Little Big Wine School
A quiet revolution is going on at the corner of Emiliano Zapata and 6th Street on a dirt road that cuts through the center of the tiny pueblo of El Porvenir in Baja California. The general is Hugo D’Acosta, although he would hate to be called that. The quiet, lanky Mexican with a mercurial smile sits addressing his troops on a blistering Saturday morning before class begins. He’s talking in a low tone as his followers--wine aficionados all--tilt their heads and lean in to catch every drop of winemaking wisdom.
Artisanal wine, D’Acosta says, “can be many things, but here . . . it means making wine with the hands and a few tools. You know the Italians say making wines with the hands is best. When you make wines with your head, you are a technician.”
Students take his artisanal winemaking classes on the grounds of a former olive oil factory just off the 14-mile-long Ruta de Vinicola in the Valle de Guadalupe, northeast of Ensenada. Doctors, lawyers, restaurateurs and landowners, as well as ranch managers and assistants at local vinicolas, or wineries, are among those who attend. Today there are three Americans as well, all newcomers to the valley. Some dream of becoming vintners; all have fallen in love with the grape.
D’Acosta doesn’t bother promoting the Estacion de Oficios del Porvenir, the official name of his school he refers to as “la escuelita”--little school. He started it four years ago to inspire a new generation of valley residents and educate them about winemaking traditions. He also hopes one day to create other artisanal industries focusing on cheese, olive oil and bread. “We’re in the most important village in Valle de Guadalupe--Porvenir. It means the future,” he says. “So the school name means the trade school of the future.”
D’Acosta says there is no winemaking tradition in Baja, as there is in France and Italy. “We’ve always preferred whiskey or beer or anything else to wine,” he says. “As a child, I remember we would open up a bottle once a year at Christmas--but no one really drank it.”
The general of noses would like to change that. And he has the credentials to do so. In the ‘80s, he spent three years studying viticulture and oenology in France and Italy, then a year working at Chappellet Vineyards in Napa, before bringing his knowledge home to Mexico. After 12 years as winemaker and then director of the grandfather of Mexican wineries, Santo Thomas (established in 1888), he left to start his own boutique winery, Casa de Piedra, a decade ago.
“Their red wine, Casa de Piedra Vino de Piedra Tinto, for me is the best wine in the valley and definitely world class,” says innkeeper Eileen Gregory of La Villa del Valle, a luxury inn in the Guadalupe Valley. Chef Jair Tellez of Laja, one of the valley’s premier restaurants, agrees: “Hugo’s vineyard is managed and run the way great wines are made--the results are exceptionally good.”
D’Acosta’s love affair really began, he says, at Mexico City’s Fruiticultura, where he learned to make wine for the first time. He was 15. Now he’s passing on his passion to kids he teaches at the high school across the street from la escuelita. Many have gone on to jobs in the vinicolas that dot the valley. A few winery assistants have completed his wine course and are studying to become winemakers. “If this keeps happening, it will be something good and true--verdad for the valley,” he says. “You understand verdad?”
He’s also part owner of Paralelo, the valley’s newest winery, and serves as wine guru for a host of boutique wineries and vineyards such as Adobe Guadalupe, Vina Pijoan and Shimul. At last count, the Guadalupe Valley had 25 wineries, says D’Acosta, with 40 more being developed. “And if you move that rock over there,” he adds with a smile, “you’ll find another winery underneath.”
D’Acosta’s teaching method involves winemaking with the hand and the heart. The objective of his entry-level course is to teach the fundamentals of making good artisanal wine. At the end of the course, students produce their first barrels--225 liters of wine. Even after learning the basics, pupils frequently return. In second-level classes, they determine what they want to learn more about. For those who don’t own a vineyard, D’Acosta offers his facilities to ferment and later bottle the wine from grapes they buy from him or elsewhere.
Restaurateur Bruno Madrazo Arjona is on his third pilgrimage to make wine. His first batch has become the house red wine for his parents’ restaurant in Vera Cruz. He makes the wine each year at the school, then ships it south. “In winemaking, you need so much experience. Hugo is a great teacher, his expertise helps shorten our path to making better wine.” *
After you cross the border at Tijuana, it’s about a 11/2-hour drive to the school in the tiny pueblo of El Porvenir in the Valle de Guadalupe.
For information on the school, contact Raquel Morales at email@example.com or call 011-52-646-156-5267. Three-hour classes on winemaking are held once a week for four consecutive weeks, beginning on the fourth Saturday in August ($100 for four classes). For now, classes are in Spanish, so you have a year to dig out your old language books and brush up before the next course.
Adobe Guadalupe, Colonia Rusa de Guadalupe, Valle de Guadalupe, 011-52-646-155-2094, www.adobeguadalupe.com. Working winery and six-room bed-and-breakfast. $168 per room, including breakfast for two. Four-course dinners, with wine, $60.
Silvestre, Carretera Ensenada-Tecate (Highway 3), Km 73, Valle de Guadalupe. (Look for the chartreuse Silvestre signs on the left side of the road.) The alfresco restaurant features rustic nouvelle Mexican cuisine cooked over a mesquite grill. It’s open for lunch only (1 p.m. to 6 p.m.) from the end of May until Nov. 2. The six-course menu ($35) changes daily and features organic vegetables and fresh seafood.
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