Cult Wine

Three years ago, Steve Dryden arrived in Baja's wine country, looking for a niche -- a way to spend his retirement living close to the wine world, preferably on the touring/writing side of things. It didn't take him long to notice "that there was a real need for a little wine guide for gringos. There was no information in English. People would kind of hear about the wine country, but they'd be asking, 'Where are all these places? How do you find them?'"

Dryden had a resource that Joe Tourist didn't -- Ralph Amey's Wines of Baja California. He borrowed the book's regional map and set about putting together "a six-page newsletter, which I still publish, called The Guadalupe Grapevine. It had explicit directions on how to get to each winery, phone numbers, hours, everything." As a bonus, the quarterly publication "used to feature a different winemaker in each issue, and I always had a different artist's wine-themed piece on the cover." (Dryden notes that he always credits Amey for providing "the basic information I needed. I met him at the Discover Baja Travel Club in Clairemont and told him, 'By the way, I used your map.' He was really cool about it.")

Distribution was a matter of driving winery to winery and setting up a clear-plastic rack in the tasting room. If you made it to one winery and were willing to plunk down five bucks, you could get to the rest with relative ease. "I gave free ads to the wineries who supported me. It worked out well for both of us. It was kind of small, but I had good graphics and good information." Eventually, people started subscribing.

The newsletter got the word out about the wineries. It also got the word out about Steve Dryden. "The newsletter started getting me some attention from the locals, some respect from the wineries" -- an important gain in a winery culture that doesn't go out of its way to curry favor with wine writers. World Talk Radio host Ted Donovan "picked up a copy of the Grapevine in the valley. He e-mailed me and said, 'Come be on my show.' I was the first person to talk about Baja wine on Baja talk radio." Dryden gave a spiel about the region, answered questions, and generally established himself as an authority.

He took his cred as a radio commentator and tour-guide author to the news world. "I approached the Baja Times." The biweekly newspaper, aimed primarily at Americans living in Baja, was delighted to hire him. His first column appeared on April 15, 2005: an introduction to the Guadalupe Valley, segueing into a brief history of winemaking in the region, starting with the Molokan immigrants from Russia in 1905. Profiles of wineries followed: Bodega Santo Tomás, L.A. Cetto, Monte Xanic...and also newer, smaller operations. "I'm going to start doing a whole series on artisan winemakers. First, it was the big boys -- Cetto and Domecq. Then came this revolution -- it kind of started with Monte Xanic, and then came Hugo D'Acosta."

D'Acosta, who currently makes wine for Adobe Guadalupe, Casa de Piedra, and Paralelo, has also gotten into the education business. "He started this little wine school in El Porvenir in an old, abandoned winery. He teaches 50 or 60 people a year how to make wine -- Americans and Mexicans." A few of his students have gone and started up their own boutique wine operations and are meeting with some success. "Most of the Baja wine is consumed in Mexico City, and I'm hearing that they're really into these artisan wines; they're selling like crazy."

And in at least one case, they're selling with a little help from Dryden's column. Earlier this year, he profiled Three Women winery, a wine collective run by Ivette Vaillard. "They're on such a limited budget that they chip in and buy one barrel, and then they keep records: 'Okay, Ava, you've got 90 days.' They pump the wine from an old barrel into the new French oak." One of the women, Ava Cotero, "makes a Cabernet that's become a cult wine; it's gone in 30 days. I did this article about them; then I didn't see them for about a month. When I did, Ava said, 'No more articles.'

"I thought, 'Now what?'

"'We sold everything,' said Ava. 'We had 400 people come from that Baja Times piece. We sold all of our inventory, all of our artwork.'"

By way of thanks, Cotero invited Dryden to dinner. "Word got around the valley. That was a really interesting experience." Again, Dryden's credibility rose, which helped on the tour-guide end of things. "The tours are where I make my money. But the newsletter gives me knowledge, because you've got to do the research. Nobody's covering the wine industry in depth. I think that will be my niche -- personal conversations" with the people who make the industry work.

Of course, when you start to succeed, you run the risk of imitators. "Some people from Mexico City went and did what I've been doing with The Guadalupe Grapevine, only they did it right," he says, meaning something not only informative, but also glossy and attractive. "It's a Sunset magazine--type guide. It's in Spanish, and next year, there will be one in English. It's going to affect us. But I still have a little niche. I turned the Grapevine into a self-guided tour book," featuring "the people who actually sell the newsletter, who work with me. I have a five-winery tour and lunch. It's made life easier for me, and it's selling like crazy, because I put 'Self-Guided Tour' at the top of the page."

And he's still got the local thing working for him. "I live there. There are two new wineries already that they don't have in their guide. I've integrated myself into the culture down there. I planted some grapes: about 100 Nebbiolo plants so far. I've grown grapes in the past, with Deer Park, and I wanted to be in sync with the other growers. If there's a fungus problem, I'll know about it."

Steve Dryden may be reached at [email protected]

or at 619-300-4976 (US) or 646-118-9801 (MX).

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