Leaving the glistening Pacific behind and heading east on highway 3, the new road into the Guadalupe Valley has made the drive easy. Gently curving up into the foothills, dropping down into the valley on the other side, you are at the entrance to Santo Tomás. Turning left onto a ribbon of dirt road takes you deeper into the hills. It is winter now and the vineyard lays resting, only a red leaf or two cling to the slender branches. The twisted trunks seem almost torso-like with stubby arms reaching out to one another as far as you can see. In 2012 the Santo Tomas tasting room was built to accommodate the traveler who does not have time to drive further south of Ensenada to the main vineyard and winemaking facility in the valley of Santo Tomás.
Take a moment before you step inside the tasting room and prepare to take in the first impressions. The main wall above the long bar constructed of an old wine press is filled with bottles floor to ceiling. It holds the history of Santo Tomas’ years of wine making. Not just the wine is held, but all the rich stories of the past are saved in each bottle. There are an astounding 57 different wines from 11 different families. These include the youngest of wines to the luscious reserves. It is evident why they have used the words Art and Magic to describe the experience of this opportunity to fall in love with the Santo Tomas wines. Inside, artfully displayed on the right are artifacts and exemplar items of the Kumiai, Paipai, and Oaxacan artisans. A stunning red canvas by Juan Pablo Nuñez, nearly covers one wall. A crescent moon is suspended in the unusual pigment created by use of red ant dye. An ancient language in black vertical lines moves through the work, translates to “Love defeats everything.” Looking up, Juan Pablo also created the fanciful hanging art made with wooden tops hand painted in the famous Oaxacan style of Alebrijes. All this is at the center of an exquisite view of the surrounding vineyards and hills shimmering in the afternoon sun.
Raúl Vega steps up to be the guide through the experience of wine tasting. He himself is studying to be a Sommelier, but prefers Wine Host as a less pretentious title. His course work will take him through many levels and he is a perfect representative for each unique wine. Those that work behind the bar speak many different languages including English, French, Portuguese and German. Santo Tomás offers a number of packages for tasting. Make reservations and Raúl can put together a personal journey through wines that might not be on the tasting list. Without doubt, Raúl can answer any question and create artful and passionate dialogue about what he loves. Raúl pours the first offering, a 100% 2016 Chardonnay and the grape is grown here in the valley and has 6 months in neutral oak. Raúl gives a little insight into the three levels that influence the final product; acid, body, alcohol. This young Chardonnay is nicely balanced, crisp and refreshing.
A lovely 2014 100% Syrah is poured, having 12 months in the barrel. Raúl takes us through the steps of understanding this wine. It presents with a nice invitation and fruit forward. “The fruit is born in the soil of the vineyard which contains wonderful and flavorful layers. The oak then shapes its finish.” He went on to say that their winemaker cautions, “Be careful of the oak, because it can cover all of the aromas of the wonderful fruit that are created in the vineyard. This Syrah has a 14% alcohol content and finishes gently. Upon request, Raúl suggests that one way of understanding a grape is to taste “laterally” so that you can experience the Syrah grape through its aging process. The experience is quite remarkable and the untrained palette might not believe it was the same grape as bouquet, flavor and color deepen and become very rich over time.
Santo Tomas claims some of the oldest vines in the region and they are still producing after eighty years. Old vines drive their roots deep into the earth, requiring less water and are known to produce a very high quality and intensely flavorful grape. While the younger vines with 20 to 30 years of maturity will produce 2.5 bottle per just one vine. Because of the old age of these vines there are fewer clusters of grapes per vine. To produce only one bottle of an excellent reserve requires all the fruit clusters from two vines.
There are some surprises along the way. Raúl brings out the fortified dessert wines of the Solera line. The Blanco is a sherry style and a blend of 4 vintages. Served at the end of a meal with a tiny square of white/walnut chocolate is a perfect touch of sweetness after dinner. The Solera Tinto is a 6 blend with a rich flavor of prune and sweet date that calls for a square of dark chocolate to balance the sugar after a fine meal of rich red meats. It isn’t easy to leave the hilltop as the sun begins to dip in the west washing everything with golden light. All good experiences come to an end, but as luck would have it, this one can be revisited anytime you visit the Guadalupe Valley.