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Mexico Special Issue : Destination: Ensenada : Journey of the Spirits : Even while modernizing, the wineries of Baja California keep their quirky charm

October 15, 1995|NEAL MATTHEWS | Matthews is a free-lance writer based in San Diego and a frequent visitor to Baja. and

ENSENADA, Mexico — Winemaker Fernando Martain inserted a long glass tube into an oak barrel and extracted a serving of liquid sunset. "It's not ready yet," he cautioned, emptying the tube into a wine glass and sniffing it. "It's only been eight or nine years in the barrel."

Unlike the rich brown brandies produced by Mexico's largest wineries, Cavas Valmar, one of Mexico's smallest vintners, makes one that's a luminous orange. Its character is a bit rough-edged but lively--mirroring many recent offerings of Baja California's wine country. If you haven't tried Baja's wines in a few years, a trip down the stunning coast road will bring some pleasant surprises.

All seven Baja wineries are within a 90-minute drive of the border, and each one is refreshingly quirky.

The last time I'd visited Cavas Valmar, Martain's tiny, three-employee winery on the outskirts of this thriving seaport, I'd tasted his excellent '89 Cabernet. On this return visit in midsummer, I was determined to try the brandy from his homemade still, a delightful Rube Goldberg contraption just a few paces from his two-acre vineyard, next to a gravel baseball diamond.

Seventy miles south of the border, Ensenada has more winemakers per capita than any other city in Mexico. This hub of Mexico's wine country is blessed with cold water upwellings in the bay, which send cooling breezes into the long hot valleys north and south of town--supplying the right climate for grape growing. And though Baja has been producing vino since the padres arrived 300 years ago, only recently has the international taste for fine wine (Baja's wines are exported worldwide) prodded the local winemakers into the 20th Century.

The best way to sample the local wines (exports to the United States are paltry and California law prevents travelers from bringing more than one bottle per month across the border by car) is to spend the night in one of Ensenada's commodious hotels. That way you can tour wineries in Ensenada and the nearby Guadalupe Valley, eat in the city's first-rate restaurants, and enjoy picturesque vistas of sea and desert without feeling rushed.

You can zip down Mexico Highway 1, the divided expressway, or make some stops off this coastal route to soak up the Baja quietude.

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Once you hit Ensenada, it's time for some serious wine tasting. Cavas Valmar is a good place to start. Its quaintness gives you something to compare to the industrial giants out in the Guadalupe Valley. The winery consists of one warehouse-style building, a small lab, an aging room filled with French oak barrels and a tasting room illuminated by large windows.

Martain was educated as a chemical engineer and worked in production at the downtown Santo Tomas winery for eight years. In 1985 he and his wife, Yolanda, began making wine in their garage. Three years later they built the current structure in front of the vineyard her grandfather had planted. The name of the winery is derived from both families--Valentin and Martain. Today they make about 1,200 cases a year, including Cabernet, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Chenin Colombard, and vino tinto, a slightly sweet red table wine. The wines sell for $4 to $15 a bottle.

After inspecting Martain's small grape crusher and admiring his cool, dirt-floored aging cellar filled with barrels, we tasted his well-balanced Cabernet and his fruity Chenin Blanc. He sent us off with a shot of the brandy, for which we will return the day he starts bottling it.

It was early afternoon, and we needed a bite to eat before touring the Santo Tomas winery in the middle of Ensenada. So we stopped at Kaia, our favorite Spanish tapas place, in a comfortable old house near Revolution Park at Sixth and Moctezuma. Then it was off to Baja's original winery, three blocks south.

Established in 1888, Santo Tomas has never produced better wines than winemaker Hugo D'Acosta creates these days. When he took over in 1988, the winery was pumping out 200,000 cases a year; he has reduced production to about 80,000 cases in order to concentrate on quality.

The tour begins by passing through a bank vault door down steps below street level to where the sparkling wines are made. White stripes on the dusty bottle bottoms mark each day's quarter turn. But this is about the only part of the operation that hasn't been recently changed.

One large room is full of huge, ancient and empty redwood aging casks, waiting to be demolished. Another former aging room has been converted to a meeting and concert hall, with balcony seating atop the redwood casks. The old bottling room has been converted to a gourmet restaurant, called Embotelladora Vieja, and obsolete concrete vats across the street now house La Esquina, an art gallery, cafe and wine shop.

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