the cleft. Rolling surges were lifting long fronds of kelp as they marched toward the rocks below us, and BOOF: an arc of foamy spray burst up the cleft, spattering the onlookers. That was it: a muffled explosion and a salt shower. If you wanted to use the toilets, it cost 2 peso for toilet paper.

My good humor was immediately restored. The absurd monkey had done it again. Herded eagerly to see a cosmic non-event, and was willingly paying for tacky trinkets to memorialize the experience. Mainers are much too shy. Just think of the possibilities at Pemaquid or Cape Elizabeth for sombrero sellers and lobsterclaw art.

We bought Coronas and fried dough and a “bargain” or two, and headed back to Puerto Nuevo. This time going through Ensenada it was the streetcorner hour, and workingmen with tired faces were bunched in conversation at curbsides. Bus-stops were full of women in long dresses clutching stringbags, and craning for a view of their bus. The sharpedged sun was dulling into red and the ocean darkening to swallow it. We were sniffing van-fumes up the coast road and thinking about leftovers.

When we got back to the Grand Baja, John’s friend Tim had arrived on his BMW, and we were soon up to our elbows in turkey and sweet potatoes. After another dinner that couldn’t be beat, it sure is sweet to float in a Jacuzzi on a November night under Mexican stars.

We didn’t want to overstay our welcome with these working folks, so we thanked them for a splendid sojourn, and made an early getaway on Saturday, intending to circle round through Ensenada, up to Tecate on the border, and then back to San Diego. Our caravan now consisted of one hippy van, one masked Festiva, and one luxury motorcycle, trading lead. Leaving the gold coast on Rt.3, we quickly climbed out of the condo boom and into hardtime hill country. We were casually waved through an army checkpoint by young men with automatic weapons, and noticed there was more political graffiti on the roadside boulders than along the shore. The urge to decorate rocks with spraycan calligraphy must be overwhelming in Mexico, to judge by its abundance. Up Rt.3 the only other abundance was prickly-pears. Plots of prickly-pears in dooryards and on hillsides, next to cinderblock bungalows. Both the flowers and the pads of these comical cacti are edible, but it seems strange to grow these hostile fruits in rows, like cabbages.

Vinyard View
Over the first range of hills we came into a desiccated valley with rows of withered grape vines marching across the sand. But this soon changed into healthier irrigated stock, and we were surrounded by the vinyards of the Guadalupe Valley, producer of 90% of Mexico’s wine. Time for a wine tour. We pulled up to the modern facilities of the Domecq Winery, in whose courtyard six 8-foot tall pottery vats, once used for winemaking, have been converted into a gushing fountain, and I stood and drew the view, while the party, well, partied. (They took the tour, followed by the tasting.)

Afterwards we all crossed the road (like chickens), and went up the long drive between olive trees and vinyard rows to the Cetti Winery. We’d been told by Graham to ask the way to the terraces by the bullring, and to go there to picnic. Our directions took us around and through the stainless industrial plant and up a manicured gravel road to a magnificent setting. Here in the middle of a seared Mexican valley there’s a Mediterranean hideaway. From our lofty perch on bright sienna tile platforms, under a vast shadecloth-on-painted-steel ramada, we looked out over hundreds of acres of productive vines. Immediately to our right was a sparkling clean bullring, while behind us were shady groves of olive and almond trees. A steady breeze brushed against us as the 70 degree sunshine soaked in deep. We feasted on fruits and nuts and cheese and salads, and felt like kings on the mountain.

(Memo #50)

Nov. 30 - VINO BAJA

Who? Domec family and others

What? vineyards

Where? Baja, Mexico

When? last twenty years

How? planted vines, built bottling plants

Topics: winemaking, wineries.

Questions: How is wine produced? Is wine an important product of Mexico? What spinoff industries are associated with winemaking?


We spent Thanksgiving in the Baja and cooked our turkey on an outside grill with fixings made on a campstove. Our hosts were a San Diego couple staying in the Baja to perform as extras on the Titanic movie being filmed there. A huge model of the Titanic - complete with hydraulic lifts to raise the stern to a perpendicular position - stands on the coast of Baja just off the coastal highway. It will be hilarious if any goofs allow the movie’s viewers to see palm trees or a Mexican village off to the side. Our hosts had many stories to tell about being in their first movie.

Cactus Farm
The Saturday after Thanksgiving we set off to drive inland, see wineries, and return to San Diego through the Baja’s Guadalupe valley to beat the holiday rush the next day. The drive inland took us through small villages and stark hills. At several places we saw cactus farms with the plants in oddlooking orderly rows (!). Dry rocky hills with desert plants ranged on either side.

Two wineries surrounded by acres of grape plants stand across the road from each other in the valley (Domecq and Cetto). Together they produce 90% of Mexico’s wines. The wineries are becoming increasingly popular tourist attractions, with tours throughout the day. There are few other tourist facilities, however, in the valley. We decided to tour Domecq. A broad drive lead straight through rows of grapes to the huge buildings set on a low hill. Directly in front of us was a fountain made out of four or five huge ceramic pots that were used in the past to store wine. The tours start from a large room where wines can be sampled and bought. The tour before us was imbibing with pleasure.

Domecq has been producing wine for three hundred years and has wineries in Argentina, South Africa, and Mexico. Two years ago a British corporation took over. Wine is grown in only 2 valleys in Mexico (only in the Baja) and processed in 6 wineries. Domecq produces a variety of wines (cabernet, zinfandel, ruby, chemin blanc, chardonnay, chardonnay blanc, palomina, etc) as well as 13 brandies. The brandies are processed in other places. 40% of Mexico’s wine is exported.

