From my recent visit to the Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico, I have two more favorite stories of expatriates who’ve chosen Baja as a place not just to make wine but also to call home.
Finding A Home in Baja California: Eileen and Phil Gregory, Vena Cava
As sailors, Phil and Eileen Gregory travelled the world by boat. In 2002, they purchased 70 acres in the Valle de Guadalupe and made it their home. While both Phil and Eileen originally worked in the music industry, Phil pursued winemaking as a new passion and created Vena Cava.
Phil Gregory studied under Hugo d’Acosta, a pioneer of Mexican winemaking, at “La Escuelita.” d’Acosta created “La Escuelita” to focus on the boutique production of grapes and olives with a focus on sustainability. A small group of students are selected each year to learn both traditional and modern winemaking practices and Gregory is one of the accomplished alumni who went on to start his own winery.
Vena Cava is the main vein to the heart. And that is what the winery is. Focused on creating high-quality wines from the best grapes in the valley, Gregory brings to life the essence of Baja in his wines. The vineyard is farmed organically and Gregory likes to experiment with different styles of wine. In many ways, he is always two steps ahead of everyone else.
When he came to Baja, they were making predominantly red wines. He decided to make lighter-style wines and made more white and rosè wines. As more white wines started to be made across the valley, Gregory started making sparkling wine. Gregory has been experimenting with méthode champenoise using large racks shot through with holes in order to turn the bottles and agitate the sediment.
Fellow winemaker Pedro Poncelis of D’Poncelis Winery declared that “since he [Phil Gregory] has come here, he has dedicated his life to wine.”
The sailor in Gregory continues to live on as well. The winery, which is invisible from the main road, is built with abandoned boats found in the Ensenada harbor. The winery was designed by architect Alejandro d’Acosta, brother of winemaker Hugo d’Acosta. The winery is subterranean and the ceiling is created with the salvaged boats. From the outside of the winery, all we can see is a rooftop of colorful upturned wood boats. Inside the winery, the walls are decorated with lenses from a local eyeglass factory.
In addition to the winery, the Gregorys own a beautiful boutique hotel, La Villa de Valle. The six-bedroom hotel offers panoramic views of the vineyards, olive groves and mountains surrounding the property. The property is also home to Corazon de Tierra, a farm-to-table restaurant.
Phil and Eileen Gregory have been in Baja California for more than a decade. The sailors found their perfect port as they officially became Mexican citizens. Baja California is their home.
From Ventura, California to Baja California: Kristin and Adam Shute, Lechuza
Tall, blond and female, Kristin Shute stands out a bit. When she arrived in Baja in January 2013, she spent her first week in the vineyard pruning in the rain. Her neighbor later told her that she wanted to take a picture of Shute working because “seeing a gringa working in a field in Mexico, you don’t see that happening.” Now, more than three years later, this is the valley that she calls home.
Shute is from Ventura County and grew up visiting Mexico with her family. After attending culinary school in Santa Barbara, she worked at the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara. She also ran a guest lodge on a dude ranch where she met her husband Adam Shute, a traveling cowboy. While her husband was taking people on pack trips and trail rides and training horses for movies, Shute was managing meetings and events at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara.
Shute’s father Ray Magnussen, a native of San Diego, and his wife Patty were looking for a retirement retreat. During a trip to Baja, after a meal in 2003 at Laja Restaurant, the French Laundry of Mexico, they took notice of the Valle de Guadalupe. The next morning, on their way back home, they noticed that the lot next door to Laja, an overgrown wheat farm, was available.
They purchased the property with the idea of opening a bed and breakfast. However, after spending many late nights in the wine lab of their former neighbor Cuahutemoc Santana, a local agronomist, Magnussen was bit by the wine bug. He studied at UC Davis in the winemakers abroad program and instead of building a bed and breakfast, he planted the entire 2.2 acres with vines in 2005 and had his first vintage in 2007. The 2008 vintage was called the Wedding blend and was made entirely for Shute’s wedding.
Shute’s mother did not see the immediate benefits of this investment. Realizing that it was a continual investment, she was “about ready to call it quits in 2012,” Shute explained. She enticed Shute and her husband to come down to Baja for a weekend, and wined and dined them.
“They took us out to eat. We drank too much beer and ate fantastic food at Javier Plascencia’s restaurant. We came back home, showered and went to Deckman’s, a Michelin-star restaurant at the Mogor winery. After an eight-course dinner, wine, mescal and beer, my parents caught us in a weak moment. They asked us if we wanted to take over the business.” It was really to take over her father’s hobby and make it into a business. Shute and her husband decided to take it.
Shute and her husband relocated on January 21, 2013. Lechuza Winery is named for the native western burrowing ground owl that lives in the ground and helps regulate vermin. When Shute’s grandfather, a Baptist minister, baptized the land, there was a small family of lechuza on the land and they decided to pay homage to them.
Since the beginning, Shute and her family have worked with and supported the local community, hiring local volunteer firefighters during harvest. They help everyone they can and have “gotten it back tenfold,” Shute explained. “We were limited in Spanish and yet we could call Jose the firefighter who would protect us if there was a problem.”
Camillo Magoni, an icon in the Valle de Guadalupe, helped them build their cave to hold six barrels. Now they have 69 barrels and no room to store everything properly. Magoni lets them store their wines in his temperature- controlled room and lends them his facility for cold stabilization. He also stops by every Saturday at 7 a.m. for morning coffee. “At that point, you know you are not just the gringos but neighbors and family. We do everything for each other.”
Shute’s husband still goes out on the road as a traveling cowboy for six weeks each year before harvest. He then comes home and works in the cellar while Shute works in the lab. Her father, along with a consultant, makes the wine but perhaps one day she will take over.
Three and a half years later, Shute and her husband are “living the Mexican dream” and Valle de Guadalupe is home. In fact, she joked, “we love Mexicans so much, we made one.” Her son, Royal, was born in Baja 16 months ago, making 2015 the “royal crush.” They made a rosé in his honor and the wine won first place in the Valle Conchas y Vino contest. But, Shute has one focus with the wines they are making. “The wine I am making needs to be good enough to pour next to my neighbors. We work together. It is a community, not a competition.”