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Mexico's Ruta del Vino, Ensenada / Guadalupe Valley, Baja California North

 Last November, Mike and I did our second road-trip from Alberta to Mexico. Along the way, we had a fantastic mini-adventure in Ensenada and the Guadalupe Valley. Marcello Di Cintio had tipped me off about a San Diego chef, Jay Porter, who blogs about the food and wine across the Mexican border in TJ and Ensenada. We were planning to stop for a couple of days in Ensenada, even though we were heading even further south, to Southern Baja. (It is a long drive.) Anyway, Jay gave me lists and lists of wineries and restaurants, only a few of which were open in mid-November -- which we discovered was off-season for many restaurants and wineries. Nevermind. What we did experience was incredible. We're already planning a return trip.

Here's an article I wrote for City Palate Calgary, for the May / June 2013 "Wine Issue". I've slightly re-edited it and have added in a bunch of my own photos.


A Mexican Wine Adventure

My husband Mike and I might have been delirious, what with over 3000-kilometres of highway driving, and two border crossings under our belt in just five days. There was also the adrenaline rush of navigating through Tijuana earlier that morning. (For the record, this infamous Mexican border city that inspires concerned looks from friends and strangers now feels safer and is definitely hipper than many parts of California.) On the highway south of Tijuana, the humidity of the Pacific air was softening the lines on our faces as we cranked up the radio and blared polka-like Norteño music from our truck’s speakers. Driving to Mexico in November in search of vitamin D, fish tacos and The Baja Wine Route, in particular, was starting to make a whole lot of sense.

I had picked up on some rumblings along the foodie grapevines that Mexican wine had been improving dramatically in the past several years. As it happened, Mexico’s largest and oldest winery region, the fertile Guadalupe Valley, was less than 20 minutes inland from the port city of Ensenada, in Northern Baja California. And the helpful visitor information agent in Ensenada was more than happy to provide us with a maps and winery and dining recommendations. We learned that the Guadalupe Valley —home to 50-some wineries and restaurants along a 24-kilometer loop —was the heart of Baja’s Ruta del Vino. Along with the wine culture, there was a farm-to-table food movement sweeping over the area thanks to a few revolutionary chefs pushing the idea of a North Baja cuisine.

Following our new, free maps, we turned off Highway 1 and drove up into rolling hills of ochre-red soil strewn with large white granite boulders among cacti along Highway 3. As we crested a hill about 15 minutes into the drive, tidy square farms of green field vegetables interspersed with silver-green olive groves sprawled out in front of us. Vineyards, somewhat less uniformly, crept up the hillsides. Had I not been driving, I would have clapped in sheer glee at the gastronomic potential beyond the windshield.

We’d aimed high for lodgings for our first two nights in Mexico. I’d seen photos of the brand new Hotel Endémico on hipster, designy Websites that gushed about its off-the-beaten-path luxury. As we approached, we saw the strangely wonderful private casitas that were cantilevered out over granite-bolder-studded hills, newly planted vineyards and the Guadalupe Valley beyond.

Before we got too cozy at Hotel Endémico, we needed sustenance. Calgarian travel and food writer Marcello Di Cintio had suggested I contact Jay Porter, San Diego chef and blogging evangelist about the North Baja’s food and wine scene. Porter told me he’d just been to the Guadalupe Valley tweaking his restaurant’s house olive oil, made by Rancho Cortés, a farmstead cheesery and olive oil producer. Porter rattled off dozens of Baja wineries he liked, plus a long list of places to eat. For his money, Porter liked Corazon de Tierra, which had also just been named by Travel + Leisure magazine, Mexico edition, as the best restaurant in the nation.

“This place is supposed to be good?,” Mike asked more than once as we followed handpainted signs down dusty backroads for two kilometres in search of Corazon de Tierra.

