Photos by Bill Veale Graphics
Outside the bustling Guadalupe Valley wine country with sprawling vineyards and gourmet dining is the hidden Rancho El Tule. Just getting there is an adventure and the dirt road entrance has only a tiny unpretentious sign announcing you have arrived. I traveled with my friend and photographer Bill Veale who had told me of the 100 year old working rancho and vineyard, saying it was a must that I check it out. I always love a good story that jumps in my lap.
The first impressions as we drove in on the dirt road were the two graceful pepper trees rooted in history with limbs bigger than most tree trunks. The sun turned the feathery leaves into shimmering tinsel and beneath its canopy stood a radiant young bride posing for pictures. Her gown was a vision of infinite layers of white frothy organza nipped in at her tiny waist. This vision was juxtaposed against the backdrop of rusted relics, a weathered ranch house and the vast green-scape of vines just setting on with tiny clusters of grapes. It is always interesting to enter into a story consciously. I had plans to interview the elder, Don Heriberto Aguilar. Even now I am amused as I actually thought to “make plans,” as if I didn’t know by now that the story tells itself, if you pay attention.
I wandered around a bit while Bill went off in search of photo ops, then he waved me over to the open cavern-like kitchen. Fragrant smoke from the fire permeated the air and a heavy grill held a great cauldron with flames leaping up its side. A cowboy, named Paco, was working at a long counter laden with fresh meat and it was obvious that he had many years of experience as his movements were smooth and focused. This kind of outdoor cooking is typical of the old rancho way of life. Big bowls of fresh pork were waiting to be cooked for the homemade chicharrones and carna asada sizzled on the griddle.
Bill introduced me to Don Heriberto. Heriberto kindly suggested it was easier to call him “Eddy-berto,” He opened a bottle of unlabeled red wine and offered a cup to taste. It was deep in ruby color, rich in flavor with a very pleasant fresh finish. I have come to know, from the very few who are growing and producing organic wines, that the freshness is a signature and delight of organic wine production. I began to ask a few of the typical “interview” questions. Heriberto responded with short soft sentences and did not offer anything more than was asked. Yes, the rancho was 100 years old. The oldest of grapevines were brought from Spain and are not tended in the more modern ways of production. They need little or no water. Now, completely established, they are not staked, but grow more bush-like from thick twisted trunks. Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Merlot are grown here. And yes, he said, he has three sons that are working the rancho with him.
As I was taking a sip of wine and savoring the history of it, Heriberto slipped from his chair and picked up his guitar. The interview was over. I laughed inwardly. The story had something else to say. This man, as authentic a person as one could meet, had little reason to be talkative. Bill was enthralled with the photo opportunity and I watched life on the rancho unfold. Heriberto knew the old rancho songs, as well as doing some fancy picking. He missed a few notes, sang with a rough outdoorsy voice and we loved it. Thursdays and Sundays are days for the fiestas with music and the famous dancing horses from other Ranchos.
Without a word, he set down his guitar and moved into the kitchen with Paco. We decided it was time to try a taco or two. Paco took our order and Heriberto poured me another liberal cup of vino. We watched in fascination as the fire was tended with oak. The heat of the stove would be great on winter days, but was just a bit warm today. A cowboy or two sauntered in and out, the wedding party was leaving and Bill was a hit as he promised photos next time he was out. We both experienced not only the warmth of the fire, but also the warmth and openness of the people. Perched on wooden benches we were served the tacos at the rough plank kitchen counter. They were hot and running with juice. The secret ingredient was fresh oranges squeezed over the meat while it simmered. The salsa was just spicy enough to go to my head. Paco shared slabs of homemade cheese from the ranches of Ojos Negros. While we ate we learned about life on the rancho by participating in it. Heriberto would come and go and I realized that I had gotten a more authentic interview without words. I am certain Heriberto knew this himself. Don’t talk, but share the moment.
Something happens when you are in this moment in a setting like this. Sharing time with people close to the land, people who are content and happy in what they do. Men like Heriberto can remind us of what we might be missing in our attempts to produce more, make changes in order to acquire more of something we can’t quite name. It is very obvious that Heriberto lives the way that he does because it suits him. He works hard, but has the luxury of time filled with friends, music and good wine. Some would say these are the true riches of life.
Follow the signs through Ensenada towards San Felipe and proceed onto highway 3. Rancho El Tule is approximately seven miles from downtown Ensenada. Watch for sign, Cava El Tule on the right. Across the street is the entrance with a small sign.