Benito came over to the house a couple of days ago to taste wine, but before we got down to business, he offered a brown-bagged Mystery Wine for my amusement and perplexity.

He poured a tasting portion in my glass. The wine was a deep ruby-purple color; the bouquet seethed with ripe, smoky raspberry and blueberry scents, underlain by exotic spice, lavender and violets and a touch of fruitcake. Whoa, thought I, methinks this might be zinfandel. In the mouth, the wine was intense and concentrated, packed with soft, furry, briery tannins, with jammy currant and plum flavors, a touch of bacon fat and that granite-like minerality and foresty nature that sometimes defines old-vine zinfandel; the fruitcake element seemed a giveaway too. Despite this panoply of sensations, the wine was quite dry, the finish a little austere.

“So?” sez he.

“Hmmmm,” sez I. “I would pretty much have to go with zinfandel. I mean, the richness, the exotic quality. Yeah, zinfandel.”

“Region? You don’t have to be too specific.”

“Uh, could be Dry Creek Valley, but I’m going to go with Amador. It has that old-fashioned appeal, sort of puritanical and shameless at the same time.”

“So, you’re saying northern California?”


“How about southern California? How about way, way southern California, as in Baja?” And there’s a twinkle in the old Benito eye.

That’s right, friends, the Mystery Wine was from the Guadalupe Valley, Baja, California, as in Mexico. The wine was revealed to be the Baron Balch’e Reserva Especial 2005, a blend of cabernet franc, merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. A friend of Benito had brought it back to him as a gift.

“I was about to say cabernet franc,” I said. Ha-ha, really though, this is a thoroughly New World, though not over-the-top blend. Made me wish for a veal chop.

The Guadalupe Valley, one of five appellations in Baja Norte, lies about 70 miles south of San Diego. Some 20 wineries are located northeast of the coastal city of Ensenada, a deep-water port and sport fishing and surfing center. While most of the long, crooked finger of land separating the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California is desert, the Guadalupe Valley benefits from a more moderate Mediterranean climate.

The alcohol content of the Baron Balch’e Reserva Especial 2005, by the way, was a reasonable and palatable 12 percent. One cannot help thinking that if winemakers in Baja can produce wines with this rational level of alcohol, then producers in Napa who are always saying, “Dude, it’s not our fault that our cabernets are coming in at 15.2, it’s the freaking global warming,” should shut the hell up and try harder.

Baja map from