Abandoned resort buildings, once destined for greatness, mingle with small adobe homes and trailer parks as you whizz down Highway 1 in Baja, Mexico.
Part of the drive is reminiscent of a scene from the Walking Dead, with graffiti clad buildings everywhere and nary a soul around. And the other part of the drive traverses with pockets of nature untouched by industry. From Tijuana to Ensenada, several smaller towns in between are still thriving and have been left alone by the boom and subsequent bust of the real estate crash in 2008.
These pueblos still look the same as they did 30 to 40 years ago and have surprisingly become an unlikely place for environmentalists to flock to for marine life observations and climate studies.
In 2012, a Cancun-sized resort was set to be built on the East Coast of Baja in Cabo Pulmo. But permits to build were canceled due to the community's desire to protect the gulf's only coral reef. After the development crash, NGOs had a path cleared for conservation efforts to receive more funding, the fishing industry became more regulated, and The Baja Peninsula became a place of fecundity once more.
Fast forward to 2014. The Wall Street Journal releases an article about the blossoming wine scene in Baja. Foreigners start to flock to the area once more, this time, to try their hand at growing. However, it's the locals who are dominating the game and rightfully so; they weathered the economic downturn and have had the upper hand at utilizing the land's resources for generations.
Many come to Baja to surf and enjoy fresh seafood. Ensenda's cruise port plops its guest right into the heart of the town center. Local haunts like Hussong's, the rumored birthplace of the Margarita, and La Guerrerense, the tostada truck Anthony Bourdain deemed one of the best places in the world to eat, reign supreme.
Even with these tried and true tourist spots, the Valle de Guadalupe's wine production plays the biggest role in reviving the tourism industry in the area.
The vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe date back to as early as the 1520's and the area is considered Mexico's oldest wine country. The climate is perfect for grape growing with its dry, hot weather and the Pacific Ocean nearby. Growers in the region started honing the land during the 1970's, but it wasn't until recently that people took notice and Baja became the Napa Valley of Mexico. Part of what makes the area unique is that the growers can blend varietals of wines and aren't known for harvesting any particular kind of grape. Production in the Valley is still relatively new, so there is room for play and establishing identity.
Hugo D'Acosta is the father of the wine scene in Baja. He was born in Mexico City, studied enology in France, and created the non-profit La Escualita, an incubator for aspiring winemakers, when he returned to Mexico. Swiss enologist Thomas Egli currently runs the school. Each year they host a small class of students eager to learn the tradition. The building, constructed by Hugo's brother Alejandro, is made entirely out of upcycled materials and a large part of the teaching focus is on biodynamics (terroir) in growing.
La Escualita has established itself as a sustainable bastion for the locals looking to get into the wine game.
One of D'Acosta's proteges is Pau Pijoan, who owns Vinos Pijoan, a boutique winery in the region. Pau, a retired veterinarian, took up winemaking as a hobby only to discover he had a real knack for it. He quickly became part of the "new wave" generation of vintners and now has a successful business and critical acclaim. If you talk to anyone in the region, they know who Pau is because of his lineage with D'Acosta and also because he's managed to create his own signature wines.
When you first arrive at the small (five-acre) but verdant vineyard you are greeted by several of the homestead's adorable rescue dogs. Pau, his wife Lenora, and daughter Paula are the groundskeepers. It is clear that they pour their heart and soul into the business.
They greet you with warmth and are keen to share their bounty with guests.
Vinos Pijoan is one of a handful of wineries in the region that have decided to go organic in their growth process. With the exception of trace amounts of sulfites (a staple for growing grapes), they use no insecticides or harsh chemicals in production. The Pijoan slogan is "Honest Wines", a claim that can be demonstrated in the way the grapes are harvested. From composting and beekeeping to a native plant garden, the Pijoans create a symbiotic environment at the vineyard and rely on the natural elements to foster their production. They've placed owl nests in their trees as a biological buffer against rodents and even the dogs help to keep out unwelcome creatures. They also tend to two beehives and sell the local honey that's made from them.
Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, and Cabernet are samples of the grapes that the Pijoans cultivate. Most of the wines are named after the women who've had a significant influence on Pau's life and he “attempts to match the character and lifestyle of each family member to their according wine."
Pau attributes many of the environmentally friendly practices they use to his daughter Paula’s desire to treat the land with care. An oceanographer by trade, it's no surprise that Paula's background in the sciences plays into her love of the land. When her parents bought the lot, she came on board to help run it and the garden became her pet project. She only works with native plants brought down from the hills and is very conscious of combating invasive species without the use of chemicals.
Since rain is rare in the Valley, winemakers have to be very measured in their use of water and often struggle with their crops. Because of this issue, the Pijoans only house a limited production of 2500 cases, allowing them to work with more care and only grow what's necessary. They also support their local community, buying all of their grapes from nearby vineyards. Beyond the winemaking process, the Pijoans consider all of their employees family, and everyone plays an integral part in the success of the business.
The Pijoans desire to produce wines that reflect the character of the land and their family is exactly what makes them unique. They understand that the long-term game is about honoring and working with the environment as it is, rather than trying to enhance it. This mentality is also what will ultimately stand the test of time as Baja continues to evolve as a popular tourist destination.