Dunne on Wine

After half a century, Camillo Magoni still looks for his legacy wine

Camillo Magoni spent his first 49 years in Mexico as a winemaker for Vinicola L.A. Cetto. Now, he’s introducing the first wines under his own Casa Magoni label.
Camillo Magoni spent his first 49 years in Mexico as a winemaker for Vinicola L.A. Cetto. Now, he’s introducing the first wines under his own Casa Magoni label.

When the picking of this year’s wine grapes commences in northern Baja California, Camillo Magoni, a son of Italy, will oversee his 52nd harvest in Mexico.

A descendant of a grape-growing and winemaking family at Morbegno in the far northern reaches of the Italian peninsula, Magoni was attracted to Mexico and a far different peninsula by the challenges of creating a wine culture in a setting that was both hot and dry, and where tequila and beer have been the reigning alcoholic beverages.

That’s still the case, but Magoni is undaunted, though fretful about water shortages and climate change, particularly in and about Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s principal wine region, just northeast of Ensenada and about an hour’s drive south of San Diego.

As a measure of his overall optimism, however, he’s building a winery in the valley, making wine under his young eponymous wine label and tending around 270 acres of vines planted to 112 varieties of grapes scattered across several parcels in both Valle de Guadalupe and Valle de San Vicente, the latter south of Ensenada.

“I wanted to participate in growing grapes and making wine in a new area,” says a relaxed and quietly cheerful Magoni on the start of his career in Mexico. We are in his Tijuana office, where he spends alternating days when he isn’t in Valle de Guadalupe. “I like projects much better than work. I don’t like work, which means a routine,” he says.

For his first 49 years in Mexico he was winemaker for Vinicola L.A. Cetto, which under his stewardship developed a reputation for a wide range of wines that offered high quality and exceptional value.

In the meantime, he developed his own series of vineyardsand looked into what kinds of grape varieties would thrive in the heat and aridity of Baja, experiments that continue. One parcel is planted to the likes of chardonnay, viognier, fiano and arneis, another to grenache, malbec, montepulciano, aglianico and the like.

He also made time to research and write perhaps the most comprehensive study of growing grapes and making wine in Baja, “Historia de la Vid y el Vino en la Peninsula de Baja California” (Universidad Iberoamericana Tijuana, 285 pages, $60; not yet translated from Spanish to English).

As he pondered retirement about three years ago, he founded his own winery, Casa Magoni. He not only wanted a new project, he needed another outlet for his grapes. One large producer had cut back in its purchases, as did smaller wineries whose own vineyards had matured and expanded enough to give them all the fruit they wanted.

“What can I do?” Magoni recalls asking himself. “Pull out the vineyards or make wine?”

He sees Casa Magoni as another project to show that Baja has the soil and the weather to establish a sustainable wine trade, despite its water woes and what seems to be intensifying heat, the latter of which is driving his efforts to find grape varieties most suitable for the region.

He has momentum on his side. Two decades ago, just a half-dozen wineries were in Valle de Guadalupe, he recalls. Today there may be as many as 100. And more restaurants and inns have popped up in the valley, though much of its traffic originates in Ensenada and San Diego.

At Casa Magoni, he produced 13,000 cases last year and expects to make 18,000 cases this year. Ultimately, he sees production leveling out at 50,000 cases to 60,000 cases annually. Most of his production is sold in Mexico, though exports to the U.S., particularly the Southwest, are growing. So far, the wines of Casa Magoni have not been picked up by outlets in Northern California, says his Napa-based distributor, Tom Bracamontes.

After half a century in Baja, where he met and married his wife, reared four daughters and now has eight granddaughters, Magoni must have some notion of what kinds of grapes and wines will become most closely identified with Mexico.

But he sidesteps the matter. When asked what varieties of grape and what style of wine will be most revered in Valle de Guadalupe in another half century, he says, “Let’s make an appointment in 50 years to see.”

His early releases under Casa Magoni, however, could give a clue to his thinking. They are creative yet solid wines that represent the mantra he had at L.A. Cetto – “good quality at affordable prices.”

His current lineup includes the 2014 Manaz, a floral, spicy and lilting blend of 80 percent viognier and 20 percent fiano ($12), a rich and round 2013 blend of 80 percent chardonnay and 20 percent vermentino ($12), and a fresh and frisky 2014 blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and 40 percent sangiovese ($12) that quickly has developed an enthusiastic following in Texas.

At L.A. Cetto, Magoni showed with a series of hefty yet nimble nebbiolos that Italian grapes just might find a comfortable home in Baja. With Casa Magoni, he extends that confidence with a 2012 nebbiolo that is forthright and solid, its firm fruit uplifted with suggestions of licorice ($22).

He also draws inspiration from Italy with his 2013 Origen 43, which takes its name from the latitude that cuts through Tuscany. Sturdy and lithe, with sunny fruit and keen acidity, the wine is a blend of traditional Tuscan grapes like montepulciano and sangiovese, supplemented with a dash of cabernet sauvignon.

Whether Origen 43, Manaz, his nebbiolo or another of his releases becomes the “iconic wine” of Baja California remains to be seen, but the question doesn’t haunt him.

Of more pressing concern is whether the wine trade he’s helped create in Valle de Guadalupe will thrive even more, given its unstable source of water.

In that regard, he has a potential solution – an aqueduct snaking for some 60 miles to transport reclaimed water from Tijuana to Valle de Guadalupe. It would be expensive, requiring government assistance to construct, but he’s confident that with additional vineyards and wineries in Valle de Guadalupe the industry could afford to maintain it.

“Water is our major problem today. The river is dry, and we’re getting half the rainfall of what we got 40 years ago,” Magoni says. “Reclaimed domestic water from the east side of Tijuana could be sent to the valley. Now it’s just going to the ocean.”

Five years ago he planted a half-acre vineyard to cabernet sauvignon in Tijuana, irrigating it with reclaimed water from the city. The wines, he notes, have been “fantastic.”

Maybe that will be his legacy wine.

Wine critic 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.