In an odd little way -- a way not intended to inflate significances and circumstances beyond their proper size -- it's as if Steve Dryden's whole life has been leading up to where he is now: living in Baja wine country, writing about wine, and leading tours.
Starting with the tours. "In the mid-'80s, I worked at Deer Park Winery in Escondido. I was really good friends with the owner, Bob Knapp" -- a man who also happened to own the world's most complete collection of post-1946 American convertibles, housed in a museum on the winery grounds. Knapp also owned "about five vintage Cadillac limos, including a 1960 that used to belong to the President of Mexico. I said, 'Why don't we do a wine tour?' We had a gourmet deli at the winery. We would do a picnic lunch for five to ten people, grab some of our great wines -- we had a Howell Mountain Zinfandel and a great Petite Sirah." (The Escondido location of Deer Park was a sort of satellite for the main winery in Napa; the San Diego Chardonnay got trucked north at harvest time.) "We were one of the first to do that kind of tour up in Temecula. I would go to Joe Hart, Vince Cilurzo, the Pooles at Mount Palomar, and Maurice Carrie when they came in."
It wasn't Dryden's first experience as a tour guide. "I majored in nursery and landscape technology at Mesa College, and after I got out of school, I worked 20 years as a National Parks Service ranger. I've done guided hikes, talks, walks, and campfire programs in almost every National Park west of the Rockies," including a four-year stint in Hawaii. "When I came back in 1982, I saw an ad in the paper: Bob was looking for a maintenance person. I went over and met him, and I found out part of the maintenance job was his car collection."
That suited Dryden fine; old cars were old friends. "My dad had a barber shop in Mission Beach. Right next to it was this guy, Al King, a former Indianapolis race car mechanic who had a garage. They became friends, and they started building cars together." Young Dryden got in on the action. "I used to restore old cars. Al King would give them to us -- some old lady had a '53 Chevy with a burnt valve, and we'd fix it."
Dad's tinkering tied in with Baja. "There was a Gordon Smith surfboard shop in Pacific Beach; they had a 1932 Ford panel truck they hauled surfboards around in. Candy-apple red, with a 300-horsepower Corvette engine in it. It got rear-ended on Mission Boulevard, pretty well totaled. My dad bought it, cut the back off all the way up the windshield, built a little frame with a roll bar, and all of a sudden we had a high-performance off-road vehicle." Perfect for screaming down the beach. "It was insane." Another time, "They took an old 1948 Pontiac, stripped the body off, triple-shocked it, and drove all the way from San Diego to La Paz."
By 1960, Dad was taking his two boys over the border. "We had a little cabana down where Baja Mar is now, in a place called Castor's Camp. We'd go almost every weekend. My dad was a really cool guy, a nonconformist, an adventurer. He had this '31 International flatbed truck that could pull these dune buggies behind. Dad would load up the flatbed with clothing and canned goods and stuff and drive to an orphanage in Tijuana to drop them off. Then he would hit the bakery and the liquor store, get a gallon jug of wine, a six-pack of Carta Blanca; go down to the Caliente racetrack; and place his bet for the weekend. That was all part of the routine." So was the wine. "I grew up with it. I remember those jug wines distinctly. I think we bought them from a Russian guy who was getting bulk wine from Cetto."
Knapp was delighted to find Dryden: who better to work at a winery/car museum than a naturalist/mechanic? "I worked at the museum, managed the tasting room, served as chauffeur for his vintage rental-car business. We did the Padres when they went to the World Series the first time. But my love was the winery, the whole ambience of wine culture. I always preferred the rural life, and to me, the wine culture means good wine, good music, good entertainment, good art, and usually, good food. It all goes together, and it's a nice world to be in. I started working in the vineyard, making sure the irrigation and fertilizer systems were working. I learned basic pruning techniques, crop thinning." He tracked the fruit as the harvest neared and started following the grapes up to Napa. "I got into sales, became a broker, went to wine tastings up and down California."
The wine gig was part-time, however; Dryden was still spending half the year with the National Parks Service. Eventually, he went full-time and headed back to Hawaii. "But my big idea was always to retire at 50, which is what I did, and continue on with something close to what I loved doing: wine, touring, and education. I took some classes at the University of Idaho in professional tour management and took some extension classes in travel writing at USD. I moved down to Baja and bought a little piece of property in wine country, right there in the heart of the action."
Dryden found his first tour clients through a friend with a travel business. "She had clients on Carnival Cruises. I'd rent a van, call it Baja Tours, and pick people up off the boat." Carnival didn't care for the competition; they ran tours of their own. So Dryden found work with Daytripper, then a few other outfits. "People call me, and I match them up with the right company." But his specialty is the private group. "People call me: 'How much would you charge us for the day?' If they want a van, I'll rent a van, take 8 to 12 people down." But if it's a smaller group, I say, 'The best deal for you is to just come to the valley and meet me at Mustafa's. I'll jump in your car and show you the valley.' They pay me $50, $60 for a couple of hours. I do that a lot.
"A couple of weeks ago, a woman called me -- it was her husband's and her mother's birthday. They lived by the halfway house. I put together a tour for $50 a person. First, we went to Three Women Winery -- they loved it, all crammed into this little wine cellar. Then to Mustafa's for lunch, where I had arranged for a birthday cake. From there, we went to Mogor Badan, which is an organic farm and winery. Natalia, the daughter, grows produce, and she sells it from 11 to noon on Wednesdays. It's a frenzy in there. Then down the valley to L.A. Cetto, Domecq, and Doña Lupe. They said it was one of the best tours they'd ever been on -- the little place, the medium, the big."