Just back from dos semanas in Baja California - Ensenada and Valle de Guadalupe, where 90% of Mexican wine is grown. May's a good time to travel - it's a slow time here at the winery and my beloved former assistant of greatness Jon was able to sub for me in the lab so my clients were not left high and dry. Sí, es el tiempo perfecto for a nerd vacation, an immersion Spanish language class. The goal is to be able to really communicate with the Spanish speaking vineyard workers here in Washington. My class was 12 days in a row, 5 hours a day of one -on-one español at la escuela plus full blown old school foreign exchange student living with a family, renting a room in their house, taking meals together, watching “Doña Flor y sus Dos Maridos” (my new favorite telenovela) together at night. I'm real good at sprinkling just the right amount of Tajin on my jicama now.
Since I was the only student in my class, the coursework was very catered to me and I was sincerely invested in the conversations we had together (this is in total contrast to the other (admittedly half-assed) attempts I have made at learning foreign languages). Forget about "Luis y Maria van a la biblioteca" this was real talk, real high level conversations. My teachers, Gaby and Consuelo, were very curious about my job in the wine industry and had lots of questions about how I compared Valle de Guadalupe to other wine regions I've visited around the world. I asked questions of them about their families and family dynamics, their favorite taqueria in Ensenada or what their grandma used to cook on the rancho when they were a kid or all the things I didn't understand about Ensenada like the grim and disturbing garbage situation or how they can tolerate the egregious potholes in the roads. We had nuanced exchanges about the bajacaliforniano culture vs the center of Mexico and the influence of El Chapo and El Chapo's mom on the state of Sonora. Don't get me wrong, I paid them for their patience here, so they were incentivized to suffer through my fake it til you make it Spanishy pronunciation of a word I know from French /Italian/ English with a latin root /Spanglish or the excruciating slow and ugly real time conjugation of the action verbs in my stories... David Sedaris said all of it better in Me Talk Pretty One Day. At the end of the two weeks I felt like I really connected especialmente with my teacher Consuelo, the director of the school.
I knew a little bit of Mexican slang beforehand because here in Seattle I had been watching some Netflix Mexico shows like La Casa de Las Flores and Club de Cuervos in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. I paused the show to google translate what I didn't understand or straight up urban dictionary what google translate wouldn't translate for me (i.e. the superbad words). Next door to my escuela was a construction site and we could overhear the workers swearing which prompted my teacher Consuelo to illustrate the contextually dependent and wildly evocative world of expressions with the verb "chingar".
Outside of class, I learned the term "fresa" which I think is their like yuppy preppy upper class type of person who is all about selfie filters and the opposite, the term "naco" which was explained to me as tacky Mexican redneck white trash. "Mamón" is what they call an arrogant snob? Strong words but interesting to learn.
The seafood of Ensenada is famous for a reason - Anthony Bourdain called La Guerrerense “Le Bernardin quality seafood on the street”. I love fish, I make my chenin blanc to pair with shellfish so it was a real treat to eat shrimp cocktail, octopus cocktail, clam cocktail, crab and scallop tostadas, and kumos on the half shell at street carts in Ensenada. The guys at the winery told me El Gordito was even better than El Guerrerense - I took one for the team and did multiple head to head comparisons with mi favorito Cóctel de pulpo y camarones and the jury is still out. More reasons to return!
All the produce I had the whole time I was in MX was gorgeous- supercrunchy cucumbers, delicious mangoes, not-funky papayas, oh man and the limes! so juicy! such great flavor beyond acid! The only thing that was not delicioso was the elote I got at the Saturday market and that was my bad for trying to eat corn out of season like a chump. OK so the supreme quality produce may be more challenging to come by up here in Seattle year round, but we have the fish quality no question about it ... I'm going to work on recreating the Ensenadan style cocktails at home here in Seattle ... fresh salsa bandera, hot sauce, ketchup, avocado for days, dash of salt, couple squeezes of Mexican limes and perfect superfresco seafood from Uwajimaya. ¡Ay, qué rico!
The tradition in this part of northern Baja is carne asado tacos which is not my typical order but I will say that the beef flavor was very good and all the fun condimentos (pickled onion, shredded cabbage, salsa bandera, guacamole, salsa picante etc) made everything even more delish. Katelyn and I had a late dinner at Finco Altozano in Valle de Guadelupe where we shared The Greatest Tacos I Have Ever Tasted - lechon en caja china - suckling pig, spatchcocked, suspended underneath hot coals so the fat renders out, self-confits/auto-carnitasizes and that baby skin gets all kinds of crispy. Ayyyy mami it was life changing. Condiments here were minimal - just some chopped white onion and cilantro. Didn't need anything else. Ya es perfecto.
Some useful Spanish expressions
They say buenos dias only in the morning and only until exactly noon when they switch to buenas tardes and then to buenas noches when it gets dark. It seemed weird to say good night as a greeting but that’s how they do. When someone asks you “¿Cómo estás?” your response of “bien” is repeated like “bien, bien, y tu?” When you’re meeting someone for the first time, you shake their hand or cheek kiss while saying “mucho gusto” or “con mucho gusto” or “Igualmente” if they said mucho gusto first. “Todo bien” was super useful - Dane told me it would be- both as a sincere question (lilted), or sarcastically intonated as a bitchy commentary like “uhhh what are you doing, ya weirdo?” and also as a real affirmation “Sí - Todo bien”. Other expressions I felt cool to throw around include “en serio?” for are you serious? and “no mames” for WTF. I used “con permiso” a lot - excusing myself from the dinner table after my telenovela Dona Flor was over, interrupting the guy at the tasting room’s schpeel, interrupting the folks at the mariscos street cart to ask for a totopo with my cocteil, or the traditional use to pass by someone on the sidewalk. “no te preocupes” and “no me importa” were super handy. They say “chico” or “chiquito” for small - I think I was the only doofus saying “pequeño”. I was too chicken to try out “güey” or “que pedo” or commands like “orale” or “mira” and gracias a Dios I had no need for any really bad words.
My teacher up here in Washington told me I say “por favor” too much and that it sounds like begging. It’s true I heard “gracias” a lot but not so much “por favor” or “porfa”. The truth is you hear SoCal-y surfer dude English in Baja, they say “byeeeeeeee” and “cold brew “ coffee and “crossfit”. I feel like everybody all over the world says “OK”.
Wine tasting terms are pretty easy to fake if you know some other romance languages (barrica, roble, botella, fermentación, fruta etc). Yeast is “levura”. A corked wine is “corchado”. I wrote up some Spanish vineyard terms last summer and posted them on my lab website - miralo.
If you’ve got other useful Mexican spanish expressions - Digame en los comentarios abajo!
I’m working on a blog post about the the history of Mexican winegrowing, the specific wines we tasted and more info on how to visit the Valle. Let me know in the comments section below if you have questions or feedback!