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

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.

But Santo Tomas still has plenty of the modern fermentation and aging tanks where its Chardonnay, Cabernet, Barbera, Merlot and other varietals are made, and that wonderful aroma of aging grape juice is itself worth the $2 tour. At the end of the tour, friendly, English-speaking guides set up bottles of all the wines and give you little plastic cups so you can pour your own.

After enjoying the sunset from our ocean-view room at Punta Morro, five minutes north of town, we went back to Santo Tomas for our usual great meal at Embotelladora Vieja (the Old Bottling Plant). Don't miss the quail, a local Baja specialty, or the cream of garlic soup.

The next morning we breakfasted at Las Rosas, a lovely seaside hotel just north of Ensenada, then continued north five miles to connect with Mexico Highway 3 at El Sauzal. This two-lane road, heavily traveled by trucks, takes you through the Guadalupe Valley, Baja's grape country, and meets the border at Tecate.

Russian immigrants who belonged to a pacifist sect that fled the czar in 1907 were the first to plant grapes in the Guadalupe Valley. Their descendants still live in the scrubby hills around the village of Francisco Zarco, a 20-minute drive from the coast. A small museum devoted to the Russian settlement is located on a corner of the Monte Xanic vineyards, and is worth a visit. It's closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Tomas Fernandez, director of the Monte Xanic winery, met us in his lush green vineyards 20 miles from the coast. Monte Xanic's ultramodern winery and 125-acre vineyard are the most advanced in the Baja wine country.

Fernandez, who also owns a boatyard in Ensenada, pointed out where white wine vines had been grafted onto red wine roots, a common vineyard practice. All the vines were covered by black mesh nets, providing protection from birds and bugs. We tasted some Chardonnay grapes, the sweet juice warm from the Baja sun, and spit the seeds onto fertile ground.

Up in the spotless winery building above the vineyard, winemaker Hans Backhoff, a native of Ensenada, was overseeing the pressing of Semillon grapes in a low-pressure, Italian-made press. Fernandez and Backhoff met in 1987 as crew mates on a sailboat in the Newport to Ensenada regatta.

The fruits of those discussions are before us: a $6-million investment in gleaming wine presses, gravity pumps, cold-jacketed fermentation tanks, high-tech filters and $600 French oak barrels that are used for only one year then sold. The 20,000 cases a year have garnered raves from wine critics and a string of medals in international wine competitions.

We purchased bottles of Chardonnay and Chenin-Columbard, and took the short drive around the hillside to check the progress of a new winery, Chateau Camou. Huge fermentation tanks stood in the dusty sunlight as a construction crew sweated to get the winery ready for its inauguration during Baja's August Harvest Festival.

Along with Monte Xanic and the new Santo Tomas winery to the south, Chateau Camou is joining Baja's boutique winery boomlet. And there may be more on the way. Three miles up the road from Monte Xanic, giant Pedro Dome, the biggest winery in Mexico--it produces 550,000 cases of wine a year in Baja, 10 million cases of brandy on the Mexican mainland--has a new American winemaker. Ron McClendon hopes to build a smaller winery-within-a-winery on the Dome grounds, where he could concentrate on smaller batches of finer wines.

A cobwebbed aging cave, brimming with oak barrels and dark alcoves of bottled wine, has been tunneled into the hillside. It provides a cool, romantic respite from the piercing sun and shows off the Baja style: keeping the wine a long time in oak, then further aging in the bottle before release.

If you only have time for one tour in the Guadalupe Valley, Dome's is the most impressive. L.A. Cetto, another huge winery, is just across the street, and it offers tours (its cellars in Tijuana are more interesting, and it sells a great $10 Nebbiolo), but for sheer size and beauty, take in the Dome compound.

The tasting room is spacious and overlooks the vineyards. We tasted and purchased the '91 Cabernet ($5) and the Blanc de Blancs ($4), both good values.

We could have retraced our route to the coast and followed the toll road home, but decided to avoid the long wait at the border by continuing on through high chaparral to Tecate, where traffic at the Customs gate is always light.

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GUIDEBOOK: Baja Wineries

Getting there: Take Interstate 5 south to the border crossing at San Ysidro. Follow signs to the Ensenada toll road. It's about 70 miles to Ensenada and costs about $5 each way (U.S. currency accepted).

Where to stay: Punta Morro (five minutes north of Ensenada on Mexico Highway 1; (tel. (800) 526-6676 or 011-52-617-83507). Suites start at $69 double occupancy.

Las Rosas (a few hundred yards north of Punta Morro; tel. 011-52-617-44310 or 44320). Rooms start at $70 double occupancy. Decent restaurant.

Wineries:

Cavas Valmar. Tours by appointment only (telephone 011-52-617-86405). Directions: located on the corner of Riverol and Ambar streets in Ensenada. Bodegas de Santo Tomas. Tours offered at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. daily, $2. (tel. 011-52-617-833333) Directions: located at 666 Avenida Miramar, half a mile east of the Ensenada tourist district. Monte Xanic. Tours by appointment only, $2 (tel. 011-52-617-83146). Directions: located off Mexico Highway 3, 20 miles from the coast. The two-lane road passes two other small wineries--Bodegas San Antonio (tel. 011-52-617-83939) and Mogor Badan (tel. 011-52-617-71484)--before fording the Guadalupe River wash. Just across the bridge, take the road to the left toward the Russian settlement of Francisco Zarco. The winery is about two miles up the road, on the right.

Casa Pedro Domecq. Free tours Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (tel. 011-52-662-32408 in Tijuana). Directions: take Mexico Highway 34 from the coast at El Sauzal, five miles north of Ensenada. About 23 miles into the Guadalupe Valley, the winery is on the left on Eusebio Kino Street.

L.A. Cetto. Free winery tours are available every day (tel. 011-52-668-5303 in Tijuana). Directions: located across the road from Dome.

For more information: In Ensenada, State Tourism Office at Ave. Lopez Mateos 1350-B, tel. 011-52-617-23033, fax: 011-52-617-23081.

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