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Getting Acquainted with Baja Wines and Food

To New Yorkers, tequila has been an old friend, part of the city’s melting pot since the margarita’s heyday in the 1940s. And we’ve gotten to know mezcal pretty well in the last five years. At the end of this month, the Big Apple will welcome a new kid on the block in terms of Mexican drinkables, when the Baja Meets New York: A Mexican Wine + Food Festival comes to town February 26-March 2. Focusing on the wines of Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, the event includes wine tastings and collaborative dinners featuring Baja chefs cooking with New York chefs. “What is happening in Baja is very indicative of what we are going to see happening in New York in terms of Mexican cuisine,” says Marie Elena Martinez, founder of Baja Meets New York and founding editor of TheLatinKitchen.com. “Right now, there is something happening in New York in terms of modern Mexican, with chefs like Alex Stupak, and the forthcoming Enrique Olvera restaurant. These are chefs who are really pushing the envelope a bit and the Baja growers and chefs are trying to do exactly that with the wine at their fingertips. I want to continue the dialogue about the Mexican food landscape here in New York.”

To encourage that exchange, Martinez has invited three of Baja’s most notable chefs to New York: Javier Plascencia is credited with revolutionizing the food scene in Tijuana, and his Mision 19 was the subject of a glowing profile by the New York Times. He also helms the campestre-style restaurant at the vineyard Finca Altozano. Drew Deckman, an American who grew up in Georgia and who now divides his time between Baja and Cabo, is the chef/owner of Deckman’s San Jose del Cabo and the seasonal Deckman’s at El Mogor Badan winery. Deckman is Baja’s Slow Food representative and his restaurants are dedicated to local, seasonal ingredients. Ensenada native Diego Hernandez-Baquedano’s restaurant Corazon de Tierra at the hotel/vineyard La Villa de Valle was recently named one of Restaurant Magazine’s Latin American 50 Best Restaurants and was a Travel & Leisure Mexico “Best Hotel Restaurant” in 2012. “These are three of the movers and shakers in Baja,” Martinez maintains.

Martinez chose three of New York’s premier Mexican chefs - Roberto Santibañez, Julian Medina and Danny Mena - to pair up with the visiting chefs for a series of dinners, along with the Mexican winemakers in attendance. “I wanted everything that touched this event to be Mexican, so it is important that the host chefs be Mexican themselves and have an intrinsic interest in what is happening in their home country,” she says.

Santibañez and Plascencia, who have known each other for years, will be in the kitchen together at Santibañez’s Fonda in the East Village. Expect dishes such as seared duck breast in charred Baja date mole with crispy green onions and masa dumplings. Wines from Tres Valles and Cava Aragon 126/Madera 5 will be served. “I’m excited to be cooking with and exchanging ideas with Javier,” Santibañez says. “I am enthusiastic about sharing his vision of food, raising the profile of Mexican chefs and showcasing this wonderful wine country that is little known. Baja wines are finally having their moment and are experiencing great growth.”

Julian Medina will welcome his buddy Drew Deckman to his brand new Toloache Thompson in Greenwich Village and the duo will collaborate on dishes such as Baja rock lobster with blood sausage, pickled vegetables and chicharron vinaigrette. Six wines from Casa de Piedra and Vinas de Garza will be served. “The seafood in Baja is great,” Medina says, “So I’m happy to incorporate it into the dinner.” Medina says he’s been amazed not only by the region’s wine, but by Mexico’s embracing of wine culture in general. “20 years ago, Mexicans didn’t even consider drinking wine, never mind producing so much of their own. Now, the population in Mexico is realizing that the vast flavors of their own cuisine are perfect to pair with wine.”

Danny Mena shares his kitchen with Hernandez-Baquedano, a pairing that Martinez says was a no-brainer. “They are both young and doing very interesting things in terms of modern Mexican cuisine,” she says. At Mena’s Hecho en Dumbo, the two chefs will alternate courses. Mena will whip up a masa-thickened chowder with gulf prawns with Baja olive oil, confit of fennel and baby leek, for example, while Hernandez-Baquedano will serve dishes such as steak tartar with ginger and duck egg yolk with an olive and cilantro paste. Six wines from Vena de Cava and Aborigen will be served. “I think what has happened with mezcal will soon happen with Mexican wine,” Mena says. “Mexicans have always been proud of their ingredients such as our chiles, our corn, our beans; our mezcal and tequila; and we are as proud of our tortillas and tamales as the French are of their baguettes. Now, Mexicans are taking pride in their wines, too.”

Martinez agrees and predicts that Mexican wines will follow the same path as Chile, Argentina and Australia. “I see it as the next logical place where wine is going to be produced quite fruitfully,” she says. “And we as Americans should be willing to benefit from that.” Certainly, the wines of Baja are already laying the groundwork for the beginnings of a very beautiful friendship. 

The Baja Meets NYC events consist of dedicated wine tastings and paired wine dinners from February 27 – March 1st. Tickets range from $60 - $200 and can be purchased online. Click here for more details or to buy tickets.

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