pixel

Baja Fever
By Greg Niemann

The First California Winemaker

By Greg Niemann

Mission Santa Gertrudis

Much has been written lately about the fine wine and vineyards of Valle de Guadalupe near Ensenada. But it was a Baja California mission outpost far to the south that is credited as the birthplace of Baja California’s wine industry.

In fact, all California wine, even that of the world-renown Napa Valley, can trace its roots to Mexico’s missional system. That unlikely birthplace of the California wine industry is the remote Baja California Mission of Santa Gertrudis la Magna where wine experimentation began to produce quality wine in 1752.

Santa Gertrudis is unique for several other reasons as well; it was the first mission established in the present state of Baja California (Norte); for 10 years it served as headquarters and outpost for exploration to the north; and the graceful stone church in a peaceful setting makes it one of the most attractive Baja missions today.

Located 23 miles east into the desert from El Arco, Santa Gertrudis is just north of the 28th parallel which separates Mexico’s two peninsular states.

Mission Santa Gertrudis was named in honor of Dona Gertrudis de la Pena, wife of the Marquis de Villapuente. They donated funds stipulating that they must be used to establish a mission dedicated to Saint Gertrudis in the land of the Cochimis.

The site for the mission was discovered in 1751 by Jesuit Padre Fernando Consag. He established preliminary work on what was originally called Dolores del Norte, before the name was changed to honor St. Gertrudis. He placed the construction of simple buildings under the guidance of a blind Cochimi Indian, Andres Comanaji Sistiaga (or Sestiaga), who was amazing in his accomplishments in spite of his handicap.

The walls of mud and small stones supported a roof constructed of timbers across which were laid reeds or rules. As it rarely rained and the Indians preferred to sleep outside, these rough buildings sufficed in the beginning.

Mission Santa Gertrudis

Dedicated in 1752

The mission was not formally opened until 1752. Padre Consag died and Padre Jorge Retz, a robust German Jesuit priest, was sent there after spending a year in San Ignacio to learn the Cochimi language.

According to custom the other missions contributed whatever could be spared of provision, cattle, horses, mules, sheep and goats for the new mission. Padre Retz, also ably assisted by the blind Indian, built a substantial building of stone and lime mortar.

Padre Retz soon found himself in charge of 1,400 Indians who had agreed to be baptized in this strange European religion. Some estimates indicate there were as many as 3,000 Indians living in the mission area during its heyday. Retz discovered a reliable spring and cut a canal from solid rock 1½ miles to a small field that could be farmed after hauling in topsoil.

This small aqueduct is still in evidence today; in fact just before arriving at the mission, the road crosses the narrow canal which is covered by large, loosely lain pieces of stone. I noted the water appeared fresh and ran freely from its ancient waterway.

California’s First Wine Industry

Padre Retz and his charges grew and harvested wheat and corn. They planted date palms, olive trees, fig trees, peaches and pomegranates, along with the significant grapevines.

According to Arthur Walbridge North in his 1908 book The Mother of California, “Padre Retz, an industrious German Jesuit, planted grapevines in this garden, after having enriched its soil with fine loam brought from distant arroyos. Later, he made from the grapes of Santa Gertrudis such excellent wine that he ranks as the first California winemaker.”

Earlier peninsula Jesuits had been making sacramental wine at a few other missions, some of it quite good and used for trading. The first recorded planting of a vineyard in the Californias was by the Spanish Jesuit Padre Eusebio Kino at the short-lived San Bruno mission near Loreto in 1683.

Loreto became the peninsula’s first sustained mission in 1697, but it was Jesuit Padre Juan de Ugarte, who in 1701, while making California’s second mission of San Javier (1699) a model outpost, cultivated California’s first grapevines and press.

Among his many accomplishments he established schools, brought sheep and goats from the Mexican mainland, cleared land for orchards, and imported olives, pomegranates, figs, and citrus. He learned that the most valuable crops were figs and grapes because they yielded dried fruit and wine which could be pressed and handily stored or transported for trade.

Early Baja wines were made from the mission grape, a common red vinifera variety from Europe, presumably from Spain, with a somewhat fruity taste. That variety dominated California wine production until about 1880.

Mission Santa Gertrudis

Cuttings were then transferred from established missions to the newer ones. San Ignacio mission (1728) for example, with its secure water supply, became the most prolific supplier of mission wine for many years.

