Soft guitar music floats through the olive trees. Sun splashes in patches of light and shadow as I walk up the dusty road to investigate where the music is coming from. It is hot in the summer months of the Guadalupe Valley and the shade is welcomed. Where I am walking is as rich in history as the soil of the vineyards where grapevines still grow from the time of the padres. The Misión grape hangs in heavy ripe bunches. I make it to the cava dug deeply into the side of the hill. The sound of the guitar is louder now. Unannounced, I step quietly through the door into the cool dark interior. There leaning back in his chair, feet propped up is Thom Toscano, guitarist and winemaker. He lets his fingers finish his improvisation; the music he plays for the wine.
La Casa Vieja is a fairly new winery, but its history is over 200 years old. Several of the “mother” vines are an attraction in themselves. Trunks the size of a small trees with branches bigger than a strong man’s bicep. The early padres, making their way north from Loreto, stopped to build their missions along this route into California Alta. From Spain they brought clippings of the Misión grape for their sacraments, as well as for their table. By most vintners’ standards this table grape is not utilized in wine making as it does not respond easily to the manipulation needed for wine production. This is also the grape that you will find sold on the roadside side in late summer. When the Toscano family decided to work the old Misión vines left behind, they were told by all the local wineries to tear them out. However, Thom had a vision to produce organic wine following in the padres’ footsteps. He says that he has been learning from the grapes themselves about how to produce the very best wine that the Misión has to offer.
Thom hasn’t yet said a word since I entered into his domain. He is a man of few words. Instead, he sets his guitar aside, goes to one of the barrels and takes out the cork stopper. He inserts a syringe, pulling out a taste for sampling. He has chosen the Misión still aging. When he finally speaks he asks me if it is as good as the 2011. Always a little nervous to answer his direct questions, I’ve been following his developing Misión since 2007. He seems to appreciate my loyalty. Allowing the time it takes to really follow the bouquet and taste on my tongue, I find it is coming along very nicely. Thom’s philosophy about his organic wines is that they are not to be held for years; indeed they are to be drunk and fully appreciated shortly after bottling. I find the Misión delightful with a very fresh bouquet; surprisingly rich in flavor with a long clean finish. Over the years I have become spoiled by the clarity of organic wines not damaged by the addition of sulfites. Now the conversation has warmed into the topic he is most impassioned about as he moves to the barrel of Tempranillo. Made famous in Spain, the Baja’s wine region supports this grape beautifully and Thom has created an organic that is vibrant, a bit spicy, with a great finish. I do not claim to be a wine connoisseur by any means, what I know about wine I have learned from Thom and a few other friends producing in the valley. Yet I am startled by what follows. With a bit of ceremony, Thom offers his barrel-aged Grenache. This organic Grenache is deep ruby with a fruit bouquet. It could be described as a bit intense.
La Casa Vieja, the old house, is a historic 1800’s adobe rancho where Thom’s father, Humberto, grew up. The elder Agustin Toscano and his wife, Dona Petra, moved to San Antonio de Las Minas in the 1959’s, purchasing the old homestead. It was a very rough dirt road from Ensenada and there was no Tecate highway. After the elders died, the ranch house fell into disrepair. Humberto with his wife Colleen and their children returned to the ranch in 2002. The restoration began. They made the adobe brick with their own hands and reconstructed the walls. It was a painstaking process staying true to the construction of the times. Thom began to learn about the Misión vines. Thom challenges himself every day to unlock the secret of the padres and says he is nearly there.
One of the most positive aspects of the old vines that were left behind is they have survived on their own and are extremely hearty. Consequently they are well rooted and are tolerant of all types of weather conditions, especially lack of water. They need no irrigation, unlike the new slips planted when expanding vineyards that need a great quantity of water to get started.
What sets La Casa Vieja wines apart from well over 100 wineries both large and small is Thom’s commitment to serving sulfite-free wines while producing a winning wine for most occasions. This requires time and attention that other vintners rarely have. Thom is an innovator, willing to risk and experiment in ways that other producers are not. And it is quite possibly the real secret is the gentle music from a simple guitar played deep in the heart of the cava.
Km 93.5 Tecate - Ensenada Highway
San Antonio de las Minas
Park under the olive trees