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Mexico's Tuscan Spirit

Eileen Gregory didn't set out to open a popular restaurant/inn/spa/winemaking operation in Baja wine country and, in so doing, aid and abet the transformation and revitalization of the region. Together with her husband Phil, she set out to buy a weekend home, someplace they would eventually retire to. And, initially, they set out to buy it in Argentina. "I was working in London, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles," says Eileen. "When 9/11 happened, I decided I didn't want to spend my life on aeroplanes any longer. I gave up my businesses, and we sold our place in London."

Argentina looked great until the Gregorys realized that it would be an 18-hour flight to their weekend getaway — "We wouldn't be able to go very often, and if we did, nobody would come to see us!" A friend and colleague at Fox, who had spent time at the studio's Rosarito facility, suggested Baja wine country — though he couldn't remember the name of the region. At least he knew the place existed. A real estate agent in Puerto Nuevo had never heard of such a thing — "and this was just three years ago." But she was willing to look on the Gregorys' behalf, and in a few weeks, they were poking around the Valle de Guadalupe, looking for just the right little patch of land.

What they found was just right, but it wasn't little — 30 hectares instead of the intended 5. But, says Eileen, "It just spoke to us. It was as though the decision was made for us. Within five minutes, we said, 'We'll take it.' We both fell in love, and we've never looked back." Not even when the government turned down their request to purchase the land. "The lawyer said, 'Don't worry. Just form a Mexican corporation, and then the Mexican corporation buys the land.' The only caveat was that if we were going to put a residence on it, there would need to be a commercial reason." So was born Las Brisas del Valle (soon to be renamed La Villa del Valle).

"The idea is for it to have the feeling of having once been somebody's country pile, now turned into a commercial inn." Someplace that made you feel "that you were guests in someone's fabulous country estate. A personal, intimate experience" — there are only six rooms — "based around a restaurant. It's kind of a geographical expression of how I'd love my life to be." One of Eileen's former businesses was a "conscious-living TV cable channel," based in Amsterdam and carried across Europe. "We did things like yoga classes, cookery classes, organic gardening. We did some original programming, and we looked all over France for an old chateau we could turn into a place for doing all of these things. This turned out to be kind of a mini-mini version of that."

Now, there's a yoga studio/art studio/special functions room down by the pool. The vineyards are coming on; Phil's first vinous efforts, made from purchased grapes, are in the bottle. And the gardens are in full swing. "We have our own organic vegetable garden," says Eileen. "Our own free-range chickens. We grow our own lavender. We have our own olive trees, our own fruit orchard. We make our own jam, we make our own biscuits, we make our own granola and breakfast bread. And we make our own olive oil. What we don't have, we buy locally. Our meat comes from organic growers in Sonora. Our fish is freshly caught from the waters off Ensenada. The idea is that, as far as possible, everything is fresh, and not only grown organically but grown locally as well."

And it's mostly possible. Says Eileen, "Like most other wine-growing regions, there is an innate appreciation of natural, local-grown products and for treating the land with respect. Agribusiness is not really what happens here. The winemakers here are very much small and artisanal" — at least, the winemakers of Baja's Third Wave, of which the Gregorys are a part — "and the people we buy stuff from tend to be the same. We get our chorizo from a woman down the road who makes it herself. There's a guy who makes cheese using recipes his grandfather brought over from Italy."

It might sound like a bit of country gentrification, but Eileen views it as more restorative than anything else. "I think everything that's created rises out of what was here originally. It was a wine-growing region, and it was a big olive oil region." (A gargantuan and defunct olive orchard stretches in seemingly endless rows not far from the Gregorys' property.) "The olive trees became a crop that wasn't really economically viable, so people started digging them up to plant crops that they could make money from. That's how we got lots of 20-year-old olive trees; ranchers were just getting rid of them. Our goal is to stop that from happening; it would take a long time to re-establish olive groves once they had been abolished. It's the same with the vineyards. There was a time when grapes were just not productive in an economic sense, so people started ripping out old grapevines and planting alfalfa. Our goal is to be as supportive as we can of the infrastructure that exists and then give an opportunity for other things to happen."

She envisions a cottage industry that will make use of pruned olive wood, as she's seen in other olive-rich regions. Also, a growing belief in the goodness of local product, so that people in Mexico will choose a Mexican olive oil over one marked "Italian" or "Spanish." "I'd like to see the place develop enough so that it can take advantage of what used to be here." And it looks as if she may get her wish. "One of the things that amazed us was the fact that [when we found it] this place was as it had been for many, many years. We never had any indication that it would suddenly change, but now, it's in the middle of this extraordinary change. It's sad for us, but of course, we are one of the reasons that it's happening. We've kind of been hoisted by our own petard. You had to have a lot of imagination to see what could be done, since nobody else had done it. But the more people that do it, the easier it is for other people to do it."

Winewise (and perhaps otherwise as well), she says, "I think that we're probably what Napa was 50 years ago — 'Why would you buy California wine when you could buy French wine?' There's a big marketing campaign that needs to happen, and I think that with the burgeoning middle class in Mexico, it will happen. I don't want you to think that I'm hoping that this will become a Napa Valley. I don't think it will, and I think it would be a disaster if it did. To me, Napa Valley is Fantasyland, and this is Frontierland. I love that it's Frontierland, but I see that it will change. The whole of Mexico is changing. I would like to think of this place as being a Mexican Tuscany, where all the local traditions are held intact but everybody's enjoying a modern lifestyle."

