Wine Tasting in Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, December 4 – 6, 2015

barrelsEight guests joined us for a weekend at Rancho La Bellota near Valle de Guadalupe, “Mexico’s Napa Valley”.  The valley is a jewel, with over 80 vineyards ranging from small family owned boutique wineries to mid-sized vineyards to large-scale production facilities.  We visited 3 wineries and enjoyed a delicious luncheon in the Wine Country.

The weekend began as we crossed the U.S./Tecate border on Friday, December 4th.  We like to walk across, leaving our cars on the U.S side, which means no waiting in the auto lanes on the way home – pedestrian crossings at Tecate take less than 10 minutes!  And, there is no need to drive in Mexico – we arrange to be picked up at the border by our host, Raul Aguiar.  This saves us the cost of gas and Mexican insurance.

As we arrived at the Ranch, the magical sight of the courtyard lit by torches and candles was enchanting.  Once settled into our cabins, we gathered for a tequila tasting, a specialty of the Ranch.  After learning what makes premium tequila so special, we enjoyed a meal of traditional Mexican barbacoa.  Not barbeque as we know it, but beef which has been cooked in a deep pit of oak coals for over 14 hours.  It is a labor intensive but delicious way to end the day!  Tired and full, we spent some moments stargazing in the deep, dark winter sky, then retired for the night.

After a morning snack of coffee and homemade muffins, we explored the ranch and its canyon setting a bit.  Rancho La Bellota is a 2,800 acre working horse and cattle ranch with guest accommodations in cozy cabins, delicious and healthy home-cooked meals based on traditional ranch fare, hiking, and horseback riding.  Baja Rancho Art has added professional art workshops and wine tasting tours to the mix.

After a tour of the printmaking studio and ceramics yard, and viewing some of the artwork created at the ranch, we were ready for breakfast.  A hearty meal of eggs with nopales, beans, quesadillas, fresh fruit, tortillas, and freshly made juice was served.  Paola, the cook, always prepares fresh and healthy meals for guests.  She is the daughter of the original ranch cook, Carmelita, thus continuing another Ranch tradition!

nubes doorAfter breakfast it was time to head out to Valle de Guadalupe and the wineries.  We had selected three locations for the day, starting at Las Nubes, an upscale and architecturally modern setting with a great view of the valley.  A delicious flight of five wines was offered, and we relaxed on the sunny terrace enjoying the rural scenery.

The wines in this region of Baja are delicious, produced as varietals and blends of Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Barbera, Malbec, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Chardonnay, French Colombard, Grenache, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat grapes.   The unique microclimate of the Valle de Guadalupe offers warm sunny days, which are cooled in the evening by the Pacific Ocean.

phlllipOur next stop, Vena Cava, must be seen to be appreciated.  Owners Eileen and Phil Gregory were on site during our visit, which was an unexpected treat.  Phil, an expatriated Brit, is a busy ambassador for Baja Wines, and travels extensively to promote Baja as one of the finest wine regions in the world.   We were honored that he personally served our group, speaking to us for almost an hour about his special blending and aging techniques and ideas for the future of the wine region.   The wine here is delicious; some of our favorites in the Valle are found in this unique setting.

cava toast

A toast to our host!

Ensenada architects Alejandro D’Acosta and Claudia Turrent designed the Vena Cava property to give visitors a memorable visual experience — not just a taste of fine wine. The ceilings of Vena Cava are made out of salvaged, discarded fishing boats, and walls and doors allow light to enter through discarded/salvaged lenses from a local eyeglass factory.

It sounds crazy, but it all works to create a wonderfully open and unusual space to enjoy great wine.  Alejandro is the brother of Hugo D’Acosta, who founded the “Escuelita” in 2004.  Many of the Valle’s vintners learned their craft at this now famous wine making school.   So, you could say that wine is the lifeblood of these siblings – one creates excellent wine, the other creates amazing spaces in which to savor it.

Restaurant copy

Valley View from Hacienda Guadalupe

After these two tastings it was time for lunch, and we had reservations at Hacienda Guadalupe, a lovely restaurant with a view of the vineyards.  Spicy rabbit tacos, shrimp quesadillas, chicken mole and fresh salads were among our selections, and none disappointed.   The freshly made lemonade was a counterpoint to the “vinos tintos y rojos” we’d been sampling.

After our leisurely lunch, we headed to our third and final vineyard on our tour, Bois de Tres Cantos.

na view

The courtyard at Clos de Tres Cantos features concrete furniture – very cool on a warm day!

wood door

Recycled wood becomes a revolving door to the wine cellar.

