SAN DIEGO -- There was a time when San Diegans like myself would regularly go down for dinner in TJ, as Tijuana is known here, to take in a bullfight, search out carnitas, drive down the blue sparkling coast for golf or some luscious Mexican lobsters at La Fonda.
But that was a decade ago, before post-Sept. 11 border security created multi-hour border wait times for the return; before grisly cartel violence dominated the headlines, and certainly, for me, before kids and their activities sucked up all the spare time it took to travel south. Still, I’ve been dying to check out the emerging wine and food scene in Baja, and finally had a chance this past weekend.
The excuse: the Fiestas de la Vendimia, Baja California’s 22nd annual wine harvest festival. Conjured up by tourism officials and some of the some nearly 70 local wineries around Ensenada, the festival is a two-week-long celebration of wine and food, with events including concerts, wine tastings, and art exhibitions scattered among the seven beautiful wine-producing valleys between Ensenada and Tecate.
This year’s festival -– which runs from Aug. 3-19 -- officially began with the inauguration by Mexican President Felipe Calderon of the spectacular Museo del la Vid Y El Vino (Museum of Vine and Wine), located on the Ruta del Vino road that connects Ensenada with Tecate.
The new museum and the festival itself draw attention to a little known fact: Baja has been producing wine since the 1700s and has some of the oldest vineyards in all of North America. Some of the wine is truly spectacular but, because most is consumed in Mexico with only 25 percent exported, you really need to take a trip to Ensenada to sample the richness of the product.
And so, I did. The journey across the border and along the coast was familiar, and predictable. The border crossing is grimy and crazy, an undeniable transition from one familiar world of easy freeway exits and officialdom to the chaotic, colorful free-for-all which is Tijuana.
But merging onto the highway which takes you south, through Tijuana, Rosarito and eventually, Ensenada, the blue sea sparkles amazingly picturesque to the west and you feel as if you’ve most certainly left California, and somehow emerged onto a Mediterranean coast.
Just a few miles north of Ensenada, we turned left onto the so-called Ruta del Vino. It sounds so classy, “the Wine Route,” a stretch of new highway linking Ensenada with Tecate, curving through the spectacular Valle de Guadelupe. But at least in the few miles just east of Ensenada, the road itself barely does justice to the name: it is dusty, dirty, littered with shacks, chain-link fences and chickens. The creation of this Ruta is an obvious attempt to bring tourist dollars and a transforming sophistication, at least in name, to what is still a struggling and impoverished Mexican city.
Our destination was far more impressive than the route: the Bodegas de Santo Tomas, part of the oldest continuously operating vineyard in Baja California. Santo Tomas hosted one of the highlight events of this year’s festival, an outdoor concert by Mexican pop star Paulina Rubio.
The crowd of short-skirted, high-heeled Mexican women stepped gingerly through the dust to an open grass field where all enjoyed glasses of Santo Tomas’ wine and various food offerings ranging from an Applebee’s booth to delicious tacos de arrachera as a preview to the evening concert. Attendees paid between $100-$125 per ticket for the concert, and were a sophisticated, well-dressed crowd. In addition to the wine-tasting and food nibbling, pre-concert events included a hilarious grape-crushing contest which pitted women from different Mexican states against each other up on a stage, stomping barefoot on grapes poured into big oak barrels. The juice poured out of the barrels as the crowd yelled and the women stomped and giggled.
It was an entirely Mexican crowd, and clear evidence of what tourism officials and local vineyard owners explained: Ten years ago, many Americans would visit Baja and Ensenada for this festival, to sample the wines and experience this beautiful wine region. Now, while the festival is a roaring success with events sold out and hotel rooms in the region fully booked, attendees are nearly all from Mexico itself.
The wine industry here knows they have a compelling product that could appeal to many Americans, whether they be wine aficionados, foodies, or adventure seekers, but the efforts to promote the events outside of Mexico are limited and are really available only to those who already know what they are looking for. There’s a sense that tourism officials and wine promoters are shrugging their collective shoulders in resignation –- if Americans don’t want to see this or taste this, we’ll just save it for our own.
Tomorrow, more on Bodegas de Santo Tomas and on the gastronomic changes in Baja.