Then in 1791 wine production increased when Mission Santo Tomas was established in a fertile valley 26 miles south of Ensenada. That region afforded the perfect vineyard climate, and by year 1800 there were 5,000 vines there, eventually giving birth to Mexico’s oldest commercial winery, the Bodegas de Santo Tomas (1888).

Today over 90 percent of Mexico’s wine is produced in the Ensenada region which includes the Valle de Guadalupe. The over 30 wineries that have developed since the 1970s have found that numerous other varieties do well too, including some fine merlots and syrahs. However, some of those original mission grapes are still in existence, even producing wine today in the Valle de Guadalupe.

The Little Old Winemaker

While Padre Ugarte was the first to plant a grapevine and press for wine, it was still Retz who is still referred to as the first California winemaker because he produced such an excellent wine at Santa Gertrudis.

TCasks being unknown there, Padre Retz designed containers hewn from blocks of stone. He filled them with the juice of the grapes, then covered them with boards and sealed them with a gum from the pitahaya plant. This ingenuity and care resulted in California’s finest wine at the time.

Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra, who established nine California missions, planted the first sustained vineyard in the U.S. state of California at Mission San Diego in 1779. For that he has sometimes has been called the “Father of California Wine.”

Several padres from the missional system were instrumental in developing the California wine industry (Kino, Ugarte, Retz, Serra, and others). But the advancements made by Padre Retz at Santa Gertrudis were extraordinary.

Center for Exploration

Mission Santa Gertrudis

Perched on a ledge in a small arroyo, Santa Gertrudis became the center of the frontier region and base for further exploration until San Borja was founded 10 years later.

Life at Santa Gertrudis apparently agreed with Padre Retz because it is said that he was a rather corpulent man. He was also somewhat infirm and, at best, had difficulty traveling. When the Jesuits were expelled from Baja California in 1768, Retz had a severely injured foot. So he had teams of his mission Indians hand-carry him 200 miles to the ship at Loreto.

That year the Dominicans arrived, completing the present stone church in 1796. They also built a campanile or belfry separate from the church.

Irrigation System Still in Use

Date palms are in evidence near the mission, and you can see portions of the 250+ year aqueduct. Cattle and horses bask around the small pond near its terminus.

While the earlier adobe buildings have been reduced to crumbling walls, the mission chapel and belfry are in splendid condition. Thick stone walls render a cool interior which still has one room used as a chapel, and another set aside as a crude museum, complete with an original tabernacle in a glass case, an old crucifix, and simple models of the church made by local children. There is a small container for donations.

The Santa Gertrudis Indian population suffered greatly from diseases. By 1785 there were only 300 Indians. By 1822, the mission was finally abandoned due to a dwindling Indian population of fewer than 100. The mission was extensively remodeled in 1997.

Today the quiet arroyo is home to a few hardy families who still use a portion of the over two-century-old irrigation system. They tend the dwindling old historic grapevines, olive trees, and date palms along with their own crops.

The birthplace of California’s world-class wine industry is a picturesque gem: a palm oasis surrounded by desert chaparral, cacti, and the indigenous cirio (boojum) tree. Colorful mountain cliffs stand guard over one of the better preserved and more attractive of Baja California’s missions. It was so idyllic, even the little old winemaker Padre Jorge Retz had to be carried out of there.

How to get there:
Highway 1 to Guerrero Negro (444 miles south of Tijuana); 17 miles south on Highway 1 to El Arco cutoff; 25 miles to El Arco; marked sign to Santa Gertrudis 23 miles away; road is good for first 17 miles, then has high crown and is rocky.


About Greg

Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.

4.7 112 Reviews
  • user logo
    Charles Gee
    From logo

    Incredibly fast and painless. Paid about $180 for a month of coverage. It was easier than going on line.

  • user logo
    Chyla Nava
    From logo

    Great, easy to use service. I haven't had to file a claim (and hope I never have to) but the online portal is very easy to use, and it's...

  • user logo
    Kierian Kuklok
    From logo

    I have been a customer for years and when I really needed them they stepped up in every way. I had a freak accident to my car and they...

  • user logo
    Lourdes Montoya
    From logo

    Easy, fast, and affordable.

  • user logo
    Aj Cornejo
    From logo

    Reasonable prices and we thought best chance to actually get results if we needed them.