Next week: Phil's take.

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Eileen Gregory didn't set out to open a popular restaurant/inn/spa/winemaking operation in Baja wine country and, in so doing, aid and abet the transformation and revitalization of the region. Together with her husband Phil, she set out to buy a weekend home, someplace they would eventually retire to. And, initially, they set out to buy it in Argentina. "I was working in London, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles," says Eileen. "When 9/11 happened, I decided I didn't want to spend my life on aeroplanes any longer. I gave up my businesses, and we sold our place in London."

Argentina looked great until the Gregorys realized that it would be an 18-hour flight to their weekend getaway — "We wouldn't be able to go very often, and if we did, nobody would come to see us!" A friend and colleague at Fox, who had spent time at the studio's Rosarito facility, suggested Baja wine country — though he couldn't remember the name of the region. At least he knew the place existed. A real estate agent in Puerto Nuevo had never heard of such a thing — "and this was just three years ago." But she was willing to look on the Gregorys' behalf, and in a few weeks, they were poking around the Valle de Guadalupe, looking for just the right little patch of land.

What they found was just right, but it wasn't little — 30 hectares instead of the intended 5. But, says Eileen, "It just spoke to us. It was as though the decision was made for us. Within five minutes, we said, 'We'll take it.' We both fell in love, and we've never looked back." Not even when the government turned down their request to purchase the land. "The lawyer said, 'Don't worry. Just form a Mexican corporation, and then the Mexican corporation buys the land.' The only caveat was that if we were going to put a residence on it, there would need to be a commercial reason." So was born Las Brisas del Valle (soon to be renamed La Villa del Valle).

"The idea is for it to have the feeling of having once been somebody's country pile, now turned into a commercial inn." Someplace that made you feel "that you were guests in someone's fabulous country estate. A personal, intimate experience" — there are only six rooms — "based around a restaurant. It's kind of a geographical expression of how I'd love my life to be." One of Eileen's former businesses was a "conscious-living TV cable channel," based in Amsterdam and carried across Europe. "We did things like yoga classes, cookery classes, organic gardening. We did some original programming, and we looked all over France for an old chateau we could turn into a place for doing all of these things. This turned out to be kind of a mini-mini version of that."

Now, there's a yoga studio/art studio/special functions room down by the pool. The vineyards are coming on; Phil's first vinous efforts, made from purchased grapes, are in the bottle. And the gardens are in full swing. "We have our own organic vegetable garden," says Eileen. "Our own free-range chickens. We grow our own lavender. We have our own olive trees, our own fruit orchard. We make our own jam, we make our own biscuits, we make our own granola and breakfast bread. And we make our own olive oil. What we don't have, we buy locally. Our meat comes from organic growers in Sonora. Our fish is freshly caught from the waters off Ensenada. The idea is that, as far as possible, everything is fresh, and not only grown organically but grown locally as well."

And it's mostly possible. Says Eileen, "Like most other wine-growing regions, there is an innate appreciation of natural, local-grown products and for treating the land with respect. Agribusiness is not really what happens here. The winemakers here are very much small and artisanal" — at least, the winemakers of Baja's Third Wave, of which the Gregorys are a part — "and the people we buy stuff from tend to be the same. We get our chorizo from a woman down the road who makes it herself. There's a guy who makes cheese using recipes his grandfather brought over from Italy."

It might sound like a bit of country gentrification, but Eileen views it as more restorative than anything else. "I think everything that's created rises out of what was here originally. It was a wine-growing region, and it was a big olive oil region." (A gargantuan and defunct olive orchard stretches in seemingly endless rows not far from the Gregorys' property.) "The olive trees became a crop that wasn't really economically viable, so people started digging them up to plant crops that they could make money from. That's how we got lots of 20-year-old olive trees; ranchers were just getting rid of them. Our goal is to stop that from happening; it would take a long time to re-establish olive groves once they had been abolished. It's the same with the vineyards. There was a time when grapes were just not productive in an economic sense, so people started ripping out old grapevines and planting alfalfa. Our goal is to be as supportive as we can of the infrastructure that exists and then give an opportunity for other things to happen."

She envisions a cottage industry that will make use of pruned olive wood, as she's seen in other olive-rich regions. Also, a growing belief in the goodness of local product, so that people in Mexico will choose a Mexican olive oil over one marked "Italian" or "Spanish." "I'd like to see the place develop enough so that it can take advantage of what used to be here." And it looks as if she may get her wish. "One of the things that amazed us was the fact that [when we found it] this place was as it had been for many, many years. We never had any indication that it would suddenly change, but now, it's in the middle of this extraordinary change. It's sad for us, but of course, we are one of the reasons that it's happening. We've kind of been hoisted by our own petard. You had to have a lot of imagination to see what could be done, since nobody else had done it. But the more people that do it, the easier it is for other people to do it."

Winewise (and perhaps otherwise as well), she says, "I think that we're probably what Napa was 50 years ago — 'Why would you buy California wine when you could buy French wine?' There's a big marketing campaign that needs to happen, and I think that with the burgeoning middle class in Mexico, it will happen. I don't want you to think that I'm hoping that this will become a Napa Valley. I don't think it will, and I think it would be a disaster if it did. To me, Napa Valley is Fantasyland, and this is Frontierland. I love that it's Frontierland, but I see that it will change. The whole of Mexico is changing. I would like to think of this place as being a Mexican Tuscany, where all the local traditions are held intact but everybody's enjoying a modern lifestyle."

Next week: Phil's take.

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