Wine In a Boat: Las Vendimias at Vena Cava
Dave Lieberman

Wine In a Boat: Las Vendimias at Vena Cava

How the Valle de Guadalupe has changed! Fifteen years ago, there were about a dozen wineries; now there are more than sixty, with more seemingly springing up every day. Ten years ago, what was being produced was quite frankly awful, sticky-sweet wine that couldn't have held a candle to Ernst and Julio up here; now, there are wines that compete favorably against Californian and even French wines.

Most of the valley's production is blends--big blends, sometimes with five different varietals, often from different ranchos. While this isn't always the case, most of the tastings you'll do will come with a litany of what kinds of grapes went into the bottle you're sampling. "Este vino lleva Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Tempranillo y Mourvèdre," for example, with the hard Ts pronounced at the end of Cabernet.

It's slowly changing, though, and as the quality of the grapes increases, so too does the chance of finding a good varietal wine. It's a slow process, and because viticulture is such a crapshoot, a Tempranillo that's excellent this year may need to be tempered with a little Cabernet Franc next year.

We found out about the grape orgy that happens all over the Valle de Guadalupe, with grapes being traded in order to produce very different wines, from Phil and Eileen Gregory, owners of La Villa del Valle, a bed-and-breakfast off the main drag that happens to contain a winery called Vena Cava and a certain locally famous restaurant called Corazón de Tierra.

Wine In a Boat: Las Vendimias at Vena Cava
Dave Lieberman

Phil Gregory is a sailor, and he and his architects designed the winery with abandoned boats found in the Ensenada harbor. It's a stunning place; it seemingly rises out of a hill, completely invisible from the main road (if a patch of rock-strewn red dust can really properly be called a main road--this is rural Mexico, after all), with lenses placed in the walls to provide a little light. It's a building that could simply never be built in the United States, despite the fact that it would win awards here. There are several rooms, and eventually this will be a fully functioning winery and bottling facility; right now, tastings are held at a long glass table in the barrel room.

Those barrels, incidentally, are a living example of the changing of the wine production in Baja California; the Gregorys have dozens of barrels of wine from neighboring wineries, from Ojos Negros (in the next valley southeast, but still part of the denomination region), and from their own grapes.

Their Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the lightest such wines I've ever tasted; it's still tannic like all Cabernet Sauvignons, but maybe it was the heat--it was 100° on our last visit--it didn't seem as heavy as we expected.

The Tempranillo, though, made from their own grapes, is big and bombastic and the best wine they sell at Vena Cava; it practically screams to be paired with meat and chiles. At $26 a bottle, it's on the lower end of Baja wine prices, too. It's well worth bringing back (there is a limit, thank you California and your stupid laws, of three bottles per couple, or one liter per person).

They make white wine, too, but in one of those you're-in-Mexico moments, there isn't any; they have drunk it all, and the few bottles that remain are earmarked for the Fiesta de las Vendimias, the wine festival that through this weekend in Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe. The Gregorys even have been experimenting with méthode champenoise sparkling wines, with large racks shot through with holes in order to turn the bottles and agitate the sediment.

What's most remarkable about the place, besides the total serenity and the fact that you walk outside at night and are taken aback by thousands upon thousands of stars, is how laid-back it is.

It's best to call for an appointment to ensure someone will be there to talk about the wine, though you can always have a glass at the bar in Corazón de Tierra. From the US, dial 011-52-1-646-183-9249, visit their website, or leave a message at (818) 207-7130.

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