Rancho Maria Teresa: Valle de Guadalupe
Last week I had the good fortune to spend five days in the Rancho Maria Teresa, a hotel, restaurant and vineyard in the heart of Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California – the main wine-producing area in Mexico. As Mexican wines stop being a joke and increasingly hold their own in competitions with more well-known wine-producing countries, this area is gaining prominence as a tourist destination, centered around the Ruta Del Vino.
I had been invited by my friend Lupita, whose uncle owns the Rancho Maria Teresa. Up until now, I have not had much interest in visiting the north of Mexico, but the thought of spending a few days on a working vineyard with a lovely pool and good restaurant easily overcame my prejudices and qualms about visiting the North.
In a previous post, I wrote that one of the main reasons to fall in love with Mexico is the warmth and hospitality of the Mexican people. Even by Mexican standards, however, the hospitality I received at the Rancho Maria Teresa was exceptional. Basically, I was not allowed to pay for anything. All my attempts to pay for anything, such as a restaurant bill, were thwarted by the family paying beforehand. Clearly not all guests get treated this way! I had the great advantage of being invited by a well-loved member of the family.
Rancho Maria Teresa has 25 hectares of which 18 are planted with vines. The great advantage Valle de Guadalupe has as a wine producing region is that many types of grape can be successfully grown here. The main variety in Rancho Maria Teresa is Cabernet Sauvignon, though other varieties include Tempranillo, Merlot, Syrah, Berbera, Chenin Blanc, and Nebbiolo.
This area is known for its Mediterranean climate. Whilst I was there, in mid to late June, there was an intense, searing, dry heat which reminded me of Greece. The earth has a wonderful red colour, and is ideal for creating adobe-based buildings. A small oratorio is currently being constructed on the ranch by a builder using ecological construction techniques.
The ranch has been producing its own wines for only four years, but already its Cabernet Sauvignon has won prizes at major International Wine Fairs. I tasted the 2007 Cabernet direct from the barrel and it was spectacular – really fruity, complex and full-bodied. I’m looking forward to that vintage being bottled. The wine is produced completely organically, without using chemicals. Equally, the fruit that is cultivated on the ranch is produced organically. I don’t think I have ever tasted better orange juice. Oranges fresh from the tree the day before, with the perfect combination of sweetness and acidity.
Currently the Rancho produces 1200 cases of wine per year. Its aim is to produce 2500 cases, which would qualify it as a boutique producer. Interestingly, the challenge in producing this number of cases is not the land available (the Rancho is already selling its surplus grapes to other producers) but the equipment needed to achieve this level of production. I was told that making high quality wine requires much investment in equipment.
By contrast, I went to visit the winery of L.A. Cetto which is only about 10 minutes away.
This is wine making on another level. L.A. Cetto has 1600 hectares of land in this area and is the leading wine producer in Mexico in terms of volume. Because there is still not a strong wine drinking culture in Mexico, 60% of their production is exported. They offer guided tours of their site, which are informative and well worth doing – and not just for the free wine-tasting at the end.
As Lupita’s cousin used to work at L.A. Cetto for five years, before producing his own wines at Rancho Maria Teresa, we were allowed to drive around the vineyards. In one part, a stage has been constructed, with lovely views over the vineyards and surrounding valley. This plays host to the annual fiesta at the start of the wine harvest when local and national dignitaries are invited – Vicente Fox has attended whilst he was President – and tickets cost around $200. The area even has its own bullring.
A great advantage of staying in the Valle de Guadalupe is that the attractive seaside town of Ensenada is only about 25 minutes away. Ensenada is known, amongst other reasons, for having the best tacos de pescado (fish tacos) in the world. I was dubious about this until I tried them at one of the well-known street taco stands (on the junction of Castillo and Juarez).
If I understood right, either here or at another stand, it was possible to pay by credit card, though the tacos are incredibly cheap. Five of us ate about 20 fish and shrimp tacos, and the bill was less than $20. I have eaten good fish tacos before but these were at another level. Large portions of fried plump, really succulent fresh fish, without a trace of grease, served wrapped in a tortilla with a combination of whatever takes your fancy of the following – lemon, finely shredded cabbage, tomato chile and onion salsa, mayonnaise, marinated onions, plus a variety of differently spiced salsas.
Ensenada seemed a pleasant, funky little city to me, full of restaurants and bars. Interestingly, too, given the reputation and influence of Tijuana, which is only about two hours to the north, it felt very safe. As often in Mexico, there are some great examples of everyday surrealism on show.
Another advantage of the Valle de Guadalupe as a location is that it is easy to visit the USA. The quiet border crossing at Tecate with one lane – in comparison with the 17 lanes of Tijuana – is about 90 minutes away. And from there, San Diego is less than an hour away.
Tecate seemed a quiet, small town to me but later I learnt that the day after we crossed the border there, a US Border Patrol Policeman had been killed in the area. The circumstances of his death had not been clarified and it was even rumoured he had been killed on the Mexican side of the border.
I was expecting to see evidence of militarization everywhere in Tijuana but it seemed relatively calm to me. I was told that generally things were much better there now. I’m sure this is not the whole picture, as the week I was in Baja California there was a shoot out in Tijuana between two rival drug gangs which left two people dead and a number injured.
Despite, however, this note of narcoviolence at the end, I would recommend the Valle De Guadalupe in general, and Rancho Maria Teresa in particular, as a great holiday destination, especially if you are interested in wine.
One final point, just in case anyone still believes the stereotype of the lazy Mexican lacking in entrepreneurial spirit. Just under 50 years ago, Joaquin Santana, the owner of Rancho Maria Teresa, arrived in Tijuana from Colima, with his wife, young baby and 50 pesos in his pocket. He bought the land in the late seventies, and started growing and selling oranges. Slowly, and, as he told me, literally through blood, sweat, and tears, he built the Rancho up to what it is today – a thriving hotel, restaurant, vineyard and fruit-producing farm.
Obstacles to success in Mexico often seem greater than in the US or Europe – bureacracy, corruption, mistrust, envy, attracting the attention of organized crime (amongst others). Anyone, therefore, achieving business success in Mexico – and not doing it solely through family connections and/or already being part of the wealthy elite – shows considerable ability and tenacity.