"The rules are: no throwing bottles at the driver," Ignacio says from the captain’s seat as our party bus barrels down I-5. “And that’s about it for the rules.”
Only minutes out from our 11:30 a.m. departure at Thorn Street Brewery, nearly all 40 of us has a cold can of Tecate half slugged back, and I realize this isn’t going to be the stuffy, makeshift aficionado affair that I suspected our wine tour might turn out to be. On the contrary, we are all chatting and wide-eyed as the bus plows down the toll roads of deep east Tijuana. Manu Chao celebrates the city’s staple vices — “tequila, sexo, y marijuana” — as Ignacio offers a grim appraisal of frontera maquilandia, noting, “Most people make around 70 to 90 dollars a week working in the factories.”
My Samsung phone, assembled in part not far from our eastbound bus, places the time at a bit past noon. Half an hour later, we split down a dirt road lined with brick kilns and pottery lots to arrive at Casa Vinicola Ulloa, one of only three wineries in Tecate. Our guide, Angel Miron — a San Diego–born, Tijuana-raised bartender at Hamilton’s Tavern who gives Baja booze tours as Let’s Go Clandestino — walks us to an arid oak grove.
A glass of house vintage in every hand, winemaker Andrés Blanco shows us around the organically raised Nebbiolo and Tempranillo vines. Inside the cellar, we find relief from the summer heat among barrels of Russian, French, and American wood, which contain Blanco’s 19th vintage, beginning with his Valle de Guadalupe vineyard, Vinos Moebius.
“You are standing above our well,” he says, pointing to a metal hatch beneath my feet. “That is the original well for Cervecería Tecate. It’s very nice water. Not salty. Our biggest treasure is the well.”
He goes on to describe how Tecate’s cooler temperatures equate to shorter summers.
“It makes a more European style than, say, Napa or Sonoma,” Blanco explains. “It’s very elegant.”
Back at the food truck, Troca Lonche — a project of Tijuana’s Verde y Crema, headed by chef Jair Téllez, with whom Blanco works as sommelier at Valle restaurant, Laja — Blanco explains that the rosé we are about to drink conveys the flavors of the area’s red, clay-dense soil.
“This is the meaning of terroir,” he says, invoking a French term that makes anyone an instant asshole if they use it outside of enological circles. “We call it terruño in Spanish.”
After a wine-paired meal of local bounties, our collective mirth multiplies rapidly. Dances break out with wild abandon. Young women are lifted Dirty Dancing–style overhead while a golden girl spins carefree Cumbia circles, cradling a resident canine in her arms.
Hours later, as we wait to cross north via Tecate, one of the Vagabrothers — a duo of traveling video documentarians — disappears down a side street, only to return minutes later with a couple cases of Tecate, which he passes around the roaring bus.
As if to affirm that we are pointed in the right direction, Sublime comes over the stereo and everyone shouts a cacophonous declaration regarding exactly what sort of riot they can play the git-tar like.
No stranger to Bacchanalian abandon, Angel’s serene demeanor provides a steady counterpoint to our entourage’s booze-fueled vigor. He’s like Willy Wonka — wise, patient, knowing — and we are Augustus Gloop, greedily guzzling from the chocolate river, consequences be damned.
Riding back through the hills of East County 94, countless bottles of wine make their rounds, but much to Ignacio’s satisfaction, not a one ends up airborne, soaring toward the driver’s seat.