Seal of Domecq

Domecq has been in the valley since 1972. It produces 18 million liters of wine a year. This winery employs 50 people in the winery itself and hires approximately 150 pickers at harvest time. It processes its own grapes plus others from fields near Mexicali (from contracts with independent growers). Because all grapes are pressed the day they’re picked (preferably within 4 hours), the Mexicali grapes are picked at night and trucked immediately to Domecq. Grape vines take 2-3 years to produce quality grapes. The key problems for the grower are grasshoppers, fruit flies, and fungus. The 1996 harvest was apparently small. (Apologies to wine aficionados for any inaccuracies.)

Our guide took us through the adjacent bottling plant that could process 90 bottles of wine a minute or 2500 cases a day. A row of huge stainless steel vats could hold 25,000 liters of wine apiece for bottling. Then we followed a corridor to a wide staircase and descended to the wine cellars. They were picture perfect. A huge, low- ceilinged whitewashed space dimly lit with arched bays along one side filled with stacked bottles (12,000 per section). Bottles have to be stored on their sides so the wine is in contact with the cork. 3 rows of barrels filled the center of the space (75 in
all?) The cellars are kept at 14 degrees Celsius all year. Wine for 334,000 bottles is stored here for six months to a year. The key decisionmaker in a winery is the winemaster who decides when a vintage is ready for bottling and market. The wine is stored in barrels made of French Oak and American White oak. A Napa Valley (California) cooperage produces them.

We left the main cellar and followed a broad corridor past a shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Then upstairs to another huge storage room full of huge barrels of Yugoslav oak. This room is kept at a steady 14-17 degrees Celsius.

A hundred yards separated this building from the other. The processing plant looks much like any industrial building of metal with cement floors and complicated pipes and gauges everywhere. During the harvest trucks can be pulled up to a line of outside bays where the grapes are conveyed into 20 ton crushers. The grape paste is sent by pipes into the building. Grapes with skins kept in become red wines. For whites, the skins are removed. The grape byproduct not used for wines or brandies becomes fertilizer and cowfeed. Bland wines are pressed twice, other fermented products are pressed 4-12 times. The crushed grapes are stored at 14-17 degree Celsius in 500 liter tanks. This large industrial building was full of these huge stainless tanks. We sat near a tank with open “hatch” near the bottom just big enough for a person to squeeze through that we could look into. Each tank is meticulously cleaned with antibacterial soap after each use. The cleaners must go in through the small opening (no way, I thought!). After the appropriate pressings, the wine goes to the other building. It is an efficient, modern industrial facility. I asked about research and was told the wineries have a program to increase production. Trade schools have not yet been used for training.

After the tour we had sips of a variety of wonderful wines and bought two bottles as Christmas present (only $10 apiece). We then drove to a low hill overlooking Cetto Winery where the vintners have created a wonderful picnic area. A series of cement terraces with rocks walls are shaded by wooden ramadas (arbors) and surrounded by rose gardens. A spotless bullring lay just downhill. We imagined a colorful bullfight and barbecue occurring after harvest.

Old and New

Winemaking is an intricate and skilled process. Domecq and Cetto have huge modern facilities that will transform the valley and provide work in many associated industries. There is real potential for tourist facilities and education programs. I’d love to find out where the bottles are produced and the labels. What metal shop produced the hoops for the barrels? Is there an oak forest maintained by winemakers? Where is the larger machinery for pressing and bottling manufactured? Where are the grape vines from and have they been genetically altered? Where is the wood from for the vine row supports in the field ? Who cuts it? Does the vineyard have carpenters? Are pesticides used?

11/29.. Baja continued.

Baja Vino
This really was the far corner of our journey. It has been snowing and freezing in Maine already, and that world is buttoned up, but here we sat in the lee of some Mexican stonework, still totally open to the kisses of heaven.

And it was time to turn homeward. The rest of our samba to San Diego was uneventful. The austere mountains of central Baja with their desert shrubs and cactus would make a cowboy lonesome and his horse unhappy, but the thickening chaparral near the border must be a delight to a smuggler’s eye. We were waved through immigration at Tacate without ado, and again were struck by the radical demarcation between physical cultures. Tacate was a drab tin and cinderblock town with men clotting on street corners and trash and graffiti underfoot. Just across the DMZ the relative affluence was palpable, and even the vegetation seemed lusher. The trash disappeared.

We joined a high-speed slalom of homing Californios between the border mountains. Coasted through the Border Patrol check and came out of the wilderness into civiliburbia beneath the radio towers on Mt. Miquel. But nobody wanted to go home, it seems. When we made a gas stop in LaMesa it was decided that we’d go for pizza in Ocean Beach, all the way across the city to the north shore, past the marine park. So we played chase-Tim through freeway traffic, and followed the sun setting down to the water’s edge. But, even after Italo-American therapy, the majority voted to cruise OB rather than confront familiar reality. So we sniffed around headshops and watched San Diego’s finest shakedown a streetkid on the breakwater, then dragged ourselves out onto the dimly lit pier. Shining crests of breakers curled out of the darkness and rushed to their noisy ends underneath us, dying on the beach beyond. But we were too weary to be exhilarated. The holiday was over. We finally dragged ourselves to bed in Encanto.

We have had lots of reasons to be thankful this year. For us a cycle of bad times rose up and receded in ‘96, but there are other waves on others’ beaches, and some folks are too close to the edge. We’ve gotten a look at some places people run to, when they run out of America, but you have to squint your eyes to call them paradise.

Mexican Escape

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