Drought, Wine, and Longform Journalism
Updates from the crazy world of drinks and travel writing, including my report on the wines of Baja and San Diego. Also, I'm now offering 1-on-1 calls for my readers. Book a meeting today!
This thing that I do—whether you call it feature journalism, narrative journalism, longform journalism, or whatever—is in either a state of crisis or a state of dynamic transition. It really all depends on the day, and who you talk to. This past week, I’ve experienced both.
One the one hand, here we are on Substack—“a new model for publishing” and one of the existing platforms where people like you can support longform journalism. Welcome, especially, to the hundreds of new readers who’ve signed up over the past week via my essay on The White Lotus as the new Sideways.
As you know, those of us publishing here on Substack are trying all sorts of crazy new ideas. One of these crazy ideas I’m launching today. I am now offering a limited number of one-on-one calls with me, just for Everyday Drinking readers. This is one more step into the “personalized journalism” we’ve been hearing so much about. I get inquiries all the time about travel advice, bottle recommendations, recipes, stories, and more. Now, here is an easy way for us to connect and chat face-to-face on Zoom. I can even set up larger meetings with your wine or book club.
Booking is super easy, and you can select a date and time that works best for you (link is in the navigation bar on the Everyday Drinking website). Right now, I am taking meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday evenings and limited time slots on Saturdays.
I am introducing this feature with a 60% discount on meetings for paid subscribers. Founding members get one meeting for free, and 75% off subsequent meetings. If you’re not already a paid subscriber, now is a perfect time to upgrade.
Water Into Wine
The second piece of good news this week is that there are still places where longform journalism matters. One of those is San Diego Magazine, which just published my feature on the wine regions of Valle de Guadalupe in Baja and San Diego County, and the challenges of making wine in drought conditions.
Yes, in answer to your question, there is wine in Mexico. Very good wine, in fact, particularly from Valle de Guadalupe, which stretches northeast from the coast of Baja, near Ensenada, about an hour and a half south of San Diego. If you’re from the East Coast, as I am, you likely don’t know much about the wines of Valle de Guadalupe, but it’s very much a gastronomic destination for visitors from southern California. The level of wineries, restaurants, and hotels is amazing. Later this week, I’ll be publishing an even deeper dive from my own travels in Baja a few weeks ago.
But there are challenges in such a dry wine region:
On the surface, everything in Valle de Guadalupe seemed great. I lounged in a small pool on the deck of a gorgeous villa at Bruma winery, sipping a glass of the winery’s sauvignon blanc in the intense late afternoon sun, gazing past the winery—built sustainably with reclaimed materials—out toward the arid, baked mountains in the distance. I’d spent the day sampling cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and chardonnay in modern design tasting rooms, along with crowds of other day-tripping Americans, before dining al fresco with local, organic ingredients, overlooking a vineyard.
Things are popping in Baja’s emerging wine scene. Earlier this century, there were only a dozen or so wineries. Now, there are almost 200. By all indications, Valle de Guadalupe is ready to take its place among the world-class gastronomic destinations.
But, under the surface, there’s something larger lurking.
“The big problem today is lack of water,” says Camillo Magoni, the 82-year-old winemaker of Casa Magoni, who’s worked 58 harvests in Baja. “We don’t have enough rain, and the water table is going down.” As moisture in Valle de Guadalupe dries up, there’ talk of winegrowers abandoning vineyards. New hotel and winery construction is pitting neighbor against neighbor, as some developers drill deeper wells, forcing others to pay higher prices for water from those who have it.
As more water is extracted from the valley’s ancient ocean-bed soil, the quality of the water that remains becomes saltier and poorer in quality. Often, you can taste an odd saline, briny note in Baja’s wines, particularly curious in the reds. Some say it’s “terroir.” Others blame it on the water.
“We need to solve this problem as soon as possible,” Magoni says, “Or the valley is gone.”
