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Strangers in Wine Land

'Well, of course the original interest was on the drinking side of things," says Phil Gregory, one of Baja's newer Third Wave winemakers. "I've always enjoyed wine, and I've always enjoyed drinking the stuff in the area where it's made. Fortunately, wine very often tends to be made in beautiful parts of the world, which is another of its great attractions." Gregory, a veteran with London's Chapel Recording Studios, used to bump into those beautiful parts of the world while sailing with his wife Eileen. "Gradually, it became obvious that all the places we were looking at with a view to having a second home to retire to were very often in or near winemaking regions." Making wine for themselves seemed the next step.

Three years ago, when they found the perfect site for their retirement villa -- a 30-acre parcel in the Valle de Guadalupe -- "it became obvious that that's what we should be doing. They make wonderful wine around here. There is some that is not so good, but there is a concerted effort by some of the more qualified winemakers to help the less qualified -- and perhaps change the attitude of some of the more qualified who weren't making wines anywhere near as good as they could have. Especially when you consider the quality of the grapes. There are plenty of old vines that are giving really, really good grapes. They're a little different from U.S. wines. A little bit stronger, often a bit more powerful."

That "concerted effort" was born of a communal spirit that surprised Gregory. "People tend to be quite competitive, normally. But we arrived here and discovered this beautiful valley, and it's an extremely civilized place. There are a lot of people who are very well educated, very knowledgeable, very interesting. The community is definitely centered around winemaking and wine drinking and good food. There are a lot of social events based around wine and food. We assumed that we would just live as expatriates somewhere, just sort of hole up and read books for the rest of our lives or something. But we found ourselves dragged into this community in the middle of nowhere, and we're more active than we've ever been before. It's a lovely place to be, and there's so much to do," even on top of making wine and olive oil. So much so that the Gregorys have sold their house in L.A. and taken up full-time residence in their new home, which ended up also serving as an inn, La Villa del Valle (formerly Las Brisas del Valle).

Despite an abundance of local fruit for sale at good prices, all that land got Gregory itching to plant his own vines. Right now, he's got two and a half acres under vine, and depending on how much water he can manage to get, he plans to plant more. "I've got Cabernet, Syrah, Viognier, and Chardonnay, and this year, I'm going to plant a few Grenache and Tempranillo. One of the better-known vineyard managers around here, José Fernández, sort of keeps looking after us through the year. Every so often, he'll call to check on the way the plants are growing, give us advice on changing water or fertilizer. Then he gives invaluable advice at the important parts of the year -- planting, pruning."

The vines are still a few years from productive maturity, but thanks to purchased fruit and a little help from his friends, his first efforts are already in the bottle. "To a certain extent, it's very easy for me. I can just take advice, buy the best grapes using that advice, and let the wine make itself." Well, not quite. When Gregory arrived, local guru (and winemaker for several ventures, including his own) Hugo D'Acosta was already running the escualita -- the little school "where he teaches people such as myself how to make wine. The facility is right there; it's like having my own winery. Hugo is very kind, very free with his advice."

Gregory's initial effort "was purely experimental, just to make sure I could make wine. I was very pleased with the result. The Grenache has become very popular; we're working our way through it quite quickly. And the Cabernet worked out very well. This year, I changed the experiment and made eight or nine different kinds of wine, just to see the differences. I'll choose two or three to make in the future. Hopefully, it will become a more commercial venture. I never suspected I would be able to make wine in the quantities we're making it now -- or the quality we're making it now."

Making it commercially will be something of a tricky business, admits Gregory. "Obviously, in general, there's way too much wine throughout the world. And the prices here are really quite high when compared with, say, Chilean or Australian wines, which you can buy in the U.S. for just three or four dollars. And there's an unfortunate government tax on wine produced here, which puts the price up." Further, he says, in his part of the valley, "All the wines are made in small quantities, and pretty much by hand -- it ends up being expensive. So, pricewise, the wines are not very competitive. But they're Mexican wines, which most people haven't heard of, and that gives them a bit of cachet. In the past, it was quite the opposite -- Mexican wines were frightening. But now, people know that it costs extra to make them here, and they're willing to experiment. There's a fairly good market. Not a huge one, but it's not like they're making millions and millions of barrels."

