Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: California winemaking star looks to make it big in Mexico

Eight grape varieties grow at La Fuente Winery in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. Harold Osborne runs the show.
Eight grape varieties grow at La Fuente Winery in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. Harold Osborne runs the show.

If the surf isn’t up, what’s a surfer to do? Might as well grow grapes and make wine, figures Harold Osborne, who four years ago was drawn to the surging waves of the Pacific Ocean at Todos Santos in Baja California Sur.

Todos Santos boasts a substantial ex-pat community and a reputation for culinary, music, film and art festivals, but it’s along the Tropic of Cancer, a latitude so far south in the Northern Hemisphere that grape-growing and winemaking are virtually unknown.

But Osborne brings with him a standing as one of California’s more highly regarded winemakers, putting in acclaimed stints with Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley, Maison Deutz in San Luis Obispo County (now Laetitia) and Cambria Estate Winery in Santa Barbara County, as well as at wineries in New Zealand, Australia and France.

This spring, he and his business partner, Roy Stock, who grew up in St. Helena, opened the Tasting Room on the northern edge of Todos Santos. Therein, Osborne makes wines marketed under his brand La Fuente Winery, “la fuente” being Spanish for “the fountain” or “the source.” Stock, meanwhile, runs the distilling side of the business, the Distillery, where among the spirits he turns out are sugar-cane vodka, chocolate moonshine and coffee liqueur.

Their building was intended to house a furniture showroom, and the quarter-acre former lumberyard out front is now a new vineyard planted to eight grape varieties. Osborne, Stock and their vineyard consultant, Jeff Newton, a partner in the vineyard-management company Coastal Vineyard Care Associates of Santa Barbara County, believe the eight have the strongest chance to thrive in the tropical heat and sun.

“There was much thought that went into the selection, and we leaned heavily on the experience of Camillo Magoni, former winemaker of LA Cetto in the Valle de Guadalupe near Ensenada,” Newton says.

Magoni long has tended his own vineyard, planted to 112 varieties. Juice, grapes and cuttings that Osborne and Stock got for their first plantings and wines come from Magoni, 900 miles to the north.

Their vineyard, not expected to start yielding substantial loads of fruit for three years, is devoted principally to vermentino and grenache, both of which are thriving early on. They’ve also planted muscat of Alexandria, tempranillo, cabernet franc, syrah and two varieties developed by Dr. Harold Olmo of UC Davis: carnelian, a cross involving carignan, grenache and cabernet sauvignon, intended for California’s hot Central Valley; and carmine, a cross of cabernet sauvignon, carignan and merlot, meant for cooler coastal areas.

The group’s efforts to establish a vineyard on the area’s coarse, sandy soil isn’t without complications, aside from the usual gophers and rabbits.

The group has to truck in water, and because of the area’s steady warm temperatures the vines don’t go dormant. Thus, the three will resort to such offbeat techniques as hand-stripping leaves from the vines after harvest and then holding back water in hopes of taming development until spring.

Gently cooling marine breezes off the adjacent Pacific are an advantage, though winds also are the biggest concern. The region’s hurricane season coincides with harvest, expected in August.

Osborne’s cellar is well-appointed with stainless-steel fermentation tanks, a filtering machine, bottling line and other customary winemaking gear he hauled down from California, though he will have nothing to do with high-tech winemaking equipment. “I don’t want electronics down here, just simple electrical mechanical stuff that when it breaks down I can fix it,” says Osborne.

He continues to live much of the time in Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo County, but will be relocating permanently to Todos Santos, even though it wasn’t his first choice. “I’d been looking since 1995 for a place to surf with warm water where I could grow grapes,” Osborne says.

He’s had success with two non-grape products. One is the red flower jamaica, or hibiscus, from which he coaxes a delicately sweet, fleetingly tannic and pleasantly spicy wine with a deep and brilliant color not far removed from cranberry (150 pesos, or about $8).

The other is a highly fragrant, herbal and lively white wine made from damiana, a wild shrub common to Mexico whose flowers, leaves and fruit are believed to possess medicinal, stimulant and aphrodisiac qualities (he uses just the leaves); also about $8. Osborne thought the damiana would appeal strictly to local chefs as a cooking wine, but he is finding that visitors to the tasting room like it on its own, or maybe for its purported benefits.

His other wines, all from traditional vitis-vinifera grapes grown in northern Baja, include a golden, medium-bodied roussanne shot through with suggestions of pineapple, peach and lemon (about $12); a dry, fruity and viscous trebbiano (about $13); a fragrant ruby cabernet whose fruit suggests candied cherries (about $15); and the richest and most complex wine in his lineup, a dry, spirited and lightly oaked petit verdot that pops with suggestions of raspberries (about $18).

Osborne’s stylistic goal is to make wines saturated with fruit, reserved in tannin and oak and ready to drink now for their freshness and balance. “These are wines adapted to the ambiance of Todos Santos and Cabo (San Lucas). This isn’t the place for big chewy reds,” Osborne says. All are bottled with screw caps, though he is preparing to launch a sparkling jamaica that will be plugged with cork.

While the vineyard and winery are young and largely untested, Osborne, Stock and Newton are upbeat on prospects for the wine trade in the southern Baja. They are helping other growers develop vineyards in the region and see La Fuente as a custom-crush facility for the others to transform their fruit into wine. Stock says they’ve helped ranchers plant 2,800 vines in the southern Baja this year and expect to plant 25,000 to 30,000 more next year.

Right now, Osborne is making 600 cases a year and sees production topping out at no more than 4,000 cases.

More than once, Osborne said that at this point in his career, which began when he earned a degree in agricultural science at Fresno State in 1971, he’s “tired of experimenting.” To plant a vineyard and make wine in a desert, however, looks to be his biggest experiment yet.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.