Mango Wine And One Large Vine

How two Los Cabos vineyards got their start
BY: AL KOLIC

It all began years ago for Rancho El Parrlito10, when Wendy Rudell and her partner Charlie Free purchased a 900-acre ranch 45 bumpy minutes northwest of the Los Cabos convention center. They named the ranch El Parralito, which means “little grapevine.” The name was an ironic one, inspired by a large grapevine that hung over an arbor in front of their house. The vine was 25 inches in diameter, so not little by any means.

This grapevine was most likely brought here 500 years ago by the Jesuits to be used to make sacrament wine. It probably came from southern Spain or Italy, which have climates similar to Baja. Remnants of the same vine can be found around the missions that dot the Baja from San Jose to Monterrey, California.

Wendy and Charlie were infatuated with the vine. It was very hearty and adapted well to the harsh sun and dry climate here. They couldn’t believe the abundance of fruit it produced, and decided to make a batch of wine from it. Neither knew what they were doing, nor did they have any sophisticated equipment or refrigeration, as the ranch at the time ran on minimal solar power. They needed help.

Bob Pudwell from Rancho LaVenta (more about him later) was called on, along with Robert Tournage owner of the Los Cabos Winery restaurant, and Mike from the Roadhouse (Lattitude 22). Together they successfully produced the first wine at Rancho El Parralito. After the first sip, and then another just to be sure, they decided it wasn’t the greatest wine. But it was previewed at the Sabor A Cabo (Taste of Cabo) food festival and received many compliments, to their surprise. 

After that trial run, Wendy and Charles experimented with growing the standard grape varieties, such as cabernet, sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel, grenache, cab franc and more. Then they decided to experiment with grafting, which is essentially crossbreeding grapes. They successfully grafted these other varieties to the original root stock of the mission grape and made wine from the crossbred grapes, but again were disappointed with the taste. Nothing was as good as their first attempt, which they didn’t even consider to be stellar.  

To their good fortune, Roy Stock of the Distillery and Harold Osborn of the La Fuente winery in Todos Santos came to their rescue. They contributed their state of the art wine making technology and experience, and introduced them to Jeff Newton, a professional vineyard consultant from California. As a result of this influence, Wendy and Charles decided to grow some red varieties of grapes and blend them with the original grapevine. Last year, they blended the grafted granache grapes with the original grapes to make a very pleasing sparkling rose which Charlie named Don Carlos Cabron. They produced six cases, or 72 bottles to be exact, from 300 vines. And 2017 looks to be their best year ever in the production of the red grapes.

While all the wine making was going on, the ranch also developed into a holistic retreat center.  Wendy is a traditional naturopath (also known as a doctor of natural and integrative medicine), a nutritionist, massage therapist, yoga instructor, breath facilitator and published author of “The Raw Transformation, Energizing Your Life with Living Foods.” Her ranch retreats focus on nutrition and detox, raw food preparation lessons, yoga and relaxation.

El Parralito is a perfect place for all of this. It’s only nine miles from San Jose, but the bumpy road turns it into a half-hour ride. As you slowly work your way up towards the ranch, you start to sense that you are leaving the city behind. The ranch sits approximately 2,000 feet above sea level at its highest point, which provides fantastic views. On a clear day, you can see all the way from Zacatitos (East Cape) to north of Cabo on the Pacific side.

Wendy originally bought Rancho El Parralito as an investment, but it has become much more than that. It has become a second home, a micro-winery, and a holistic retreat center. It’s also available for rent on Airbnb, and for daily tours with lunch and Sunday brunches by reservation.

Mangoes before grapes

Rancho LaVenta vineyard started by squeezing mangos rather than grapes. Owners Bob and Liz Pudwill moved to the ranch from Alaska in 2003 and started building everything from scratch, including the solar they still live off. LaVenta is on the road between Los Barriles and San Antonio. If you're heads up, you will see a sign on the south side of the two lane. Today they have horses for hire, chickens, a swimming pool, a small inn, some outbuildings, and the cave where they get to the business end of making the wine.

He planted his first grapes in 2005 without knowing what varietals would best suit the Baja climate. Pudwill says he was unaware of any other vineyards south of Valle Guadalupe near Ensenada, so he just guessed on the grapes. He picked syrah, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, nebbiolo, chardonnay and merlot. His best successes were with the syrah and cabernet sauvignon; the others failed for various reasons. (Meaning, who knows? They just were not suitable to Rancho LaVenta.)

The Pudwills also ran into a problem with microbes that attacked the roots of some of his vine starts. He managed to get about six harvest years from that vineyard before throwing in the towel and starting over with a new planting spot on the ranch, further up a hill and sunnier. He also used better researched varietals. He also enlisted the help of Jeff Newton, the vineyard expert from California, to choose a more suitable location that has a red clay and rock soil consistency; it's also on a ridge that has good air flow.

And with guidance from Camillo Magoni, a winemaker from Valle Guadalupe who knows the growing conditions of BCS well, Pudwill chose grape varietals that are better suited for the climate. Pudwill, Newton and Harold Osborne from La Fuente visited Magoni on a fact-finding mission, which included sampling 16 of Magoni's 100-plus varietals. The trio selected eight types that Pudwill, Osborne and other Southern Baja winemakers would plant experimentally. Of those eight varietals, Pudwill chose two reds, a cabernet franc and a syrah, to grow at Rancho LaVenta.

This year marks the second growing season for the experimental plantings and Pudwill is now in the early season pruning and training stages. He says he doesn't plan on a first harvest until 2019. In the meantime, without any grapes of his own, Pudwill will be doing what he's done since 2014: driving the 900 miles north to Valle Guadeloupe and buying grapes from Magoni, then hauling ass nonstop with his refrigerated trailer back to Rancho LaVenta, where he makes the wine. Last year's trip went badly, as Pudwill got caught in Santa Rosalita for several days during the hurricane and had to start the wine making process right there in his trailer.

Pudwill still makes the mango wine he started out with, as well as a mead that's made from local honey. His goal is to produce about 400 cases a year, which he sells at Rancho LaVenta and at community markets, mostly around Los Barriles. His mango wine is way better than it sounds, not too sweet at all. Truth be told, if this writer drives all the way up there, she's sticking with the mango, it's wonderful.