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The brown-robed monk leads the way down into the crypt. "In 1791 the Mission of Santo Tomás de Aquino was founded by Dominican friars, south of Ensenada. Along with the mission, they brought grape vines...."

It's just another of the five daily tours through the wine cellars of Bodegas Santo Tomás, at its wine-processing plant in downtown Ensenada. The underground arched-brick cellars are stacked with bottles of sparkling wines. The "monk" is an employee dressed up to provide atmosphere and recount the history of the oldest active vineyard in the state, some say in all of Mexico. But when the group reaches the far end, where giant 100-year-old barrels still mature ports and sherries, someone asks to see the "Sala de Tintos." There's a silence. The guide looks nervous.

"Uh, no. We can't go in there," he says. "We have a little problem with this place. There are many policemen there. We can't enter. Please come back. In two months, I'm sure everything will be fine."

But an Ensenada citizens' group is not so sure everything will be fine. In two months, they say, the Sala de Tintos could be razed and turned into a parking lot for a supermarket. And one of the great landmarks of Ensenada could be destroyed. In what could prove to be a milestone "coming-of-age" case for Baja preservationists, the battle lines have been drawn between an owner who claims his right to do as he sees fit with his property and citizens who claim that property as a part of their cultural heritage.

It has been a dramatic couple of months since Ensenada citizens got a whiff of a rumor that Santo Tomás's absentee owner, Antonio Cossío Ariño, intended to allow supermarket titan José Fimbres to build one of his Calimax supermarkets on the historic site. Fimbres wants to compete with a nearby -- and successful -- Gigante supermarket. Both locations are near bus stations that take people to outlying areas of Ensenada. So far, Mexico City-based Cossío couldn't see any reason to refuse.

Since his winery has essentially moved 70 percent of its operation back to where the Dominican monks began it all -- 25 miles south, in the fields and mountainside caves of Santo Tomás -- this place has been turned into a tourist draw and cultural center. In the last ten years it has become most famous for its verbena popular -- its popular wine-harvest-inspired street festival of concerts, impromptu performances, and dancing.

But the beautiful Sala de Tintos -- red wine hall -- has always been the star turn. "Oh, it's wonderful!" gushes Jane Zwerneman, who has often appeared there as a French-horn player with the Orchestra of Baja California. "It's a big bodega -- warehouse. There's a large enough space that you can probably seat 300 people on the floor, they have great beams, rows of kegs and half-kegs along the walls. Five of the half-kegs are used as dressing rooms -- that's how large they are: probably 12 feet in diameter and 15 feet high. There's also a balcony at the back. We have done concerts so crowded they have seated eight or ten people on chairs on top of some of these kegs. Plus, the room has a wonderful acoustic. It's very 'live,' a wonderful ambience. You can smell the wine in these old kegs. It permeates them. You'll never lose that smell. It is very Ensenada. You feel like you're in a wine cellar. Everything is shadowy. So evocative to make music in. It just kills me what they're doing, because it's unique."

What's also unique is the preservationists may finally have a chance in their battle against developers. Five years ago Baja state governor Ernesto Ruffo Appel approved a state law, La Ley del Patrimonio Cultural, which, among other protections, made it possible for the state government to order a three-month delay to any changes affecting "eligible" buildings, not just buildings already designated as historic. It marked a sea change in the way Baja California approached its patrimonio. Time after time developers had gone in and wrecked buildings and asked questions later. "Developers know how [the government] works," says Maria Castillo Curry, a researcher at Colegio de la Frontera Norte's Department of Urban Studies and the Environment. "The saying is 'It's better to ask perdón than permission.' "

Castillo, who has 15 years' experience in preservation in Mexico, 5 in Europe, and is currently completing a Ph.D. at Cornell, says Baja has been slow at taking its own history seriously, partly because, in Mexico City, cultural guardians don't consider brash, "violent," Americanized Baja California to be worth saving. The national law protecting historically significant sites was conceived in central Mexico, which bristles with millennia-old pyramids and 500-year-old colonial cities. The law states that only buildings at least 100 years old can be protected. "All 20th-century buildings are left to the state and local authorities," says Castillo.

Which means that besides the missions, just about everything in Baja doesn't qualify. That includes the Bodegas Santo Tomás, which didn't open in downtown Ensenada until 1934, though parts of the building had been up since 1913. "And yet we lack people qualified to assess such buildings," Castillo adds. "The governor [Alejandro González Alcocer] must sign any ordinance ordering special status for the bodegas, yet he doesn't have a single preservationist in his office."

* * *

A group of Ensenada's citizens, mainly artists and academics, started getting worried about the Sala de Tintos around the beginning of the year. Rumors circulated that after a "final concert" on March 31, much of the winery was going to be demolished and a supermarket built in its place. And its most beautiful room, the Sala de Tintos, was going to be leveled to become a parking lot.

"We started a letter campaign," says Marianne de Ramírez, an ex-French teacher who's been trying to stop the demolition. "We started calling everybody we could think of. We wrote to the mayor, the governor, even the president of the republic. We had never done this before. We collected signatures. One letter had more than 1500. Organizations signed on. A thousand schoolchildren wrote to the governor. Alfredo Alvarez, the director of Tijuana's Cultural Center, came out publicly in support of us. It was wonderful."

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