So, that’s their claim to fame: The Oldest Winery in the Americas. Catchy, but we had never heard of this place before. My wife, Sheri, and I are wine drinkers with 50-bottles of wine at our home. Alright, it’s not a cellar, but we have a small house. We belong to a few wine clubs. We have been to many wine regions around the U.S., Baja California, and other countries such as South Africa, but what is this place that has such a significant title? One might think that a landmark like this would come up in conversation or be read in articles. Nope, not even on our radar.
Our road trip to Mexico was months in the planning and preparation. Planning was important since we were driving to the Yucatan Peninsula and back. It was me mostly that put everything together because, well, that’s what I do. I’m an organizer. I don’t like to plan every part of a trip. I like to keep things fluid as far as where we are going and what we are going to do. I do, though, like to be prepared for anything that may come up. I think that comes from my 32 years of experience a firefighter and rescuer. In our preparation we had to get all the required documentation, insurances (auto and medical) and permits (Temporary Import Permit and Tourist Card). We exchanged dollars for pesos, so we had plenty of spending money. We prepared our 2000 Toyota 4Runner for the long trip by replacing belts and hoses, brake work, changing fluids, and installing a new rooftop cargo-carrier. Since we were bringing our 6-month-old Labradoodle, Koda, with us, we needed to make sure he had all of his shots. We also got him listed as a Service Dog to help get him in hotels and other areas. We were ready! It all paid off. Our trip to the Yucatan Peninsula went smoothly. We traveled 6,500 miles in 28 days. We visited many different cities and towns along the way: Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Merida, Chihuahua, Tulum. We saw missions, flamingos, Mayan ruins, markets, stunning beaches, colonial towns, artisan crafts, and musicians. We were on our way back north. In fact, we were far into northern Mexico by this time. It was day number twenty-four and the three of us had already traveled over 5,100 miles. That morning, we left our hotel in Saltillo with plans to put some big miles behind us. We were both getting anxious to be home. It was a rewarding trip but stressful with a 55-pound, 6-month-old puppy with us. After about 75 miles on Hwy. 400, we saw a road sign that said Rute de Vino. We recognized this sign from frequenting the Valle de Guadalupe wine region in Northern Baja, Mexico. Except, when we looked around, there was nothing but a desert filled with sand, brush, cactus, and Joshua Trees. No vineyards, nor were there any structures that might be wineries. Why is this sign in the middle of the desert? Curious, Sheri started looking on her phone to see if there were any wineries around. What she found was that, up ahead a few miles, there were some wineries, which included The Oldest Winery in the Americas. This was a significant find, so we made a left turn towards the town of Parras after putting the location of the winery on Google Maps. We had great luck up to that point using Google Maps to direct us to towns or find hotels, restaurants, or other landmarks. There was great cell service through a T-Mobile service plan that works throughout Mexico so we were able to use our map program constantly. For the first time in the trip, though, Google Maps led us astray.
We followed the directions it gave us. We were heading in the right direction, but we were going farther than where we thought it was located. Along the main road, we saw a beautiful property with a white plaster wall all around it. There were guards at the entrance gate and people lined up to enter. We couldn’t tell what it was exactly, and there were no signs, but we thought about returning later to figure out what it exactly was. But for now, we are searching for something else. At one point, the directions turned us into a dirt road that winded back the way we came through a small neighborhood, along some agricultural area and through a gate, into a vineyard. We asked a guy on a motorcycle if we were going the right way. He pointed us to turn right up ahead but when we got to that turn, a security guard denied our passage and we had to turn back. So much for Google Maps! We retraced our path back to the main road again and decided to go check out the town of Parras.
It was tough finding a place to park on the streets of Parras that was close to the centro. We ended up parking about seven blocks away and walking with our dog Koda around the town until we ended up in the central square. It was pretty crowded. It was a Sunday, the day when the locals go to church and spend time with their families. We didn’t mind the crowds, but it was a challenge trying to walk our six-month-old, 55-pound, high energy, inquisitive dog around; so many people. He wanted to meet everyone and sniff everything, so he was constantly pulling on his leash. But we were able to check out more shops and look around before we moved on.
We headed back to the highway and to that property we had passed with the white plaster walls around it. When we pulled up to the property, we still could not find a sign stating what the place was. We asked the guard what it was, and he told us it was Casa Madero, The Oldest Winery in the Americas. El Dorado, paydirt; we have arrived!