  • user logo
    Adrianna Dorsey
    From logo

    Great company, great prices, and even better customer service. We've lived in Baja for 7 years and have used them for the past 6years....

  • user logo
    Gary Counts
    From logo

    So convenient and easy to navigate thru the online process. I'll never use any other Mexican insurance service!

  • user logo
    Joey Digiovanni
    From logo

    Easy to work with 😉. Always courteous and helpful. Have used them for all trips to Mexico. Easy website to navigate

  • user logo
    Jolene Bibian
    From logo

    Shauna at Baja Bound was AWESOME!! We had specific questions about how to quote the policy based on our vehicle type and she was super...

  • user logo
    Rebecca Newell
    From logo

    Great service!

  • user logo
    Maria Elena Smith
    From logo

    Easy and affordable.

  • user logo
    Mehdi Fahid
    From logo

    I reapplied for my Baja Bound Mexican car Insurance yesterday and I spoke to Ms. Shauna. This lady processed my application quickly and...

  • user logo
    Benjamin Driebe
    From logo

    Absolutely fantastic, I already forgot her name because I have a terrible memory but the woman that helped me on the phone was wonderful,...

  • user logo
    richard carr
    From logo

    fast replies and great price!

  • user logo
    Juan Zuniga
    From logo

    I just would like to know if you guys are going to update the fastpass direction any soon, during the month of January the lane changed to...

  • user logo
    Richard Schweiger
    From logo

    Very professional, very helpful, great policy, I couldn't be happier with Baja Mexican Insurance, the friendly smiles and ease of it all in...

  • user logo
    Ryan Frisby
    From logo

    We use them every time we travel to Mexico. Luckily we have not needed their services yet but getting insurance through them is quick and...

  • user logo
    Jan Muhammad
    From logo

    I need a tourist visa for maxico I'm from pakistan help me sir

  • user logo
    Tracy Moore
    From logo

    Very easy, quick, and professional

  • user logo
    robert kepper
    From logo

    They are very good . There website doesn't show you need a title to bring a vehicle across the border.I was stopped and told I had to...

  • user logo
    Edilver Martinez
    From logo

    Our go to Baja car insurance, everytime we take a visit down south . Usually it's for a day trip either for a quick getaway with the family...

  • user logo
    Daniel “Dan M” Markofsky
    From logo

    Third time working with Baja Bound and they made it easy! Thanks!

  • user logo
    Steve Bender
    From logo

    Have never needed to use the insurance fortunately but the website always works great. Can buy a policy in about a minute.

  • user logo
    Jose Paez
    From logo

    Had a great experience getting insurance at Baja Bound, before I always stoped at the border to purchase my insurance, not anymore. By the...

  • user logo
    JUSTINE SERRANO
    From logo

    I purchased insurance through them & CHUBB for our trip to San Felipe. Unfortunately, we had to cancel due to our vehicle having an oil...

  • user logo
    Christian Minor
    From logo

    Team were on point, provided inside information, prices were great and they had my proposal already in the system when I called back....

  • user logo
    George
    From logo

    Excellent customer service

  • user logo
    Kellye Pummill
    From logo

    Fast and easy!

  • user logo
    Jennifer Toups
    From logo

    Baja Bound is and has been my go to Mexico insurance company. The website is extremely easy to use, keeps all your info for a quick...

  • user logo
    Cesar Lopez
    From logo

    Very convenient, great price !!

  • user logo
    Louis Schneidman
    From logo

    I had an awesome experience with Baja Bound. Family owned and highly personal, top notch customer service. I have total peace of mind...

  • user logo
    Phil Noble
    From logo

    If you’re looking for Mexican Insurance that you can trust and feel good about while traveling in Mexico, you’ve found the right place....

  • user logo
    Jeff Bunker
    From logo

    Great coverage options . Price buy and print policy , very quick and easy , highly recommend them when driving in Mexico

  • user logo
    Burrell DeVine
    From logo

    Easy to navigate and very competitively priced! I had to call in and add an additional day, they couldn't have been any more pleasant to...

  • user logo
    Nereyda Torres
    From logo

    Me gusta la asuguranza porque la puedes comprar por un dia y te asegura en Mexico por el tiempo que vas ya sea hasta por mes (Translated...

