Years ago Jo Ann Knox Martino sat on a beautiful beach south of Mulege in Baja Sur. She was startled in a momentary realization that because of her trip to Baja California, her life had changed forever. She returned to the U.S. only to take care of details and leave behind her 23-year Hollywood film career; the last eight years as a Visual Effects Producer on Batman Forever, The Cell, Panic Room and many documentaries. Jo Ann headed south to Rosarito Beach. She set about creating her dream; opening an art gallery and café serving local Baja wines. It was a natural progression to fall under the spell of the grape. She also fell in love with the land where it was grown. Today she is known locally as an up-and-coming winemaker in her own right. It wasn't necessarily easy, but each challenge was faced with the desire to recreate herself living in Baja California. She moved on to her new dream and began by enrolling in La Escuelita for winemaking in the Guadalupe Valley just north east of Ensenada. But all who know her will say that while the school is good guidance for the student, it is Jo Ann's love of producing wine that is really the secret.
It's still a man's world in Baja's wine country, but Jo Ann was no novice when stepping into the wine making arena with the guys. Her Hollywood experience trained her well. She has learned that the grape will actually tell her when it is ready, along with a little science thrown in. "People are surprised that I actually make my own wine. But it is true, my hands are in it." Her purple fingers tell the truth.
Jo Ann unveiled her first wine in the 2010 blind wine tasting festival at La Casa Vieja in the Guadalupe Valley, winning first place for her Solo Tango; a rich blend of Zinfandel with just a hint of Nebbiolo. It isn't an easy act to follow when you win your first competition, but she did win again in 2011, this time she took a second place out of 16 entries for her Two to Tango. It is a wine with heart. Interestingly, first, second and third places went to the women in 2011. In 2012 Solo Tango took first place once again, propelling her into the spotlight as an American woman winemaker in Baja California.
In September 2011, I found myself with Jo Ann bouncing along on dirt roads through the vineyards, leaving a cloud of dust behind. Jo Ann was in search of grapes to buy, she exclaimed, "I want to do it all!" Her dream then was to have her own cava on the hillside property which she manages. There was no doubt then that this would be realized, based clearly on her past successes. Recently, I ventured out with Jo Ann again on the same dirt roads
Jo Ann in fact is doing it all, in a very big way. The nearly completed cava, VinTango, is her pride and joy. Dug deep into the hillside of sandstone and volcanic rock, the natural building materials were being used to construct the outer walls and finishing off the interior. What was very remarkable was that the earth itself was used to mix with sand and trowelled on the ceiling to create a warm shade of brown.
I listened in awe at the grand scale of her vision. Jo Ann talked with excitement after all these years. She plans an upper level fermentation room which will allow for gravity feed of fermented juice into the waiting barrels on the first floor. Jo Ann states, "It is a much gentler process on the wine rather than using the electric pump."
Thirty-four barrels Zinfandel and Nebbiolo are aging at this time. She is trying her hand at making the coveted Chardonnay. Jo Ann describes her experimenting as a one-step process from crushing to aging. Most wineries two-step the process with the fermentation first in tanks then siphoned into the barrels. Jo Ann’s Chardonnay ferments in the barrel and is left to age. In this way the wine is never disturbed. She admits, "I love the rich buttery quality of doing it the old fashioned way." At sunset there is nothing like a chilled glass of fine Chardonnay shared with friends.
I asked why she did not plant the Zinfandel grape, since it was her award winning Solo Tango at the blind tasting events. She thought for a moment and grinned as she replied. “I want the more mature Zinfandel that has a depth and quality that the young vines don’t produce. Besides, I don’t want to wait!” I was curious. "What do you think sets your wine apart from others being produced?” She was quiet for some time. Finally she answered, "I really don’t know. Some people say it is 80% the grape and the rest is the production. I would say it is the love and care. But it really is a mystery to me that so many people like my wine."
Jo Ann has found a home and lifestyle in Baja California that would make for a good Hollywood movie and still producing very special effects... turning grapes into wine.
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