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US winemaker conquers Baja & the gender barrier

I met Valley Girl wines’ Sitara Perez at the “100 vinos mexicanos” festival in Queretaro earlier this year. During a check of the participants before the show I came across the winery’s website and discovered she was an American who had recently moved to Mexico to make wine. 

“In wine we lust” is her slogan,  erroneously mentioned in the festival program as “In wine we lost.”  This made me smile, and together with the catchy labels and audacious wine names I saw on her website, I was convinced that I needed to hook up with Perez. 

Despite having a Mexican-American father from San Antonio, Texas, Perez was born and raised in cold and grapeless Alaska.  She studied in Seattle, raised two children and moved to Costa Rica, where she spent 11 years working with her now ex-husband and a whole bunch of live reptiles. 

The couple were herpetoculturalists (her husband still is), breeding rare reptiles and exporting them to zoos and collectors around the world. Their travels inevitably took them to far flung jungles in Central and South America, India and further afield.

After her marriage ended, Perez lived and worked  in Buenos Aires for an Hungarian count, who, she says, never opened a bottle of wine that cost less than $US250.  After he once opened a US$700 bottle of Opus One, Perez says she literally had an epiphany.

After further spells in Peru, Ecuador and Mali, Perez decided to settle down – relatively speaking.  Her priorities were straightforward: she wanted to live in a Mediterranean climate and specifically in a wine valley where she intended to reinvent herself in the wine business. And yes, she wanted to be close to her father in Arizona.

In 2012, she made the obvious short reconnaissance trip to the Guadalupe Valley in Baja, found a house to rent and a month later drove back down from Arizona with her faithful dog, rescued in Ecuador.   

Perez spent her first year in Baja meeting winemakers, learning about their projects, drinking their excellent wines, taking copious notes, asking questions and making many new friends. Then she heard about the La Escuelita, the prominent incubator of winemaking talent in the Valley. 

She admits that Hugo d’Acosta, the celebrated wine guru behind the La Escuelita, was not immediately impressed with her. 

“He thinks I’m an overambitious, dumb blonde who knows nothing about wine. He’s more or less said so to my face,” Perez laughs. But although d’Acosta dismisses her efforts, he is still one of her mentors and she faithfully follows his philosophy toward winemaking. 

With loans from some friends, Perez subsequently produced her first six barrels of wine. It must have impressed one old friend who decided to back the project and take it to the next level.

Over three harvests Perez has made a host of contacts in the region and this year has been endorsed by “rock star” Reynaldo Rodriguez (winemaker for Quinta Monasterio, Viñas del Sol and The Wine Factory), who will be overseeing all of Valley Girl’s wines through to bottling. 

Being a woman in the male dominated wine world is not an easy task. Perez gains inspiration from the likes of the Widow Cliquot, Heidi Barret, Susana Balboa and Alexia Luca de Tena on the winemaking side and Jancis Robinson and Natalie MacLean on the criticism side.  

Fortunately, she’s not out there on her own.  Two other American women make wine in the Guadalupe Valley: Jo Ann Knox Martino of Vintango and Ann Katz of Besitos de Baja. Perez met them both soon after she settled there and all are now friends. 

I was anxious to taste the “Lost in lust” wines at the festival, although I initially had my doubts (my macho instincts kicking in, perhaps?).  

The shortest way to describe the wines is a steel fist in a velvet glove: deep, structured and balanced but elegant and subtle at the same time. And definitely as charming as their author! 

Apart from the the wines I tasted (see box below), the Valley girl produces several others, such as Lady in Red (red blend, 70-percent Mourvedre and 30-percent Syrah), two more wines in the “sister series” – Soul Sister (a rosé wine made of 100 percent Cinsault) and Gold Sister (white varietal wine, 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc) – and a pepper port named Hot Mama. She has also set a plan to make her first sparkling rosé this season joining forces with big names such as Jorge Maciel of Cava Maciel, Eduardo Kruger of Vinos Kruger and Ray Magnussen.

Perez shows plenty of interest in old and modern winemaking techniques and never stops asking questions. To put it straight, talking wine philosophy, she considers herself a Kermit Lynch devotee and not a Robert Parker fan. In other words she favors unadulterated terroir driven wines over oaky high alcohol products. She keeps exploring and experimenting and that hooks her up in the business. Modern technology for her is important to understand how wine is currently made. One needs to know how those shiny stainless steel tanks function to safely break the rules and fine tune one’s own wine style, the Valley Girl says. 

“I want to respect the fruit above all else” Perez says. “Which is why I am enamored with cement tanks for both fermentation and aging. I really detest filtering my wines with modern equipment, it beats the crap out of them. I just hate to see my girls bruised and pissed off! I’m a very protective mama,” she says.

Perez’s love affair with wine has drawn in her entire family. Her daughter moved to Baja with her best friend a year ago and opened a nano brewery, Compass Ales.  Her son, a musician, visits often from Seattle and plans to be there with his girlfriend for harvest this year.   “I like to joke that we’re a “spirited” family,” Perez laughs.  

Future plans include the purchase of a ranch to build a proper winery, as the Valley Girl’s wines have been made on the back porch of Perez’s house for the last three seasons. 

In 2015 Sitara’s goal has been consolidating national distribution in Mexico.  Next year she will work on promoting her products in the United States. Several years ago she earned her first level sommelier certificate with the International Wine Guild and hopes someday to complete her studies. A harvest in the Southern hemisphere and in-depth studies of the wines of the Old World are also planned. 

Valley Girl wines are distributed by Retrogusto (www.retrogusto.com) and Vinaria Alma Gourmet, (www.vinaria.mx).

SVEN CLYDE’S VERDICT ON THREE VALLEY GIRL WINES

Valley Girl Wines Lust 2013 (89/100) is a 100-percent Syrah. Inside the bottle there’s a beast, an iron fist in a velvet glove, plush fruitiness with textured t

annins. Good potential! Give it some time to open up in the glass. Best with a steak or BBQ. Price: 390 pesos.

Valley Girl Wines 50 Shades of Red 2013 (91/100) is a blend based on 50-percent Grenache and Mourvedre, Tempranillo, Syrah & Cabernet Sauvignon for the other half. A powerful wine, a perfect proportion between all the grape varieties, balanced and structured, with velvety but persistent tannins, lovely fruitiness and elegance. This wine for sure needs a good piece of meat. Price: 350 pesos.

Valley Girl Wines Bold Sister 2013 (89/100) is a 100-percent Tempranillo. Sitara identifies herself with this wine. Strong and straightforward, a hard working woman farmer, with every muscle tense and in its place. Will go well with a meat stew, as well as cured salty meat like cecina or jamon serrano. Price: 260 pesos. 

 

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