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Mexican Wine and the American Woman

By Jo Ann Knox Martino

Here I sit in the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, California, looking out at the beautiful vineyards of Liceaga winery. Who would have thought I’d end up living in the wine valley of Baja and making wine – in fact, making really good wine?  I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and when we would go for weekends to the Napa Valley, I would fantasize about living in the country and having a vineyard.

Jo Ann's Zinfandel and Nebbiolo wines, created in Baja

First, I had to have a career in the film industry, get married and divorced, move to Baja, open a successful art gallery and then close it, dance a lot of tango, and…well, other stories for other blogs.  Let’s jump ahead to 2009.

That’s when I decided to go to La Escuelita, Hugo D’Acosta’s innovative small wine school in El Porvenir, Baja. He started the school approximately 10 years ago, to teach interested people the art of winemaking. I was lucky enough to get accepted (which would be difficult, today, as the program now has a waiting list!) and took the short course to learn my new craft.

I had already been managing a ranch for a few years and now, with my new education in enology, I was ready to make wine with Nebbiolo grapes from three-year-old vines on that property.  I was so excited when it came time to harvest – the grapes had reached the right sugar level, and we planned to pick them on a Monday.

But disaster: Over the weekend, ravenous birds had swooped into the vineyards and devoured almost the entire crop. (We have since learned to net the vines to avoid this happening again.) What to do? Here I was, ready to make my wine and no grapes!

Thomas Egli, the La Escuelita instructor and winemaker, suggested I buy some from one of D’Acosta’s vineyards; I decided on Zinfandel. I added the small amount of Nebbiolo we were able to harvest to a half-ton of Zinfandel grapes. (I was terrified it would be a sweet wine but have since learned that not all Zins have that sweetness to them. As a matter of fact, Zinfandel can be a bigger, dryer wine with a nice fruitiness to it.)

I was coached and helped through the crushing, fermentation and pressing of the wine.  Finally, after ‘punching down’ the wine and constantly checking sugar levels, we did indeed get it pressed.  The next question: How would it be received?

The birds had almost caused an irrevocable accident…but what a lucky accident it turned out to be for me!  I entered my wine into a blind-tasting at the invitation of the winemaker at La Casa Vieja. I did it just for the fun and experience…and imagine how thrilled I was when my wine took first place. Not only first place, but it won by a landslide! I felt like a little girl on Christmas Eve…or maybe a little girl whose dreams were coming true.

The next year, I did get a harvest from the Nebbiolo vineyard. I made it at La Escuelita. Alberto Rubio, from Mogor Badan winery nearby, was running the winemaking process at the school that year. He helped me with the process of making a smooth Nebbiolo.

After 18 months in the barrel I have now bottled two barrels of my new creation…and I proudly presented it and my 2011 Zinfandel at the wonderful Guateque. The Guateque is a festival held every year for the alumnae of La Escuelita and it is a semi-private affair for students, their friends and families.  I am pleased to report that both my wines were well received there.

So, thanks to some birds, some hand-holding by my mentors at La Escuelita, and to my wonderful Baja friends, my childhood dream has come true.  Now, as an American woman who has successfully created wine in Mexico’s wine country, I am working on my next dream:  presenting my wines in my very own winery.  Stay tuned!

Jo Ann Knox Martino is a former film producer, now winemaker, living in Baja’s wine country.  Stay posted to read her occasional blogs about an American  woman-winemaker living in Baja.

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