Originally published August 10, 2012 at 6 a.m., updated August 10, 2012 at 11:04 a.m.
August is the time for festivals in Baja, California - from cheese and bread to salads to seafood. The grandaddy of them all is the Fiestas de la Vendimia, the harvest festivals in Ensenada's lush Guadalupe Valley wine country.
While driving to Ensenada one recent Saturday, I passed billboards advertising no fewer than five foodie festivals: The festival of cheese and bread; the festival of seafood and shellfish—even a festival devoted entirely to salads and salad dressings. But it’s a paella competition that brings me south of the border today.
“If we win we get to go to the big contest in Valle de Guadalupe in the last weekend of August,” said Montserrat Vildósola, an architect from Mexico City and amateur paella chef. “There’s a contest where 100 paelleros go, and this is the contest you have to win in order to be able to contest there.”
Vildósola’s team is one of about a dozen competing today for a spot in the big paella contest that closes out the grandaddy of all Baja gastronomic festivals: the Fiestas de la Vendimia. That’s Spanish for harvest parties, and they’re happening now in Ensenada’s lush Guadalupe Valley wine country, a bucolic place where horses graze amid scenic vineyards surrounded by majestic purple mountains.
“Baja produces about 90 percent of the wine from Mexico,” said Joaquín Prieto, current president of Provino, the coalition of winemakers that coordinates the Vendimia. “Climate is the prime thing. We have the Pacific cold and the heat of the valley so it creates a microclimate.”
Prieto’s own winery, Tres Valles, is one of close to 70 now up and running in the region, operations that range in size from tiny mom ‘n’ pops that produce just a few hundred cases per year to huge commercial behemoths like L.A. Cetto. Over the next few weeks, most of them will be throwing parties to celebrate the grape harvest, anything from wine dinners with famous chefs to winery tours, cheese tastings, bullfights, concerts, circus performances, art exhibitions and, of course, the paella contest.
Another contest hopeful, Chef Otto Spohn, says he’s noticed a change in the clientele at his Tijuana restaurant this year, since US media like The New Yorker and Anthony Bourdain’s travel show “No Reservations” caught wind of what’s happening in Baja.
“Many people are coming from the north, crossing the border. Fortunately we have changed the image of Tijuana on the question of security,” Spohn said. “We are doing very well and people are coming.”
Organizer Prieto anticipates about 50,000 people—including Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who swung through the valley last week to kick off the festivities—will attend the Vendimia this month, a jump of more than 40% from last year. But only about 1 in 5 are expected to come from the United States, with most visitors hailing from elsewhere within the country, like Vildósola, who’s been attending since she was a girl growing up in Mexicali and still travels back every summer despite having moved to Mexico City.
“At first it was very regional,” she said. “There were a few winemakers, and now from the two or three that were here 25 years ago, there are 70. It’s a new life; it’s a new world. It’s changed for the better, but it’s different.”
“I think the big shocker for everyone about Guadalupe Valley is they would naturally be inclined to think that because its south of the border that it’s too hot to make wines that have elegance and finesse, and that’s not true at all,” said Robert Whitley, a San Diego-based wine columnist for Creators Syndicate who’s been keeping tabs on the Guadalupe Valley for almost 30 years. “It’s probably cooler than Napa in summertime. You have that diurnal effect of grapes having sunshine and warmth during the day that they need to ripen, and the cooling at night that preserves the freshness and the acidity. So it’s actually an ideal climate for grape growing.”
The Nebbiolo grape—the same one that makes famously pricey Italian wines like Barolo and Barbaresco—grows particularly well in Baja, says Whitley. In fact, he ranks L.A. Cetto’s Nebbiolo as the best in North America, on par with those from Italy’s Piedmont region, and has even seen it listed on menus in Parisian wine bars.
But if Baja wines are so good, why don’t we see more of them on supermarket shelves in the States? Explanations range from high import tariffs to the fact that most of these wineries simply don’t produce enough to meet even domestic demand, let alone international. Thankfully, U.S. Customs allows individuals to bring in one bottle apiece duty-free, so Americans who taste something they like at the harvest festival can still savor the flavor of Baja back home.
“Everybody comes to Ensenada in the summer,” said Vildósola. “This is part of the heart of Baja California.”