Good? It was great. Restorative and transcendant. I won’t recount the set five-course, because it changes daily. And with the chefs bouncing out of the kitchen between each course to run into the garden, it’s not just seasonal, but changes hourly depending on the supply of arugula, chard, carrots, tomatoes, or peppers. Let’s just say that Corazon de Tierra had me at the first bite of soy-ginger-garlic-dressed mahi-mahi ceviche garnished with fresh mint, and the first sip of Chasselas del Mogor, a minerally white. Mogor Badán, as it turns out, is the winery a few kilometres down the highway. This pioneering winery only produces only one white from 35-year old chasselas vines and one red blend from 85-year-old cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot vines. Halfway through the courses, I switched to a rich, plummy tempranillo for the seared yellowtail tuna and the grilled ribeye courses. Vena Cava was made a few hundred steps away, at the restaurant’s own winery.

We left Corazon de Tierra rejuvenated. As the sun set over the valley, we settled into our boxy casita as plotting another day of food and drink.

Exterior of Corazon de Tierra Interior Corazon de Tierra Produce picked from the garden, soon to be our meal One of six courses, pan-seared yellowtail w/ charred eggplant pureePerfect grilled Sonoran ribeye and fresh garden veg with rounds of pickled watermelon (pink rounds on the steak)

Looking out over Guadalupe Valley from Hotel EndemicoThe private casitas at Hotel EndemicoThe balcony at our casita, Hotel Endemico Baja sky reflects off the infinity pool at Hotel Endemico


































































































After a breakfast around Hotel Endémico’s pool, we drove to Mogor Badán, hoping we could charm our way into the tasting room. I was desperate to try their red, but the winery was shut tight, except for a busy market garden doing brisk business from the winery’s on-site vegetable patch. Nearby Barón Balché, a winery with a reputation for big reds was also closed. In fact, we tried a half-dozen wineries only to realize that wine-touring mid-week in November is not ideal. Most wineries in the Baja Wine Route are small. Some have no tasting room, others are open limited hours on weekends, or by appointment only. But god bless the big wineries. L.A. Cetto is one of Mexico’s largest producers, and in keeping, they have a good tour, generous hours of operation, and a well-stocked tasting room and store. With an everything-under-the-sun selection, the Don Luis Reserve Concordia (a sixty-forty cabernet sauvignon-shiraz blend) was surprisingly well-made, especially at its $18 pricetag.

Rather than attempting to repeat the soaring experience of Corazon de Tierra, we opted instead for, Ultramarino, an oyster and tapas bar in downtown Ensenada on the advice of our helpful tourism-office guy again. Full disclosure, I strayed from the mission at hand, tempted by the buzz surrounding Baja’s craft beer scene. I happily nursed a pint of Cupacá Obscura, a dark, rich beer that went down very smoothly with Ultramarino’s ethereal tempura Baja oysters and smoky marlin tacos.

One of Santo Tomas' outbuildingsWinter vines at Santo Tomas winery Laura Zamora, winemaker, Santo Tomas, at the onsite wineshop and tasting roomThe next day, we knew we’d better keep making our way south, but figured we could squeeze in one more stop. This time, I called ahead and made an appointment at Santo Tomás, 30 minutes south of Ensenada and the oldest winery in the Baja, founded in 1888. Laura Zamora, Mexico’s first female winemaker, had been at the helm of this major Mexican winery since 2003, and had recently had some good showings at major European wine shows. She made time for a personalized tour through the vineyards in her pickup – some 16 different varietals from cabernet sauvignon and barbera (one of her personal favorites) to more obscure ones like French colombard and “Mission” grape, a European clone of Listan Prieto that has been thriving in the Baja hundreds of years after it died out in its native Spain.

The vines were anywhere between 25 and 75 years old. Hundred-year-old olive trees formed the windrows. In the tourist-friendly tasting room and wine shop, Zamora and I discussed everything from the winery’s efforts to educated Mexicans about food and wine pairings to the winery’s custom olive oil collection.

