man_and_his_tanks

The man and his tanks

Like soviet-era cement bunkers, the storage chambers of one of Valle de Guadalupe’s first wine factories, built in the 1940s, sit empty along the walls. Well, almost empty. Reynaldo Rodriguez, part wine maker, part mad scientist, has filled one of these square cement holding cells with glow-in-the-dark stickers of the solar system and one has a cellphone hanging on a string and one a projection screen for watching movies.

“I wanted to get a feel for what it was like in there,” he tells us, pointing out one weird art installation after another as he moves quickly, antsily, from chamber to chamber and topic to topic.

The only connecting thread of his conversation is wine, always wine, which he discusses philosophically, passionately, ridiculously, while waving his maroon-stained hands in the air. His office at the top of the factory looks like a prison warden’s chambers. It’s there he shows us all his laboratory equipment, beakers, and his master plan, draw by hand, for renovating the factory.

Sitara Perez Valley Girl Wines

Winemaker Sitara Pérez

“He’s a wine savant,” said Ava Pérez of the Valley Girl Winery, as she drove up the property’s entrance 20 minutes before, “I follow his wines like a teenage girl follows Tiger Beat magazine.” Showing her age (and mine) I immediately understand she’s in deep.

We were at the end of a day of touring Baja wineries when Ava’s mother, Sitara Pérez, called to let us know that tonight would be the first crush the factory has seen in over 30 years, a historical moment. She wanted us to meet Rodríguez, her newest partner in crime.

The older Pérez moved to Ensenada in 2012 and her daughter soon followed, leaving behind the chilly northwest for hot, dry Baja California and the wonders of wine making. Their new winery is currently under construction and so, in need of space for the 2015 harvest, they’ve agreed to be the first guinea pig in Rodriguez’s new project.

Rodriguez comes from a family of wine-makers, both his grandfather (in Baja California) and his father (in Spain) grew grapes. He’s got a masters in enology and viticulture from Universidad de la Rioja in the Rioja Alavesa region of Spain. He has worked as an enologist for several highly-respected vineyards including the Artadi vineyard in Spain, and Quinta Monsterio – his family’s farm in Ensenada –, Hacienda la Lomita, Enmevé and Finca La Carrodilla in Mexico.

Mexico's wine countryBut this new project is something else all together. Set on a piece of land and inside a decades-old factory that Rodríguez has been eyeing for years, the Wine Factory is the first wine-making collective in this, the first place wine was grown in the new world – Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe.

The project is designed for small producers that lack the equipment or expertise (that‘s where Rodriguez comes in) to effectively crush, age, and bottle their grapes, or for folks like Pérez who are in-between spaces and need a place to process their most recent harvest. It’s a place where novice wine-makers and masters come together to learn how to make better and bolder wine.

The Wine Factory project is also a luxury wine club, where members can have their original, one-of-a-kind wines blended by Rodríguez with personalized labels that they can give away for special occasions. So far they have 35 members signed up, but there is space for more. Rodriguez is planning for the place to be a laboratory for excellent wine that will include soil, grape and water testing facilities, experimental vines growing in the fields and a clubhouse where members can store their favorite vintages under lock and key to take out and drink when it suits their fancy.

The project is novel (and attractive to other wine-makers) because although there is a strong sense of spaceshipcooperation among wine-makers in the area, there has never before been this type of apprenticeship service offered by such a well-known and talented enologist like Rodríguez—at the recent Internacional de Vinos de Ensenada 2015 he won over 15 top prizes for his wines and is known throughout the valley as a odd-ball genius with a passion for grapes.

“That there, that could be a stainless steel tank,” he says of a to-scale drawing of a 15-foot tank that he drew one night on the wall, “or it could be a spaceship. I don’t know. We’ll see.” And I suppose we will, but if his accolades are a testament, it’s gonna work either way.

Lydia Carey is a writer in Mexico City and author of the upcoming Mexico City Streets: La Roma, a guide to living in one of the city’s hippest hoods. You can see more of her writing on her blog Mexico City Streets