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James Pickell, CEO & President
Self-confessed serial entrepreneur. Addicted to challenges. Bores easily. Baja denizen and afficionado.
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Mexico’s Wine Roots

By Carla White

Baja had its own mini-Gold Rush in the latter 1800s…but it didn’t pan out.  Another story for another blog.  However, just like Northern California, where there’s gold in them thar hills, there also seems to be very fertile soil.  Today, instead of panning for gold, entrepreneurs are planting grape stock.  This is Baja’s new ‘Gold Rush’…it’s liquid gold that can be grown sustainably, bottled and sold for anywhere from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.  This precious substance is wine, and it has a long history in Baja.

Santo Tomas wine

Mexican wine-making began in 1524 (making Mexico the oldest wine producer in the Americas), when conqueror Hernan Cortes ordered every Spaniard with a land grant from the crown to plant 1,000 grape vines for every 100 Indians in his employ.  The Spanish discovered that grapevines did well in Mexico; by the 17th century, wine exports from Spain to the New World had almost stopped.  This wasn’t good for Spain, so in 1699, crotchety Charles II of Spain banned wine making in Mexico, with the exception of wine for Church purposes. From then until Mexico’s independence, wines were produced in the country on only a small scale, but that has now changed.

Wine production in Mexico has risen in both quantity and quality, especially since the 1980s.  It has been painstakingly slow, in part because of high taxes and also because Mexico is not traditionally a wine-drinking country, but more oriented to beer, tequila and mezcal.  However, interest in wine and wine regions has grown, most especially in Baja California, which has been winning international awards for its products.  Here, over 90 percent of all Mexico’s wine is produced, mostly in the Valle de Guadalupe — Wine Route – with its more than 50 wineries.

Bodega Santo Tomas

(A great day trip south from Ensenada!)

The Baja wine conversation really begins with Santo Tomas winery.  Although Bodego Santo Tomas was founded by Miguel Ormart and Francisco Andonegui in 1888, the original Misión grape vineyards and 100 olive trees were actually planted in the late 1700’s by missionaries and by Loreto Amador.  General Abelardo Rodriquez purchased the lands in 1932, transforming them into a thriving high-production operation producing more than half-a-million cases of wine annually.  Today, under the directorship of Juan Pablo Núñez and the masterful hands of winemaker Laura Zamora, those very old vines and newer ones are generating a wide variety of grapes, resulting in some of Mexico’s finest vintages.

Santo Tomas produces a scope of internationally award-winning labels, including the reserve line known as El Viento; Tardo; and Misión and Misión 1888, Pixtos-Kanté and sparkling wines.  Although all of the Santo Tomas wines are unique, one that particularly seems to strike a chord with its audience is the premium Duetto, a combination of 60% cabernet sauvignon and 40% tempranillo.

Santo Tomas has an impressive history–one that is conveyed enjoyably at the very cool tours that the winery offers of its Valle de Santo Tomas operation, about 45 minutes south of Ensenada on Highway 1.  Tours range from a basic tour to an expensive and lengthy VIP tour (which includes a great wine-pairing meal).  All involve a trip through the  vineyards on a tractor-pulled taxi, with stops at wine barrels that are located throughout the property that denote a particular type of grape.  At one stop, tasters might sip a merlot; at another, a viognier, and so forth. It is quite sensual to experience the earth, the sun and the wind as you actually taste the wines that they produce.

You can also visit the historic Santo Tomas winery and its renowned La Embotelladora Vieja restaurant at 666 Avenida Miramar in downtown Ensenada. For information about wines or about scheduling tours, call marketing director Iván Cortez at his Ensenada cell number, (646) 151-9333 or email him at



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Day of the Dead: Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead: Dia de los Muertos

by Carla White

Artist Francisco Cabello captures the Wildest Dreams: Day of the Dead Dance

This is one of Mexico’s most heartfelt, colorful, poignant and fun celebrations. Dia de los Muertos Day of the Dead — encompasses November 1 and 2.  On November 1st, the souls of the children (los angelitos) are honored. On November 2nd, the souls of the adults are remembered. The celebrations of Day of the Dead or All Souls Day are manifested differently in various states of Mexico and nowhere most stunningly than in Michoacan and Oaxaca.  Surprisingly, it has been a lower-key event in Baja California but that is changing as Baja Californians are rediscovering their cultural identity.

Here are some of the traditions that are typically part of  Day of the Dead: Dia de los Muertos:

*It is up to the living to prepare a reception for the souls of family members who have passed on.  This is an event full of affection, highlighted by items or foods (even favorite beverages, like tequila or wine) that had special importance for the loved one. Generally, this happens at the cemetery where the departed is buried (it sometimes takes place in the home).  Usually, a candle-light procession leads to the cemetery.