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'Well, of course the original interest was on the drinking side of things," says Phil Gregory, one of Baja's newer Third Wave winemakers. "I've always enjoyed wine, and I've always enjoyed drinking the stuff in the area where it's made. Fortunately, wine very often tends to be made in beautiful parts of the world, which is another of its great attractions." Gregory, a veteran with London's Chapel Recording Studios, used to bump into those beautiful parts of the world while sailing with his wife Eileen. "Gradually, it became obvious that all the places we were looking at with a view to having a second home to retire to were very often in or near winemaking regions." Making wine for themselves seemed the next step.

Three years ago, when they found the perfect site for their retirement villa -- a 30-acre parcel in the Valle de Guadalupe -- "it became obvious that that's what we should be doing. They make wonderful wine around here. There is some that is not so good, but there is a concerted effort by some of the more qualified winemakers to help the less qualified -- and perhaps change the attitude of some of the more qualified who weren't making wines anywhere near as good as they could have. Especially when you consider the quality of the grapes. There are plenty of old vines that are giving really, really good grapes. They're a little different from U.S. wines. A little bit stronger, often a bit more powerful."

That "concerted effort" was born of a communal spirit that surprised Gregory. "People tend to be quite competitive, normally. But we arrived here and discovered this beautiful valley, and it's an extremely civilized place. There are a lot of people who are very well educated, very knowledgeable, very interesting. The community is definitely centered around winemaking and wine drinking and good food. There are a lot of social events based around wine and food. We assumed that we would just live as expatriates somewhere, just sort of hole up and read books for the rest of our lives or something. But we found ourselves dragged into this community in the middle of nowhere, and we're more active than we've ever been before. It's a lovely place to be, and there's so much to do," even on top of making wine and olive oil. So much so that the Gregorys have sold their house in L.A. and taken up full-time residence in their new home, which ended up also serving as an inn, La Villa del Valle (formerly Las Brisas del Valle).

Despite an abundance of local fruit for sale at good prices, all that land got Gregory itching to plant his own vines. Right now, he's got two and a half acres under vine, and depending on how much water he can manage to get, he plans to plant more. "I've got Cabernet, Syrah, Viognier, and Chardonnay, and this year, I'm going to plant a few Grenache and Tempranillo. One of the better-known vineyard managers around here, José Fernández, sort of keeps looking after us through the year. Every so often, he'll call to check on the way the plants are growing, give us advice on changing water or fertilizer. Then he gives invaluable advice at the important parts of the year -- planting, pruning."

The vines are still a few years from productive maturity, but thanks to purchased fruit and a little help from his friends, his first efforts are already in the bottle. "To a certain extent, it's very easy for me. I can just take advice, buy the best grapes using that advice, and let the wine make itself." Well, not quite. When Gregory arrived, local guru (and winemaker for several ventures, including his own) Hugo D'Acosta was already running the escualita -- the little school "where he teaches people such as myself how to make wine. The facility is right there; it's like having my own winery. Hugo is very kind, very free with his advice."

Gregory's initial effort "was purely experimental, just to make sure I could make wine. I was very pleased with the result. The Grenache has become very popular; we're working our way through it quite quickly. And the Cabernet worked out very well. This year, I changed the experiment and made eight or nine different kinds of wine, just to see the differences. I'll choose two or three to make in the future. Hopefully, it will become a more commercial venture. I never suspected I would be able to make wine in the quantities we're making it now -- or the quality we're making it now."

Making it commercially will be something of a tricky business, admits Gregory. "Obviously, in general, there's way too much wine throughout the world. And the prices here are really quite high when compared with, say, Chilean or Australian wines, which you can buy in the U.S. for just three or four dollars. And there's an unfortunate government tax on wine produced here, which puts the price up." Further, he says, in his part of the valley, "All the wines are made in small quantities, and pretty much by hand -- it ends up being expensive. So, pricewise, the wines are not very competitive. But they're Mexican wines, which most people haven't heard of, and that gives them a bit of cachet. In the past, it was quite the opposite -- Mexican wines were frightening. But now, people know that it costs extra to make them here, and they're willing to experiment. There's a fairly good market. Not a huge one, but it's not like they're making millions and millions of barrels."

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