You can’t imagine what it’s like to be standing in a Baja California vineyard, under shady oak trees, inhaling the tantalizing scent of 100 immense paellas being cooked over wood fires.
And being very, very hungry.
I’d planned this visit for months after hearing about the Concurso de Paellas, a contest that pits restaurateurs and amateurs against each other, and serves as the culmination of Fiestas de la Vendimia, the Guadalupe Valley’s annual harvest celebration that promotes its burgeoning wine industry.
More than 90 teams of paella makers bring their pans and ingredients to Vino de Liceaga, a winery in San Antonio de las Minas. Over the course of the morning, fussing over rice, saffron and coals, they conjure their versions of the iconic Spanish dish. There will be prizes for best tasting and best looking paellas. But by the time they are announced, you will be full and won’t really care.
Before the gates opened at noon, ticket holders queued up after parking in a field. Well-dressed women in off-shoulder dresses teetered on perilously high heels, dodging dirt clods and stones. As Mexican families streamed into the vineyard, they scouted for tables in the shade. Some brought picnic baskets with hors d’oeuvres and drinks; some spread elegant tablecloths. Adults stopped by a table near the entrance gate to pick up wine glasses for tastings.
In the center of the vineyard, 60 local wineries had set up tasting stands, offering small pours of their surprisingly good wine. (I tasted at least three rosés that were as good as any Bandol I’ve had.)
At 1:30 p.m. sharp, then at 15-minute intervals until 2:30 p.m., the paella teams presented their works of edible art to judges before serving heaping bowls to the crowd.
I’m not sure whether the wine had made people mellow, but no one seemed impatient, everyone was in high spirits, and there was plenty of food to go around.
“It’s an important event in Ensenada,” said Munira Nassif, who owns a paella restaurant in Ensenada with her husband, Raul Zazueta. “All the families gather, and we see friends we haven’t seen for a long time.”
My daughter Chloe and I were second in line for Zazueta’s paella Valenciana. His mixture of saffron rice, seafood, chicken, pork, and chistorra (a Basque chorizo) was sublime.
There was of course, a smattering of Americans in the crowd of 7,000 on Sunday. But it was mainly a Mexican event, and a fabulous counterpoint to the vile nonsense being spewed these days at a country whose people help keep our economy humming. Not that I heard anyone talking politics.
“The main thing is, it’s a big, big party,” said Karla Lee, spokeswoman for ProVino, a trade association of wineries that sponsors Vendimia.
Jennifer Kramer, 34, began visiting Baja with her parents when she was 6 months old. When she was 8, her parents, Carol and Hugh Kramer, founded Discover Baja, a San Diego-based membership club/resource center that she described as a “mini AAA for Baja.”
I had emailed her website for tips about how to approach the Concurso de Paellas and was happy to be told to show up early to score a shady table under the oak trees.
Kramer also wrote the most recent edition of the Moon travel guide “Baja.”
Over the last decade or so, she has seen the Guadalupe Valley explode with more than 150 wineries now operating in the region. She got so many requests for wine tours through Discover Baja, that she and her husband launched their own business, Baja Test Kitchen, which organizes culinary and wine tours.
For years, she has fought the stigma that has kept many Americans away from Mexico and is happy to see attitudes changing.
“Even four or five years ago, people were still trepidatious about going to Baja,” she said. “But if you haven’t been to Baja to see what a wonderful place it is, and the warm Mexican hospitality, you can let the fear of what you are hearing in the media control your decision.”
I have always had a particular fondness for Baja.
Since the early 1970s, my family has owned a beach cabin at a famous surfing spot, K-55. It’s a funky little place in a funky little enclave, populated mostly by working-class Americans and retirees who can stretch their Social Security dollars in Mexico. Medical care is close to free, and top-notch dental care is very inexpensive.
A few weeks ago, a 10-year-old relative visiting our house stepped on a stingray in shallow water and was cut by its razor-sharp, venomous tail. It’s a particularly painful wound, and requires antibiotics. The bill from the Rosarito Beach clinic was 138 pesos, about $8. At the pharmacy, antibiotics and an oral painkiller cost about $9. Funny, but I have never heard a Mexican complain about Americans taking advantage of their country’s healthcare system.
What I do often hear is American friends expressing reservations about visiting Mexico. They worry (mostly, I think) about cartel violence, which has surged and abated over the years, and other forms of lawlessness, such as real estate chicanery perpetuated by people like Donald Trump.
I’ve never experienced any danger, and I’ve been regularly crossing the border since I was 14 years old. (Nor have I ever seen Trump in Baja, though I used to see billboards for his failed project that sparked fraud lawsuits that were settled for undisclosed amounts.)
In the last decade or so, I’ve made a point of venturing beyond the beach, and the shops and restaurants of Ensenada and Rosarito, into the Guadalupe Valley, which is only 90 minutes south of the San Ysidro border crossing.
I will always have a place in my heart for the margaritas of Hussong’s in Ensenada, and I never fail to stop for a carne asada taco (cooked over an outdoor wood grill) at Yaqui’s in Rosarito, but the Guadalupe Valley’s locavore restaurants and wineries are a fantastic new scene unto themselves — well worth your time and money, fears be damned.