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An oasis of music and wine in Baja

In the hills above Ensenada, Don Heriberto Aguilar has carved out a life playing sorrowful ballads and songs of hope while drinking the deep reds he produces.

October 12, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • Don Heriberto Aguilar, right, plays violin at Rancho El Tule, his winery in the mountains above Ensenada in Baja California.
Don Heriberto Aguilar, right, plays violin at Rancho El Tule, his winery… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

In the hills high above Ensenada, on the road to Ojos Negros, a dust-covered, mustachioed cowboy named Don Heriberto Aguilar has found the perfect life.

A trip to Aguilar's rancho was not on my itinerary in Mexico. I was there to research a story, which will be coming soon, on more than three decades of good deeds performed in Baja California by the owners of Benning Violins in Studio City.

But Tito Quiroz, a musician who started Ensenada's Academia Benning (which he named for his longtime mentors), was determined to give me and Times photographer Michael Robinson Chavez a look at a Mexico few visitors see. If we were interested, he said, he would take us to a party at a winery in the hills.

"It's a Mexican thing," said Tito, who suggested that I might be the first gringo ever to set foot on Rancho El Tule. "It's not a thing for tourists."

Would I be welcome, I wondered? My name aside, inherited from Spanish grandparents, I am 100% gringo, and my Spanish gets me into conversations but then seems to abandon me. No worries, Tito said. He'd already cleared my visit with Don Heri, as everyone calls Aguilar.

On Sunday night we drove beyond the lighted seaside sprawl of Ensenada and climbed into darkness, where there is nothing but settling dust and a gathering chill. Tito suddenly knifed off the road and bounced along an even more desolate, unpaved path. Finally we parked, stepped blindly through a grove of trees and came upon the celebration of a decades-old tradition.

Friends and neighbors had gathered in an open-air structure of lumber and stone, the pale light showering them in gold. There were guitars and singing, with men in blue jeans, plaid shirts and leather boots dancing with their wives. Two señoras worked in the smoke of a wood-burning grill, making quesadillas under a dangling root in the shape of a striking rattlesnake. Dark-colored bottles lined rough-hewn planks laid atop wine barrels. And yellowed photos of the rancho, which turned 100 this year, adorned the walls.

Off to one side, taking in the scene, was a gray-haired man wearing the dust of a long day's work, his cowboy hat pulled down to his brow, his long, thick mustache a natural wonder. Don Heri, still handsome in his 70s, has an alluring and mysterious glow of contentment. You want to hear the stories you know he holds, even more when you discover he's a man of few words.

"Welcome," he said with a callused handshake, and before long, Don Heri had gone for his violin and joined Tito and other musicians for an unrehearsed jam.

Twice a week they play sorrowful ballads and up-tempo songs of hope. Mexico is battered and beautiful, and Rancho El Tule is both a refuge from the enduring national tragedy of bloodshed and corruption and a prideful embrace of culture and history. The house favorite is ranchera romantica, which Tito describes as "the kind of music you take with tequila and lime, but in this case, wine."

"It feels safe here," said Paloma Nuñez, a friend for whom Don Heri hosted a wedding party and charged nothing at all. She goes to the rancho as often as she can with her young son and her husband, Jose Luis, one of the finest trumpet players in Baja and a member of Tito's traveling orchestra, which is prone to drop in anywhere, any time and play for hours.

The musicians come and go through the night, some of them pros, some of them dreamers, and Don Heri joins in when he can, sometimes with his guitar instead of the violin. He disappears now and then and always returns with another bottle that gets passed around.

"This is something we do as friends," said Tito, who admires the way Don Heri conducts himself and treats others. Tito gives him violin lessons in return.

When Tito and I went back to see Don Heri a second time, he greeted us in a long dark riding coat. He uncorked a couple of bottles of the rich red wine he makes, offered a plate of cheese and olives, and we talked for three hours as he plucked his guitar and occasionally sang.

In the Baja gold rush of the late 1800s, Don Heri said, his great-grandfather found a few nuggets and bought this land, perfect for fruit trees and for Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet and Nebbiolo grapes. Don Heri is up at 6 each day to work with his three sons and his wife, Dona Ofelia, making wine he doesn't even bother to market. Friends and loyal customers come by, and for $5, they go home with a bottle of good red.

I asked why, in the heart of a region with a booming wine industry that draws international acclaim and bus tours, Don Heri keeps it so simple, without so much as labels on the bottles or a sign on the highway.

There are practical explanations, Don Heri said. Growing the business would mean more work, more worry and more government interference. But there's the romantic answer, as well. Change is for those who can't decide what they need or who they are.

For as long as he can, Don Heri said, he wants to live exactly "like I'm living now."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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