  • user logo
    james whitmer
    From logo

    Best insurance I've had so far

  • user logo
    Rail1riders
    From logo

    Quick, easy, well designed website and not just for Baja. Good rates for temporal residente gringos. We’re not living in Jalisco. Printed...

  • user logo
    Matt B
    From logo

    I always use Baja Bound to source my insurance while traveling to Mexico. Fortunately, I have not had to file any claims. I do appreciate...

  • user logo
    Refugio I. Rochin
    From logo

    Excellent online and by direct phone. Spanish and English with proven response to questions. Website is very informative about driving in...

  • user logo
    Kelly Carney
    From logo

    Yara is very helpful and explains everything. Love working with companies like this.

  • user logo
    Slumdog Gump
    From logo

    Changed some money. Good rate and friendly people.

  • user logo
    Jeff G
    From logo

    Went down to TJ June 11 2020 No problems going into TJ but the way back was a ordeal 6 hours in line to get back into the USA but no...

  • user logo
    don letson
    From logo

    Great renewal process, if only south Dakota would do the same for car registration.

  • user logo
    len buckholtz
    From logo

    SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD. OLD GUYS LIKE THAT. WILL DEFINITELY USE IN 6 MONTHS IF STILL RUNNING AROUND THE WILDS OF BAJA.

  • user logo
    Susana Judd
    From logo

    Easy, quick and fair prices. Easy to deal with if needed.

  • user logo
    Seismic Waterfinder
    From logo

    Very excellent service, needed insurance for Mexico, price was fair. The custumer service rep was Yara

  • user logo
    Nicolas Dervé
    From logo

    Very good ans very fast. We hope all will ben good if we need it.

  • user logo
    Blake Glassco
    From logo

    I will never drive south of the border without Baja Bound in my center console. I was in an accident a couple hours south of Ensenada and...

  • user logo
    JohnPaul Gemelli
    From logo

    Baja Bound could not have made it an easier ... also, I made a mistake and called them having to leave a message ... but, they called back...

  • user logo
    Jeff Brandt
    From logo

    so far so good, however I have read good things about them

  • user logo
    Sengoz N
    From logo

    SERIOUS.

  • user logo
    Kenneth Trass
    From logo

    Getting a policy was simple, Provided more than provider for price comparison.

  • user logo
    Esther Valencia
    From logo

    Super easy to purchase just the coverage you need when crossing the border in your own car. I especially appreciate the fact that I was...

  • user logo
    Larry Cottingham
    From logo

    Great service, very helpful people there.

  • user logo
    Luis Cortes
    From logo

    Easiest way to purchase insurance when traveling to Mexico. I have used their service for the last 7 years and it only gets easier and...

  • user logo
    j dougher ty
    From logo

    EZ Peasy insurance purchase. Great service every time I've used them. Had to cancel one time when my travel plans went away - no problem....

  • user logo
    Paul Niehouse
    From logo

    Extremely easy to acquire a policy. Many options available. Reasonable rates.

  • user logo
    Colin
    From logo

    Super-easy and instant. Very happy with initial purchase.

  • user logo
    Howard M Elster
    From logo

    2nd year with Chubb. No problems

  • user logo
    Cyndee Congrove
    From logo

    Great customer service, quick, friendly staff helpfully answered all questions, very patient with my learning curve on a new product. Would...

  • user logo
    Art Eugenio
    From logo

    I've had Baja Bound insurance for more that ten years now with thousands of miles logged in Baja. Fortunately, I've only had one fender...

  • user logo
    Gabe Matthews
    From logo

    Where do i start..... you dont know you have good insurance until you have to actually use it. I have had Baja Bound INS for over 5 years...

  • user logo
    keith berkley
    From logo

    Been going to baja for 45 years. This is best insurance company i have come accross.

  • user logo
    Ryan Perkio
    From logo

    I have been using BajaBound Insurance for 15 years - multiple trips per year. Their website is easy, their coverage is great, and the...

  • user logo
    RaMon McBride
    From logo

    I have not had any claims thus far so rating is based on ease of purchase.

  • user logo
    Larry French
    From logo

    By far the best service for Mex insurance in Baja. They are personally there for you if you have problems south of the border.

  • user logo
    Tudor Thomas
    From logo

    Baja Bound makes buying insurance for going south of the border as easy as it gets. The website is the easiest I have used and the staff...