The guard directed us to the parking lot and instructed us to walk back to the gate he was guarding to enter Hacienda San Lorenzo, the property where the winery is located. He also said that dogs were allowed which is something we always needed to hear. We parked on what was a landing strip for light planes. Apparently, it is only used occasionally by the family that owns the property, but normally used as a parking lot for guests. As we arrived at the main gate, we were given a squirt of hand sanitizer and then took our temperature. They asked if we were feeling ill or had been around anyone with Covid 19. This was all standard practice in Mexico during the pandemic. Our experience had been that Mexico takes the pandemic very seriously. Especially when it comes to dealing with tourists. We passed the tests and were directed to enter the property. We were immediately taken aback by the beauty of the property. Large grass lawns, Spanish-style buildings, lots of large, mature trees, and many yard ornaments from days long ago. We walked up to a building where they had wine tasting and sales. We could go in, but we could not do a wine tasting or join a tour because we did not have a reservation. Reservations were necessary to keep the number of people to a safe level for social distancing. These are things one gets used to after a year of dealing with a pandemic.
As we toured around the area, we were approached by a young man who greeted us in English. His name was Christian and he worked at the winery. Apparently, he was informed that some Americans were on the property, so he came to meet us and practice using his English. “We don’t get many visitors from the U.S.,” he told us. He wanted to know where we were from and where we were traveling. He was very surprised when we told him that we were on our way back from driving to the Yucatan Peninsula. He apologized that we could not do a wine tasting or go on the wine tour, but said he would check with his boss to see if he could show us around the property. He left to get permission and returned with the approval. He brought with him a young woman, Helena, who also worked at the winery, and spoke English. She came along to help and used the opportunity to practice her English, too. The private tour included some of the original buildings where the wine was made over one hundred years ago. In those rooms there was much of the old equipment for wine making, such as grape presses and bottling machines. Some of the old wooden casks and vats were still in place as they were when they held wine so many years ago. But they use parts of the buildings for the wine they make now as well.
One thing that I found interesting was the history of Hacienda San Lorenzo and Casa Madero Winery. After the Spanish crown claimed Mexico in 1519, the Spanish conquerors explored the extremely large country for many years. In 1568, Valle de Parras was discovered and found to be an oasis in the desert that had naturally growing grapes. Since wine was an important staple of the Spanish culture, it was decided to start developing wine production. But to do that, Don Lorenzo Garcia requested a “Merced” to receive an endowment of the land and a permit to start producing wine and brandy. It was granted by King Felipe II in 1597making it the first official winery in the Americas. Part of the property tour included walking through a couple of courtyards within the main buildings, lined with guestrooms. We were told that when the Madero family used to live on the property, the rooms used to be for the owner’s guests. Presently, they are only used for guests that were part of group events like weddings that they host occasionally. Their plans were to start using the rooms as a hotel where any guest could stay but they weren’t quite ready for that yet. They showed us one of the rooms in the larger of the two courtyards and we were impressed at the simple but authentic décor. They were roomy, bright, and colorful. Sheri’s eyes lit up and she asked “Can we stay here tonight?” You see, we had no plans for the night. Just like most all the nights on our trip, we just made a decision during the day of where we were going to stop for the night and looked for a place to stay, either via the Internet or by driving around. The question Sheri asked our two tour guides caught them off guard. They weren’t sure how to respond except to say, “We’re not sure, we’ll have to ask”.
After we finished the tour, we were escorted back to the wine store and we were told they would be back shortly. I took the opportunity to buy a bottle of 2018 Syrah that was recommended to us by Christian when I asked him what he preferred. Within a short time, the two returned with good news. They were going to let us stay the night. Not only that, but they were going a provide dinner that night and breakfast in the morning, as well as a private wine tasting since we were not able to have one earlier. Part of the reason they were allowing us to stay was that they hoped we would share our experience with others in the U.S. and advance their efforts to open up as a hotel. We were ecstatic! We had to wonder how many Americans have had the opportunity to stay at The Oldest Winery in the Americas. We were shown a couple of rooms to choose from that were ready for guests. We liked them both but we picked our favorite. They directed us where to move our car into a secure parking.
It was 5 pm by the time we got into our rooms. They told us to be ready for dinner by 6 pm so we unpacked, showered, and dressed in the nicest clothes we brought with us in preparation for the experience. And, an experience it was!