A big issues in both Baja and San Diego County is deciding which grapes work best in these drought conditions, growing hotter and drier every year. As with many up-and-coming regions in the world, winemakers for years tried to grow the popular grapes everyone knows: cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, etc. But the climate is forcing them to change, as I touch on in my San Diego Magazine piece:
“Climate is forcing us to choose,” says Magoni, who experiments with growing 120 varieties. “If you ask me, ‘Which one is the future?’ I don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “We need to find a grape that’s an icon, like malbec in Argentina.”
But how do you convince wine tourists to switch to unfamiliar grapes like mourvèdre, falanghina, fiano, vermentino, and aglianico? “Maybe we need to start blending to introduce the grapes,” Magoni says. “Some chardonnay with 20 percent vermentino, so people start hearing the name vermentino. It could take another ten years, but we need to start.
The top winemakers in the region see these changes as more positive than negative. “I hate what climate change is doing, but I love that it’s pushing the boundaries of what people do,” says Alysha Stehly of Vesper Vineyards. “You can’t just grow pinot noir anymore.”
The signature grape of Valle de Guadalupe has, perhaps surprisingly, become nebbiolo. Though many put this “nebbiolo” in quotes since there’s no genetic link to the famous nebbiolo of Italy’s Piedmont region. We will delve deeper into the mystery of “Nebbiolo de Baja” on Tuesday. In the meantime, check out my six bottle picks below from Baja and San Diego.
The End of an Era
Finally, the bad news—at least as it pertains to longform journalism. Late last week, the Washington Post announced it was killing off its Sunday magazine, including laying off all ten editorial staffers. This was extremely personal for me, since most of my best professional work over the past two decades had been published in the pages of that magazine.
The Washington Post Magazine was the place where I published stories about the Spanish siesta, swimming around Iceland, smoking cigars in Ybor City, drinking beer in Vermont, being a flâneur in Vienna, eating New Nordic food in Copenhagen, and my 10,000-word epic about America’s future as viewed by a tourist in the world of Trump. They published my meditation on being a travel writer grounded by the pandemic, as well as my participatory journalism on Hallmark greeting card writers, Playmobil in the workplace, and the “sommeliers of everything.” My last piece for them, about the sober curious movement, I posted about here:
They even published perhaps my favorite piece of wine writing, ever. That one, on German wines, aging, and eternal life, I republished here this past summer.
Last week, on Twitter, I paid tribute to David Rowell, who had been my editor at the Washington Post Magazine for over 20 years. He is the finest editor I’ve ever worked with, one of the few I’ve ever totally trusted, and his fingerprints are all over my very best pieces. Hopefully David will land on his feet at another magazine soon.
It’s the continued loss of editors like David and the elimination of fine publications like the Post’s Sunday Magazine that has driven so many writers like me to publish our own newsletters. Just like the wine grapes of Baja and San Diego County, longform journalism now faces its own drought conditions. Your support is like water and it is appreciated so much.
Six Bottle Picks from Baja and San Diego
Fresh, fruity blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, and nebbiolo with gushing acidity, notes of red berries, herbs, and an elegant finish.
Madera 5 Cava Aragon 126 Rojo, Valle De Guadalupe, $35
Juicy blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, and a bit of mourvèdre that’s bright and earthy with notes of purple flowers, cherry, and tobacco.
Casa Magoni “Manaz” Vino Blanco, Valle De Guadalupe, $17
Unique blend of viognier and fiano that’s ripe and full of tropical fruit and citrus but balanced by an underlying minerality and firm, crisp finish.
Surprising Baja chenin blanc that tastes, like France’s Loire Valley, a balance of bright and creamy with notes of honey, beeswax, and golden apple.
J. Brix “Island of Souls” 2021, San Diego County, $28
Skin-contact blend of grenache blanc, Picpoul, and vermentino is super drinkable, bursting with tropical and stone fruits, dry and balanced with great structure.
Vesper Vineyards McCormick Ranch Carignan 2015, San Diego County, $28
From 40-year-old vineyards, deep and intense, with dark fruit, elegant tannins, and a long finish.