Baja’s wine-making icon, Camillo Magoni

Valle de Guadalupe has beckoned many from far and near as a place to settle down and make wine. Camillo Magoni, of Casa Magoni, however, is the icon of those who have made Baja their home.

Talk to anyone about wine in Baja California and they will mention Camillo Magoni, a significant part of the history of the wine industry in Valle de Guadalupe.

Camillo Magoni

Magoni, born in Valtellina, Italy, had no connection to Mexico. He said that is was “God’s inspiration” that brought him to Valle de Guadalupe. With a degree in viticulture and enology from university in Alba, Italy and a few years of experience working for Nino Negri in Valtellina, Magoni was looking for a job when he met Don Angelo Cetto, owner L.A. Cetto winery in Baja. In 1965 he moved from Italy to Baja California. At that time, there were a total of six winemakers from Italy living there.

“It was another viticulture and another wine region, like any other place,” Magoni said. “At that time, California put wine in oak and stainless steel was a new concept. Here in Mexico, they were producing fortified wines, high proof red wines and very little white wine. The white wine was made with palomino and the red wine was made with mission, carignan, zinfandel and alicante bouchon. Most of the wine was shipped in bulk in bourbon barrels to Mexico City where it was bottled.”

In 1972, Magoni made a joint venture with the Spanish Domecq group who had a big operation in Mexico. Together, they developed most of the vineyards planted today, from the east side of the valley to a big vineyard south of Ensenada. “The vines are old. I supervised the planting of them all,” Magoni explained. And of the original people who planted these vines, “I am the last one still alive today.”

Magoni has been in the area for 51 years and counting. After spending 49 years (1965-2014) at L.A. Cetto winery, the largest winery in Baja California, he “retired.” Feeling he had done all he could do at the winery, it was time to pass it on to a new generation.

But since the 1960s, Magoni had been buying vineyards and selling grapes. Four years ago, with a surplus of grapes due to a lack of demand, he had two choices, either pull out the vineyards or make wine. Casa Magoni winery was born. At Casa Magoni, Magoni continues to experience with grape varieties.

“In Baja, maybe we have too many varieties,” Magoni declared. Some are experimental and others are commercial, but he has 120 varieties from six countries planted and makes 130 different wines from those grapes.

“I am introducing Magoni Experimental. I want to offer small volumes of each grape we make. I try different things. I ferment with skins and without; I do some passito. I also blend different grapes.” And the point of all of this, he explains, is for a few reasons. “First, it is for a learning education. Second it is to try to find the varietal for the area that may become the flagship grape for the region. Third is because I am trying to be prepared. If we have climate change, what do we do? And lastly, I grow all of these.

The grapes Magoni has planted range from Bordeaux grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, to Rhone grapes, such as grenache and syrah, and even Greek grapes, such as moscofilero and assytriko. Magoni is also known for developing the planting of Italian varieties from the north and the south, such as nebbiolo, dolcetto, barbera and freisa. “I started introducing new varieties in 1967, two years after I arrived here.”

According to Magoni, Italians started the wine industry in Mexico. Nebbiolo was first brought from Italy to Mexico in the 1930s by Steven Ferro, the first winemaker in Mexico who started what is today known as Santo Tomas.

As immigrants and travelers, Italians planted nebbiolo selections and started making 100 percent variety wines.

“Varieties can adapt to other areas, depending on how you manage your vineyard,” Magoni explained. “In my hometown of Valtellina, they say nebbiolo is a mountain grape. I am trying to show it is a desert grape.” Magoni’s first release of nebbiolo was in 1986 under the L.A. Cetto label and the wine still holds up today. Under his own label, the Casa Magoni 2013 Nebbiolo has notes of wild strawberry and roses with a good balance of tannins and acids on the palate and a spicy finish.

Magoni is not only one of the fathers of the Baja wine industry, but he continues to be one of the drivers of it today.

“What we produce in Mexico in one year is the same as what Gallo produces and sells in one week.” In order to stand out in the market, they are making creative blends.

“Another chardonnay is just another chardonnay, but add 20 percent vermentino and people want to try the wine.” By making unique blends, Magoni feels that “in addition to making quality wine at affordable prices, we offer a different style of wine from one single variety.”

And Magoni hopes that the unique styles and characters of the wine are reflected in the glass. “Terroir is the people and it is how the people manage mother nature. This is our soil, this is our climate, these are the people and these are the best grapes that grow here.”

Magoni has spent two thirds of his life in Mexico. “I love Baja California,” he professed. “The peninsula is my home.” But Baja is more than home to Magoni. Magoni is Baja California. He has spent his lifetime developing the wine region and continues to work and to help others. His focus is on doing the best he can for everyone. And Magoni has no intentions of stopping. “I will keep going until they force me to stop,” he declared.

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.