When 6 pm arrived, we went down the walkway a short distance to the registration office to find out where to go for dinner. We met up with Helena and she told us it would be ready soon, but in the meantime, we were to go with her. She led us to the smaller courtyard where we sat on a couch and chatted with her awhile. Shortly after, more of the staff arrived to greet us and we were introduced to the chef who was making our dinner. Jose Gabriel Villela is a French-trained pastry chef who was the head chef that day. He told us about the plans for dinner and wine pairing they had planned for us.
Soon, Helena led us to where we were to have our dinner. We walked from the small courtyard and entered one of the dining rooms but when we looked around, there was nothing set up for us. We were ushered through the dining room and out the door on the far side of the room to the back side of the property. This area was as beautiful as the rest of the property inside Hacienda San Lorenzo. There was a very large grass area with mature trees and a round white and blue fountain that led to a channel running into a pool. There were two rock towers on both side of the pool.
As we continued, we looked to our distant right and saw a round table with white linens and two dinner settings, including china, utensils, water and wine glasses, cloth napkins, and a vase of flowers … the works. Next to the table were two of the staff we met and a smaller serving table. We were overwhelmed. “We get to eat out here?” I exclaimed. We were seated on one side of the table so we could see the beautiful grounds in front of us. The temperature was perfect and the rays from the lowering sun were shining through the tall eucalyptus trees along the far wall. It was surreal to say the least. Certainly, very unexpected.
The attending staff explained to us that we would be experiencing a multi-course meal with wine pairing, dessert, and a private wine tasting later in the evening. As our first glass of wine was being poured, our anticipation grew. The experience was magical. Sitting outside in the beautiful setting of Hacienda San Lorenzo, being catered to by a wonderful staff, having courses prepared by a trained chef, and drinking excellent wine was much to take in. Sheri and I kept looking at each other in utter disbelief.
Our meal started off with a pallet-cleansing dish of blueberries with mandarin vinegar and geranium leaf sorbe’. That was accompanied with a 2019 Chardonnay that was crisp and lightly citrus. It did not have the typical oaky or buttery notes due to sitting only in stainless steel containers. That was followed up by a salad and then the main dish of chicken mole with polenta and roasted vegetables. We enjoyed a 2018 Merlot with the main course that had notes of leather and dark berries. Often, we expect a white wine served with chicken, but red wine was perfect with the mole sauce. Dessert was fantastic, which was no surprise since it was being prepared by a French-trained pastry chef. Jose Gabriel actually made us two desserts. The first one being a peach carrot cake with cream cheese drizzle topped with walnuts and a slice of peach. The second dessert (like we needed another one) was a semi-sweet chocolate cake served with coffee ice cream, cinnamon-sugar flour tortilla strips, and some chocolate-covered espresso beans and nuts. Everything was remarkable and quite decadent! When we finished dinner and were given some time to sit and enjoy the setting sun and finish our wine, we were escorted to a large dining room with a beautiful heavy wood table and chairs many decades old. This is where Gabriel served our private wine tasting. It started with a 2020 Rose’ that was dry and light, but not sweet like a Rose’. Next was a 2018 Malbec-dry with notes of tobacco and ripe fruit. Our last taste was a 2017 organic Cabernet that had a nose and flavor of plum and ripe fruit with a pepper finish. All good drinkable wines, with the latter my favorite.
At 7 am the next morning, Juan served breakfast in the dining room. We had a simple meal of buñuelos, fruit, cheese enchiladas with sauce, beans, and coffee. After a quick meal, we headed to the parking lot to a tour vehicle that would take us around to the property outside the walls to see the vineyards are. Christian and Fernanda conducted the tour for us. We drove around the vineyards that seemed to go on for miles. They explained how the older vines were grafted with European rootstock but more recent vines with California root stock. We drove up to a high point on the property to bask in the views from a higher vantage point, then headed back to the hacienda so we could pack up in preparations for our departure.
There were still a few days of driving ahead to get home and we wanted to put some miles in before dark. When we got back to the hacienda, we packed up our things in the room, placed our luggage in the 4Runner, and said our goodbyes. We thanked them for everything they did for us and talked about organizing a group to visit soon. I told them I would write an article about our experience, and… here it is on Traveling Boy. Sheri and I talked about our time at Hacienda San Lorenzo all the way home. It reinforced our previous experiences of the warmth and good nature of the Mexican people from our many times in Mexico. We told our story to many of our friends with fond recollections and offers to organize a group trip. We won’t soon forget our experiences at Casa Madero… The Oldest Winery in the Americas.