*Multitudes of candles are set out, and an altar – some of them huge and ornate — is created.  Photos or paintings of the relative are displayed, and often the family members will share stories of their loved one, when asked.  Marigolds (the powerful scent of which are said to attract the dead) are scattered on the pathways to the cemetery.  The living greet their departed family members with great fervor.

*During the time of Dia de los Muertos,  a special sweetened egg bread is created, often sporting elaborate decoration.  It is called Bread of the Dead – Pan de Muerto.  It can be purchased in many grocery stores and bakeries.  It is eaten by the departed’s grave site.

Pan de Muerto: Day of the Dead bread

Day of the Dead Shopping in Ensenada

Food and art unique to Day of the Dead are found all over Ensenada.  Sugar skulls – white sugar formed into skulls and decorated with vividly colored icing – are abundant in all sizes, from virtual skull size down to egg-size.  Gorgeous ceramic wares ranging in size from tiny to several feet high can be found, usually depicting the beautiful Catrinas that have become synonymous with the occasion.  (José Guadalupe Posada created an image of a costumed female skeleton that he called La Calavera de la Catrina, satirizing Mexican upper-class women, and that figure hs become iconic of Day of the Dead).

La Catrina (photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Where are some great places to discover and learn about Day of the Dead curios and art?  In Ensenada, perhaps the richest treasure chest for everything from life-size figures to miniatures, to tin work and ceramic skulls, is Alejandra Ramirez’s Bazar Casa Ramirez on Lopez Mateos 469-3.  Throughout this two-story gallery, you’ll find high-end folk art and crafts, including ‘Catrins’ and ‘Catrinas’, elegant mirrors, jewelry and more.

Other places to find the wonderful ‘Catrinas’ include Fausto Polanco at 1107 Lopez Mateos, a spectacular store for hacienda-style furniture and great interior design ideas.  La Herradura (Lopez Mateos 776) is an interesting little curio store as well, packed with stuff but set apart by real artesenal craft work, particularly when it comes to the little painted boxes (match book sized) that contain amusing scenes featuring things like skeletons watching television, or in a dentist chair, etc.   In Rosarito, look for Arte Oaxaca and the Arcade shops in front of the Rosarito Beach Hotel, as well as Fausto Polanco and Alex Curios.

Did you picture going to Ensenada in Your Wildest Dreams?  Find out how at! is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year.


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Ensenada—The ‘Friendly’ Town

By Carla White

With the authentic charm of old Mexico and the coastal beauty of the Pacific Ocean, Ensenada (Spanish for ‘cove’ or ‘inlet’) is one of Baja’s warmest and friendliest places.  Don’t get me wrong…it is a BIG town, with nearly 300,000 people (in fact, the municipality of Ensenada is the largest in all of Mexico and the Americas, more than 20,000 square miles!).  There’s a Costco, a Walmart, a Home Depot and so on, so for people like me, there’s no lack of easy and familiar day-to-day shopping options.

But, overall, there is a pervasive small town feeling here; Ensenada has rightfully earned its moniker as the ‘friendly’ city.

Spanish, of course, is the primary language, but a little ‘Spanglish’ goes a long way; kindly locals are willing to torture themselves by listening to people like me slaughter their language before they politely ask if it wouldn’t be easier for us to speak in English.  They also exhibit a real enthusiasm for visitors who come to Ensenada ready to enjoy its bounties.  It doesn’t take long for an appreciative visitor to make friends with winemakers, store owners and restaurateurs in this city that is so proud of what it has to offer.  Heck, I’ve even made friends with the militarios, the guys at the routine military checkpoint, who have taken to asking me how my 23 year-old little white dog is, because they see me coming and going from the vet’s office all the time.

An hour south of San Diego, on the Tijuana-Ensenada Transpeninsular Highway toll road, Ensenada is set on the shores of the expansive Bahía de Todos Santos (All Saints Bay).  It’s a spectacular drive, especially the part south from Rosarito.  Stop at El Mirador, at km. 84, for a tremendous view of the coastline. At this point, you are at one end of the bay.  Continuing through Ensenada and southward (a drive of perhaps an hour), you could reach the other end of the bay at the famous La Bufadora, the blowhole.  More on that in another blog! But even if you just stay in town, you can cruise the shopping district, dine at top eateries, buy handcrafted goods and enjoy the feeling of Mexico for a few hours, or a few days.  The point is that, even though Ensenada is one of Mexico’s famous tourist destinations, it is also a ‘user-friendly’, comfortable place to live or visit.

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