The Year in Review
Exactly one year ago this month, March 2013, just two months before my award winning second novel, Thick Fog in Pacheco Pass, was released, I sat down with Natalia Badan of the Mogor Badan Estate and negotiated the final agreement that has allowed my decades-long dream of building a small boutique winery to become a reality.
The Badan Estate, roughly 2000 acres mountains and valleys of pristine ranch land, with cattle and horses and sheep and chickens and coyotes and bobcats, and quail, and golden eagles and ferruginous hawks and rattlesnakes and acres of premium wine vineyards and organic farming, is one of the oldest and most respected ranchos in Northern Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe. The Badan family history reaches back more than a century here in our beautiful Valle.
Resting roughly 300 feet above the Valle floor on the side of the hills overlooking the long Valle on the Badan Estate was an abandoned adobe building of dubious condition but possessed of all the charm and romance of the tumbledown villa from the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun … at least it did for me. The problem with allowing one’s self to get caught up in the romance of movie themes and settings is that in real life, projects like this don’t get fixed up in ninety minutes and rarely does the beautiful girl ever show up. But who knows, right?
I get caught up in these things because by nature I am myself a romantic. I fell in love with the old building and the beautiful hillside on which it sits the moment I laid eyes on it. After several months of discussion, with critical support from my good friend Amado Garza, Mrs. Badan and I reached an agreement for the entire hillside on which the old building sits. In that moment, the possibility of Bodegas Cieli became a reality and thus began one of the most challenging years of my life.
By agreement, Mrs. Badan did not want construction traffic from my project or future customer traffic to use the primary entrance of her Estate. As a solution, about a kilometer north of the Mogor gate, an easement on the north side of a small hillock, out of sight of the Badan home and winery, was provided for me to build my own private road. I may not have mentioned that there is no electricity to the property. The closest source for that electricity is nearly a half-mile away.
Carving a semblance of a one-kilometer road through rough shoulder-high scrub along the base of a mountainside and setting power poles over rough mountainous terrain over a half-mile, where the only access in many cases was on foot became the very first task. For the first few months I often heard the question asked, “Are you actually doing anything up there? We don’t see anything that looks like work.” I still get that comment from time to time from people who don’t understand how the groundwork for a project the size and scope of Bodegas Cieli must be laid out.
The work I do here is slow and sometimes tedious. I have turned down numerous offers of investment capital to allow me to hire large crews and equipment aimed at getting Cieli up and running now. I have turned that down in favor of doing a good deal of the work myself along side of the two young Mexican men I have hired. I’m working on a very tight budget with limited capital, but I’ll find a way. Cieli will have only one owner even if it takes a couple of years to have her ready. I cut the entirety of our access road across the mountainside with a chain saw, 48″ commercial hedge trimmer, an axe and my GMC pick up as a bulldozer. My guys worked on building our entrance gate using straw bales while I worked gouging out a road. The road still isn’t properly graded but the gate is finished and quite beautiful. In a week, road signs will go up telling you we are here and our name in huge stainless steel letters will finally be installed in our entrance.
Our hardships have come the same as they do for other projects. The frontend loader I imported to do so much of our heavy work, ‘Ole Bessie’, failed after only a short work period. I suppose that was predictable. There was nothing to do but rebuild the engine. The tractor is now back to work and carries the workload of 4 additional men. It will take a while to catch up to the cash outlay for the repairs, but in the end, it was an investment that will pay dividends.
Work at Cieli suffered a good deal during harvest and crush last year. I opted to work with winery owners and winemakers to gain sorely needed experience. I spent weeks in vineyards hauling lugs of grapes out of the rows to trailers, I bent my back and put my hands in every aspect of the process anyone would allow me to touch. I did gain a good deal of knowledge. But more important than that, I gained the respect and friendship of people who I have come to care about and who care about me and what I am trying to achieve here at Cieli.
Viewed in the bigger picture, the work time lost at Cieli during ‘cosecha’ last year was insignificant. Since then, installation of the power poles has been completed, the septic system from the old building has been excavated and recovered, the entire front of the old building has been excavated for two small bodegas. The larger bodega will become our bottle storage facility. Ultimately we may even do our labeling and pallet storage of finished cases here. The smaller bodega to the south will do current duty as our brewery facility but will ultimately be dedicated as a beer and cheese cave.
Through the balance of this year and crush, we will concentrate our efforts at finishing the work on our old adobe building. A new terraza is now out front with a seating capacity for approximately 100.
The main building will be used as tasting room for our craft beer products; a small deli dedicated to our famous cheeses of Baja and specialty meats from Italy and our winetasting room. There will be a large retail space with a small corner reserved for a library.
At the moment, I am hard at work preparing canes from recent cuttings, which I plan to nursery and transplant to my own vineyards as we go into next year’s dormant season.
I’ll do my best to do a better job of posting regularly to our new webpage, courtesy of my nephew, Chris. You’ll be able to track our progress and I won’t have to try to do a wrap-up of a whole year.
Check in again soon!