The name refers to a vineyard surrounding a medieval monastery, and the property is designed with a “modern monastery” in mind.  Again, very creative repurposing of glass, lumber, and steel were used in the construction of    this Minimalist style.

Wine bottles embedded in concrete allow soft light to enter the barrel cave.

Wine bottles embedded in concrete allow soft light to enter the barrel cave.

maya brickThe design inspiration comes from Mayan, Romanesque and Indigenous cultures, and is visually exciting.  The wines did not disappoint either, as we sampled three of their 2013 vintage reds.

bbq spitAs we returned to the Ranch, we knew were in for another dining treat.  A lamb had been on the outdoor rotisserie for 5 hours, and yielded a most delicious dinner.  As we shared our thoughts of the day around a bonfire later that evening, we were fully relaxed and ready for bed.  We wanted to be ready to Sunday’s horseback ride.

running horses

Releasing the horses after our ride.

The Criollo horses at Rancho La Bellota are surefooted and excellently trained.  They will accommodate an experienced rider as well as a first timer.  While Raul jokes that he matches guests “who have never ridden with horses that have never been ridden”, we always know he has selected an excellent horse for each rider’s skill level.

relaxingSunday was a beautiful warm day, and after breakfast we headed out for a 2-hour ride before lunch.  One guest had never been on a horse before, but loved every minute of the ride, which took us up and out of the canyon and along the ridge for some stunning views of the surrounding ranchos.  You can literally see for miles, unobstructed by electrical lines, houses, cell towers, roads, etc.  It is what California must have looked like before any of us arrived on the scene.

We knew that after lunch (tasty machaca tacos) we would be leaving the Ranch, so I think we dawdled just a bit, not really wanting to go.  But, as we said our goodbyes to the staff and loaded up luggage for the ride to Tecate, we felt that we had once again discovered something new about the region we live in.  Baja is California, just less crowded, more accessible, and I’d say a bit more group

Please visit our website, for details on our 2 and 3 day trips to Baja’s Ranch and Wine country. Click the Upcoming Events page to see what’s new for 2016, and subscribe to our newsletter for information on upcoming wine trips and art workshops.   Or, create your own group and let us customize a tour of this magical region of Baja – just minutes south of the Tecate border, but a world away!

We’ll hope to see you at the ranch –


Chris and Carol Webb, November 5 – 8, 2015 Ceramics Workshop – Raku and Pit Fired Pottery and Cold Finishing

One event, Two Firing Techniques!

red pot

Pit fired vase, 10″, Chris Webb

Chris Webb has over twenty-five years of teaching experience and enjoys sharing his expertise by leading clay workshops for ceramic educators, art professionals, hobbyists, and novices throughout California. His wife Carol Catalano Webb teaches printmaking, but also explores cold finishes on pottery, using some of Chris’s ceramic pieces as her canvas.

On the first weekend in November 2015, we held our second Ceramic event at the Ranch. 6 guests and 2 instructors made for a very hands-on and personalized workshop. The focus of the weekend was to run several firings using different methods to create unusual color and surface designs on our clay vessels.

Christopher’s ceramic work combines both unconventional and classic forms, creative patterns, textures and the use of alternative firings such as Raku and Pit firing. Raku firing creates brilliant metallic, crackle, and smoke patterns unique to each piece. Pit firing leaves one-of-a-kind patterns on the surface, influenced by organic and inorganic materials, smoke, and flame in the firing pit. Maria Martinez of New Mexico and Juan Quezada of Mexico are world famous for their pit-fired pottery.

chris demoFriday morning Chris led us in the creation of hand built clay vessels. The traditional method of coiling and pinching the clay, and using a “pokie” to keep it round was fascinating. He showed us how to customize our pieces with lids, spouts, handles, cut designs, and stamps. By lunchtime they were ready to set aside for drying.

After some tasty tostadas, we were driven to the wine country to visit some of our favorite vineyards.

lucencheWe started at El Legado, a family-owned boutique winery that focuses on two grapes, Syrah and Tempranillo; both the blends and varietals were delicious and served by family members. The casual and welcoming atmosphere complemented their wines beautifully.

troika truckOur next stop, Vena Cava, is a visual and taste treat. Owners Eileen and Phil Gregory are a busy and creative couple; some of our favorite wines in the Valle are found in this unique setting. A visit to the Vena Cava property gives visitors a memorable visual experience. The ceilings are made out of boats, and walls and doors are studded with eyeglass lenses to bring in light. It sounds crazy, but it all works to create a light and open space to enjoy great wine.  And the gourmet food truck, Troika, serves up gourmet tapas!