Yes, of course, we strongly considered ditching our plans of getting further south in the Baja. We’d barely scratched at the food and wine scene here. But the fishing and beaches of the South Baja beckoned. Given the hundreds of kilometres of driving in front of Mike and I that day, wasn’t about to taste my way through Santo Tomás’ cellar. I did one better. I loaded our truck down with full bottles – a silky barbera, a fruit-bomb of a merlot, a raisiny off-dry white made from 100 percent Mission grapes, and a solera-style dry sherry. Research, friends. It is called research.

Just another Baja beach, heading south of Ensenada

Resource Guide for Baja Wine Route

 Hotel Endémico, Tecate-Ensenada Highway 3 at km 75, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California; from Canada, toll-free 1-800-337-4685; from Mexico 1-800-123-3454.

 Corazón de Tierra Carretera Tecate-Ensenada, Highway 3 at Km 88; 011-52-646-156-8030. (Follow the road signs to Villa del Valle inn.) Open daily.

 Vena Cava, in-house winery at Villa del Valle Inn & Corazon de Tierra restaurant; Tecate-Ensenada, Highway 3 at km 88; 011-52-1-646-156-8007. Open year-round 11 am to 5 pm.

 Mogor Badán winery; Tecate-Ensenada Highway 3 at km 86.5; 011-52-1-646-177-1484. By appointment only.

Barón Balché, El Porvenir, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California.; 011-52-1-646-155-2141. Open to the public daily 10 am to 4 pm daily.

 L.A. Cetto, Carretera Highway 3 Tecate-Ensenada at km 73.5 km, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California; 011-52-1-646-155-2179. Open daily 9:30 am to 3:30 pm.

 Ultramarino Oyster Bar, Avenida Ruiz (bewteen Primera and Virgilio Uribe), Ensenada, Baja California.

(no phone, no website)

 Santo Tomás winery, Highway 1 south of Ensenada at km 47.5; 011-52-1-646-151-9333. Open daily 10 am to 5 pm.

 Two more websites that are highly useful:

Baja California Secretary of Tourism’s Wine Route page:

 San Diego chef Jay Porter’s Blog “My Biased Guide to Mexican Wine Country” from January 3, 2012:




It's time to get mouthy: Act now to show support for Bill C-474 to put the brakes on GMO Foods in Canada

On February 8th, 2011, a five-hour discussion will take place in Canada's national parliament over Bill C-474. This bill, put forward earlier this spring by BC-member Alex Atamenko as a private member's bill, made it past the first reading which is a very good sign. (These rarely go anywhere in Canadian parliament but this one is one of the rare few that has potential to pass.) The bill is simple, which is part of its appeal, and if it passes will go a long way to temper the current unbridled enthusiasm the Canadian government seems to show to any new GMO food or seed dangled in front of its face.

The bill's summary is almost as long as the actual bill itself and reads as follows:


This enactment requires the Governor in Council to amend the Seeds Regulations to require that an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.

Essentially, it calls for a waiting period to assess potential economic harm to Canadian farm export markets to allowing commercial sale of any new genetically modified food seed. Our current Conservative government is VERY export focussed, so it's a good strategy to take, to get them to think about their love affair (euphemism for "votes for campaign contributions and major grants to Canadian Universities") with Big Ag. They'll have to now weigh their constituents' wishes with their corporate allies' wishes. At least it's a start.

On Feb 9th, the vote on whether this bill will pass or not takes place. So first, if you wish to ask our government to put the brakes on our headlong rush into being even more of a GMO Nation, you can easily send a letter via email to your member of parliament asking him or her to vote YES on Bill C-474 this week. These letters will be tabled on Feb 8th during the debate if I'm not mistaken.

I just sent my letter off to my Member of Parliament -- the first time I've ever done that. He's a old skool white guy Conservative named Laurie Hawn. I certainly hope he reads it because I've added a twist to the form letter. Until now, the argument has centred around the considerations of the economic impacts that GMO crops and genetically engineered animals (livestock and salmon -- a.k.a. the Enviropig and Aquabounty Salmon -- coming soon to a supermarket near you!) will have on the family farms. (As I said, it's a savvy tactic in this case and I am impressed with its approach.) A really good article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press recently about the devasting failure of the promise of GMO and GE agriculture in just a mere twenty years in Canada, if you need some background. Rather than increasing yields and profits, it has put the nail in the coffins of the last remaining family farming busineses.

