Camping in a Vineyard
100 steps from the tasting room to my bed – “Why, yes, I will have another tempranillo. And could I try the cab, also?” It was our last night in Baja and we were spending it at the Santo Tomas Vineyard and Winery about an hour south of Ensenada. The vineyard isn’t in the campground business so there were no hook-ups and not a ton of space – John had us packed in tighter than an unopened package of Lit’l Smokies. But it was well worth it. We had our own private tour of the vineyard, a sensory tasting, and of course the on-site wine store had stayed open late especially for us.
The sun was perched just above the mountains to the west and a light breeze whispered through the scythe-shaped leaves of the eucalyptus trees as we climbed aboard two covered flatbed trailers and sat down on the back-to-back bench seats to begin our tour of the vineyard. The old tractor coughed and complained at first but then gave up and began pulling us along a dirt road through the miles of vines. In perfect English our guide told us about the history of Santo Tomas (the oldest in Baja) and the difference between old vines and new vines (old=fewer but better grapes) and explained how they have to be a little cruel to get the best from their vines (giving them just enough water to survive because the harder the vine has to work to produce, the more complex the grapes are).
We first traveled through the Chenin Blanc section. Once we’d learned why the Guadalupe Valley was ideal for growing this varietal, the tractor stopped and, ta daa, out in the middle of the vineyard alongside the dirt road, a young woman had appeared and was already pouring us a taste. She and our tour guide walked around the trailers passing out the glasses. We didn’t even have to stand up. But before we could try it, our guide made us sniff, swirl, sniff again, and look at our fingers through it. I’ve done a number of tastings and this one had to be the most picturesque. However, I’ve finally decided that no amount of sniffing, swirling, gargling, etc. is going to make me taste notes of pineapple and banana and guayaba in wine. Much like the Everglades, my palate refuses development.
We had four more tastings, ending with reds. At the last stop they handed us each a piece of chocolate to sample with the red wine (maybe Barbera?). To me, it wasn’t quite as perfect as the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, but it was a close second. It seems like such an easy, yet sophisticated dessert, doesn’t it? A dainty square of dark chocolate to nibble while sipping your leggy red? But to pull this off, your bottle of wine has to last all the way through dinner so there is enough for dessert. If not, you have to open a whole new bottle. Now you have a fresh bottle of wine, an entire package of chocolates, AND your will power passed out after the appetizers.
It was dusk when we unloaded ourselves from the trailers and made our way to the next part of the tour. We filed into a small, windowless, stone building that smelled musty, like a damp basement. A railing and a waist-high bar set with two glasses of red for each person on the tour over-looked a lower level with a large table and some casks. After we each found a spot, the doors shut and the lights went out; it was complete blackness. This was the sensory tasting.
“Don’t drink your wine yet,” our guide ordered. I did not. But in the darkness I heard quite a few swallows and the soft “chink” of a glasses being set down.
On a movie screen in the back of the room a slightly strange promotional video about the vineyard began playing. In Spanish with yellow English subtitles that were nearly impossible to read, it talked a little bit about the complicated process of making wine but mostly about what great employers they were. Once that was over we were in complete darkness again. Very soft red-hued lights came on, not bright enough to see anything, just casting shadows; at the same time, notes from a single, deep cello sang out of the speakers as a video showing oak trees growing over dry hills, a bright sun beating down on them, played on the screen. Our guide explained how important each part of the wine-making process is and that the wine in the glass on our left was aged in casks made from the trees on the screen, trees that came from a hot, dry, sun-baked climate. Finally, he said to take a sip from that wine, but only a sip.
Then the lights turned blue, the video showed a lush green forest, and an oboe tinkled out of the speakers. The wine from the other glass was aged in a cask from the trees in a wet forest. We were allowed a sip from the glass on the right.
The cello and oboe began to play together, building, finally turning into a symphony; the lights combined turning purplish; and the video showed winemakers hard at work measuring, testing, and tasting the wine. Our guide explained that mixing can bring out each wine’s best qualities and, as the regular lights came on, encouraged us to do some experimenting on our own with our samples.
“Whoops,” said my neighbor looking at his empty glasses.
To me, the dry cask wine was much better than the wet cask wine. Adding bad to good didn’t make sense so I drank them separately. (That’s right, even though I didn’t care for the wet cask wine, I still drank it – only 100 steps to my bed, remember?)
The wine shop was even closer to the tasting room than our campers and a lighted sidewalk showed us the way. Even though we were crossing the border the next day and were, supposedly only allowed one bottle of wine without filling out tons of paperwork, I think the shop had a very profitable evening. Always a rule-follower, I only bought one bottle. It was a bottle of Cabernet with a package of Cabernet chocolates for a housewarming present for Mitch’s sister on the east coast.
The chocolates made it as far as Phoenix and the Cabernet gave out just before I-40.