After two tastings, we were in the mood for a nibble, and stopped at the Familia Samarin cheese shop. In business in the Valle since 1906, they are known for fine cheeses, breads, homemade jams, and desserts. They purchase a variety of cheeses from local producers, and age and flavor them in-house.

samarinThe baked chipotle cheese is incredible – you’d swear it has bacon in it, but the smoky, meaty flavor comes from baking the cheese with tomato and mild peppers for several hours…yum! That and some herb-infused cheese made it back to the Ranch in time for happy hour; it paired perfectly with one of the Big Blend red wines we’d purchased at Vena Cava.

Over dinner we discussed the plan for Saturday and Sunday.


Bisque ware ready to glaze and fire.

We would select from a variety of pre-bisqued, hand built and wheel thrown items to glaze in the morning, and then take a horseback ride to allow the glazes to dry before loading the Raku kiln for the first of two Raku firings. Saturday night we would fire up the Pit and let it burn all night. Raku glazed and naked/wrapped wares would be used for the Pit firing. Combustibles supplied included oak, sawdust, straw, manure, and scrap lumber.  Many unusual colorants would be used to create dynamic, one-of-a-kind finishes on the clay bodies.

horsehair & feathers

Horsehair and feathers to decorate 900º pots.

Sunday morning we would dig out the Pit and clean the ware, fire a second Raku load, and experiment with horsehair and chicken feathers on hot pieces right out of the kiln. Some advance planning was needed to ensure safety and success.

Early Saturday morning I found Chris in the clay yard prepping for us. After breakfast, we gathered around to check out the raku kiln, and do a practice run. Once the kilns were red hot, each of us would have a job, and we needed to be clear on our positions and timing. While very safe if correctly orchestrated, Raku presents a unique challenge – pulling red-hot ware out of the kiln with tongs, placing them in a can of combustible material, allowing just enough time for them to ignite, then smothering the flames with the lid.

hot raku

Moving red hot ceramics from the kiln to the can for O² reduction.

The lack of oxygen in the can puts out the flame and pulls oxygen out of the clay and glazes, resulting in unpredictable colors and smoke marks on the pottery. As the pots cool, they are dipped in water to create crackle patterns in the glazes, which enhance the colors and patterns on the pots. Raku is a traditional Japanese style of firing, and has been modified by cultures around the world to produce a variety of results. If the ware cools too much between the kiln and the smothering, the glazes won’t react. If too hot, the glazes can burn out.

butterfly vase

Nancy D.’s lovely dragonfly vase, 5″ White crackle glaze, raku fired.

Our practice was worth it – all went well in the actual moments of firing. Our results were amazing – see below!

We were certainly ready for a hearty lunch, and Paola’s chicken tacos did not disappoint…I ate more than usual, knowing we had a full afternoon ahead – horseback riding, then a pit bonfire.

As always, Raul matched each guest with a great horse, and even the less experienced riders had a wonderful time. We rode into the east canyon, and up onto the hilltops for the views of the surrounding ranchos. Such a lovely day, with more to come.

manure into pit

Chris Webb (R) and Jim H. (L), examine the dry manure…good thing we are at a ranch!

Late Saturday afternoon we prepped for the pit firing, which is a very ancient technique for firing pots without using a kiln. Rather than load a kiln, we used our brick-lined bonfire pit.   We placed the combustibles in the pit right along with the wrapped ceramic objects.

pit loaded

Pit loaded with mineral powders, seaweed, wire, burlap and wrapped pots, ready for the bonfire.

Mineral powders, copper wire, banana peels, barbed wire, steel wool, string, chicken wire, seaweed, salts, charcoal briquettes, and some raku glazes were painted, splattered, or wrapped onto the pots and they were arranged in the pit in contact with these materials, all of which would leave unpredictable and distinctive colors and marks on the pots.

Bisqued pot wrapped with seaweed and copper.

On top of all this, we built a large bonfire and ignited it – caution – don’t try this at home unless you have plenty of experience with the process! We watched the flames dance for an hour or so, and then the pit was left to “cook” overnight. We went to bed Saturday night knowing we’d have some surprises in the morning!pit bonfire

When the pit was opened Sunday before brunch, we were excited to see what the flames, smoke, and organic and inorganic materials we’d placed in the pit would do to the pots inside…we weren’t disappointed! Smoky reds, greys, and peach colors transformed the pots into works of art.

dig out 2

Digging out the pit always brings surprises.