But it got me thinking how the discussion usually is focussed by the Big Ag lobby that preventing the miracle of GMO crops would do a disservice to the "family farm". (Look at their promotional's nauseatingly condescending about how they are doing everything they can to help out mom-and-pop farmers in Canada.) But statistically, farmers -- whether they are pro- or anti-GMO -- shouldn't really carry that much sway, I'm afraid to say. Somewhere between one and two percent of Canadians are farmers nowadays. So the Members of Parliaments who are against GM and GE restrictions and regulations and who use the argument that they are merely protecting the choices of our brave hard-working family farmers, don't really have a argumental leg to stand on.

If there are (generously) two percent of Canadians farming these days, and even if each and every one of them was wildly supportive of GMO crops and GE animals and fish, why should that matter? (I'm being cold and calculating here...I'm not anti-farmer; my very life depends on them.) But doesn't that leave ninety-eight percent of Canadians who should also get a say in what goes into their mouths hopefully three times a day?

So while I'm not a farmer, I am an eater. That means, I'm able to have a say in this debate. Hoping that my MP will take my wishes into account, I amended the form letter from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, one of many groups who have easy-to-use on-line letters ready to roll off to Members of Parliament. But my version, I added a paragraph asserting my right to be represented in this debate AS AN EATER, a member of the biggest majority party any political party could wish to have. And I have serious concerns over the safety of GM / GE foods. I'm appalled that my government thinks me so illiterate and unintelligent that they refuse to label GE / GE foods to keep me from hysterics  -- and presumably the organics section of my grocery store or farmers' market. And while Bill C-474 doesn't really touch on this, I'm especially concerned about the epic environmental impact that releasing GMO foods into our ecosphere will

As Canadian farmers discovered when encouraged to plant GM flax (named Triffid -- I'm not joking here) IN TEST PLOTS ONLY, not commercially, in 2001, the genie doesn't not go back in the bottle. Backstory: Upon concern by other flax farmers, the Triffid seed was rounded up, destroyed, and delisted. Yet in 2009, GM contaminated flax seed was found in Canadian export shipments of flax and thirty-five countries banned Canadian flax outright. It was known as the Flax Distaster, leaving ALL Canadian flax producers without export markets and a whole lotta flax on their hands through no fault of their own. It was the catalyst that MP Alex Atamenko needed to create this bill. (There's a good overview of the Flax Diaster in this article on the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' site at this link.)

Here is my adjusted form letter plucked from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. You have my permission to use my additional paragraph (the text is in bold, below) if you want. Let's see if they can ignore us now.


Dear Laurie Hawn, MP

I am writing to ask you to vote on February 9th in support of Private Members Bill C-474 in order to protect Canada’s family farms, and to participate in the 5-hour debate currently scheduled for February 8th.

I am also writing to you as one of the 98 percent of Canadians who don't farm. Yes, farmers --corporate or family farms -- are NOT the only ones affected by this debate. No one seems to be concerned with the wishes of the consumers. It has, until this point, been a "Big Ag" versus "Family Farm" discussion. I'd like to point out that eaters, that is 100 percent of Canadians, should be considered when this vote takes place. Plainly put, non-GMO crops and non-genetically modified foods have a 10,000-plus-year history of being ecologically sustainable and viable. GE crops have a two decade history, remarkable only by the muzzling of objective scientific study, but it's becoming clear that GE / GMO foods are doing more harm than good, and the handful of corporations are getting desperate to let their Pandoras out of their boxes. This is a crucial moment in Canadian's health, Canadian agriculture, and Canadian food within the global marketplace. Please vote accordingly, in favour of Bill C-474.

Bill C-474 would support Canadian farmers by requiring that “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.”

