Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Extreme winemaking in Baja

If a Hollywood producer were to create a reality TV series about extreme winemaking, the first character he’d want to audition would be ruddy and lanky Robert Pudwill.

Pudwill has made wine in Alaska. That was easy. With no vines to fret over, he’d just go pick some salmon berries or order some grape concentrate from Canada and start fermentation.

Then he moved to the southern stretches of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. It’s hot here, and arid. Not even Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit friars who built missions all up the peninsula had much of a prayer when growing grapes in such a harsh setting.

“It is the tropics, after all,” Pudwill says as he stands on the edge of his vineyard, looking out across what could be a miniature-golf course, given that the weedy soil is pocked here and there with holes where vines once stood.

Pudwill may be the only commercial winemaker along the west coast of the Americas who times his harvest to avoid hurricanes and tropical storms. “August 10th generally is our harvest target date, just before the rainy season,” he’s saying.

Regardless of the timing of this year’s harvest, he won’t have much fruit to pick. He’s retaining a few rows of thin and struggling cabernet sauvignon and syrah but abandoning other varieties while pondering his next move.

“I’m getting out of the grape business for a few years,” Pudwill says. “I’ve been monkeying with this vineyard for eight years. Chardonnay was a waste of time; it just wouldn’t grow, it just kind of stagnated. Zinfandel was too fragile. The nebbiolo had a rootstock issue.”

At the vineyard’s peak, Pudwill was tending about 600 vines. Now he’s down to around 75. He lost 220 of his 250 vines of nebbiolo to nematodes alone.

Nevertheless, he’s been encouraged by his cabernet sauvignon and syrah, and talks of putting in more to replace the vines he’s pulling.

In the meantime, the small winery he and his wife, Liz, dug into a hill and lined with rock won’t stand idle. He’s been bringing down grapes from Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe just south of San Diego and juice from Napa Valley. From local farmers, he’s buying honey for mead and getting mangoes for an aromatic and dry table wine, all of which they put up in bottles they rescue from a recycling center in nearby Los Barriles.

Grape-growing and winemaking is just part of the couple’s effort to capitalize on their sprawling, historic and varied spread, which they call Rancho La Venta, Spanish for “inn.” The site was a way station for travelers venturing between the missions of Santiago and La Paz, perhaps as early as the late 1700s. Their tasting room rises from the adobe ruins of a small ranch house that may have been built that early.

When the Pudwills bought the site and a surrounding 350 acres in 1997, it was used to raise cattle. Today, the complex includes a hilltop home they built to give themselves a sweeping view of the high and lush Sierra de la Laguna.

Downslope from the crown of the hill are three casitas for guests, stables for six horses and a mule named Aristotle, a herd of goats, a chicken coop and a vegetable garden that shows by its fertility and scope that the ranch’s clay soils, abundant sunshine and torrid temperatures aren’t entirely hostile to growing things.

Not far removed, Liz’s art studio looks out over the pool, which they set into a series of boulders tumbling down a steep arroyo. Hammocks beckon, and guests eventually laze in them, generally after a stretch of horseback riding, birdwatching, swimming or hiking. Those are the principal draws at Rancho La Venta. Rarely does a visitor pull off Highway 1 just to taste wine.

The Pudwills were drawn to the area primarily for his love of wind surfing, a big draw of the Sea of Cortez just off Los Barriles. In Cordova, Alaska, he was a commercial fisherman and salvage diver. She was the owner of the cafe Baja Taco, which they established in an old bus and gradually expanded into a full-fledged restaurant, in large part on the popularity of tacos of Copper River salmon he caught.

They’d been driving to Los Barriles for 20 years – 40 one-way trips at 5,000 miles each – when they made their 41st and last drive in 2007, after they’d sold the restaurant and settled permanently at Rancho La Venta.

“Let’s just move one place or the other,” Pudwill recalls suggesting. “Winters in Alaska were just too gnarly.”

“We miss it,” adds Liz Pudwill, “but not that much.”

Robert Pudwill is a self-taught winemaker, learning as he goes along. Despite the remoteness and isolation of his winery, he’s alerted federal, state and local authorities to what he’s up to. He’s buying federal tax stickers that need to be slapped on each bottle of wine sold in Mexico, even though he only occasionally ventures off the estate to offer tastes and sell bottles at the Saturday farmers market in San Jose del Cabo, a 90-minute drive to the south.

While Pudwill is at a crossroads in growing his own grapes, he says he’s just taking a breather from the vineyard. He will continue to nurture his remaining cabernet sauvignon and syrah while searching for more material to plant.

As he looks over his scraggly vines, he vows, “I’m not giving up by any means. I’m going ahead.”