This Bill is important because the introduction of new genetically engineered (GE) crops, such as GE alfalfa, can cause economic hardship to farmers. It is imperative that our government assesses the possible export market impact of introducing new GE seeds. Bill C-474 would simply require the federal government to conduct such an economic analysis.

Farmers are at risk when GE crops are commercialized in Canada without also being approved in our major export markets. For example, flax farmers in Canada paid the price for unwanted GE contamination that damaged their export markets late in 2009. Now alfalfa growers are asking the government to protect their businesses from the urgent threat of GE alfalfa contamination.

It’s the government’s responsibility to protect Canadian farmers from predictable problems caused by the introduction of new GE crops that have not yet been regulated in our export markets. Bill C-474 would help our government meet this responsibility.

The House of Commons Agriculture Committee has already heard a strong message of support for Bill C-474 from Canada’s alfalfa growers.

Laurie Hawn, please vote for Bill C-474 to make sure that alfalfa growers and other farmers do not face the same market harm caused by GE contamination that continues to hurt our flax farmers. Please speak up for my concerns on February 8th and vote for Bill C-474 on February 9th.

Thank you for your attention to this critical issue.

Yours Sincerely,

Jennifer Cockrall-King

Member of the 100 percent majority party of eaters in Canada


Vending-Machine Charcuterie? Healthy Snacks? Heads of Lettuce? 

Image linked from's been a strainge twist in vending machine products of late. First I read about the family butcher shop, Izarzugaza, that now sells its charcuterie in a 24/7 meat-filled vending machine outside its shop in Bilbao, Spain.

Then in September, The Calgary Herald ran a story about Healthy Vending Calgary, a California-based franchise idea that has now made its way into Calgary with its eco-conscious vending machines stocked with organic, local, healthy (or -ier) options to stem the tide of high-fructose corn syrup world domination.

Today, the "Chef's Farm" got some press in the Globe & Mail (photo above). (Though I should note, it was reported two days ago on the incomparable site from Vancouver.) This is a restaurant-scale lettuce farm which can produce up to 60 heads of lettuce a day / 20,000 heads a year, in what looks to be the world's first lettuce vending machine. In five years, if lettuce prices remain stable, the maker's say you'll have paid for your investment. Or, if you grow a garden in some old-fashioned dirt, you'll probably break even after your first sixty heads of lettuce...just sayin'



Urban Vineyards and Community Gardens: Bonjour de Paris

I've been in the UK all week and have met some incredible gardeners and seen some fantastic urban agriculture initiatives...but have been too busy to blog about them. Perhaps next week I'll catch up.

But this weekend, I'm in Paris, staying with a friend in the 13th Arrondissement, in a fantastic little neighbourhood called Butte aux Cailles (Quail Hill!). I arrived last night to driving rain. Regardless, the streets were filled and the terrace cafes and bars were full. It looked a little bit like the street scene from Blade Runner, frankly.

Today, we're off to see some community gardens today, and in search of one of the 132 vineyards in the greater Paris area (called Ile de France), several of which are right in the middle of the city.

Then Jill has promised me a couscous dinner at one of her favorite restaurants on her street. And then we're going to do our best to take in Nuit Blanches -- the once a year, all-nighter where restaurants, bars, galleries and shops stay open until dawn!





Daily Links: Michael Pollan's TED talk: literary conceits, seeing nature from a plant's perspective and how permaculture will save the world

Ok, my title for this blog post is a rather broad attempt to paraphrase Michael Pollan's 17-minutes and 32-seconds talk at a TED conference in March of 2007, but take the time to watch. Michael Pollan has had a profound impact on the profile of food journalism and he talks about the moment in his garden where the idea of The Botany of Desire (still my favorite of his books) came to him. He then links this revelation to a particularly memorable part of his megawatt best-selling The Omnivore's Dilemma, his visit to Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms. And then he very briefly describes how permaculture, a major movement in food security, can save the world by saving what is left of our diminishing global soils. Not bad for less than 18 minutes.