The salts from the seaweed, potassium from the banana peels, nitrogen from the dung, carbon from the briquettes, iron from the steel wool, and the copper and minerals made for an array of colors and effects on the clay.

applying hair

Carol applying horsehair onto a hot pot, leaving eccentric carbon lines.

Next, we fired up the raku kiln one more time, this time for the horsehair and feather burn.  This is a real hands on process, removing hot pots from the kiln, and using tongs. rolling them or applying the carbon based items onto the hot surface.  About 900 degrees is the target, a bit less than red hot this time.

I applied some color once they were cool, and here are the delightful results!

my horsehair

Cold finished color on raku and pit fired forms.

All of us took home several raku and pit fired pieces that we glazed and fired on site. Here are a few of the pieces we now own! results 2

results 1

Please visit our website, for details on our 2 and 3 day trips to Baja’s Ranch and Wine country. Click the Upcoming Events page to see what’s new for 2016, and subscribe to our newsletter for information on upcoming art workshops and wine tours. Or, create your own group and let us customize a visit to this magical region of Baja – just minutes south of the Tecate border, but a world away!

We’ll hope to see you at the ranch –


Catherine Grawin, September 24–27, 2015 Instructor-led Plein Air Workshop

cathe demo canyon

Bellota Canyon, C. Grawin, oil on canvas, 9 x 12

Our 3-day painting workshop featured structured painting sessions at scenic Rancho La Bellota with Catherine Grawin. Ms. Grawin teaches painting alla prima in oil in her Solana Beach studio and plein air painting at UCSD Extension and the La Jolla Athenaeum School of Arts. She was a juried participant in this summer’s historic 100 years of Art in Balboa Park exhibition at the Marston House Museum, celebrating the 1915 Panama-California Exposition Centennial.  Ms. Grawin is one of Southern California’s foremost plein air painters of the landscape.

Painting alla prima is an exciting “wet-in-wet” oil painting technique that is rapid and painterly. This workshop was designed for the serious beginner to the experienced painter, using traditional methods in exercises and painting landscape and animals.

We focused on strengthening our use of color, value, and composition while practicing lively alla prima-style brush techniques. Working “au plein air” (outdoors) forces us to analyze a scene quickly, mix color with confidence, and approach the painting with energy as we observe the natural beauty and light within the landscape.

Friday morning, we gathered for coffee and muffins to watch a demonstration on pigment characteristics, color theory, and composition. Catherine helped us see the energy of the local scenery, including the beautiful oak and sycamore canyon view we focused on.

at easels canyonOnce at our easels, we followed along as Catherine describe her method of working; establish the composition (what’s in, what’s out), sketch lightly in oil directly onto the canvas, and begin with the large shapes and basic colors in the scene. She took frequent breaks from her own work to allow us time to digest the ideas and work on our canvases, as she came around to discuss our initial efforts. One thing I learned was the use of Ultramarine blue and white as a “mud”…a neutral to mix into other pigments to tone down the intensity of a color. Nature is full of colors, but most of them are slightly to fully neutralized versions of the pure pigments that come out of the tube of paint. Being able to quickly neutralize these colors is essential to plein air work.

my canvas - canyon

Bellota Canyon, E. Parry, oil on canvas, 9 x 12

Time seemed to fly, and before we knew it, we had some respectable canyon scenes beginning to emerge. I’m always amazed at group paint outs – how several artists can converge on a scene, then create distinctly different paintings, all capturing an essential but different aspect of the beauty before us.

Painting makes one hungry, so we were ready when the lunch bell range. After tostadas, we had a quick review and critique, and then headed off the Ranch for a visit to the wine country, Valle de Guadalupe. We had selected two wineries to visit, Vinos Bibayoff and Vene Cava, then planned to visit the cheese shop of Familia Samarin, with a 100-year history in the Valle.

russian shop bibayoffVinos Bibayoff is still owned by descendants of one of the original Russian families, which immigrated in 1906 to the wine valley. Still making some traditional old-country wines, they have also mastered the grapes that grow bet in the particular microclimate in this region of Baja. Their tasting room also displays and sells local and Russian arts and crafts.

A real treat was in store for us. Raul had suggested we visit a winery that he had recently visited and thought our guests would enjoy. Now the location, Vena Cava, is one of our favorites.  A visit to the Vena Cava property gives visitors a memorable visual experience.

group vena cava

Enjoying the wines at Vena Cava

The ceilings are made out of old pangas (Mexican fishing boats), and the entry doors are made of repurposed eyeglass lenses to bring in light. All the materials were locally sourced from salvage yards in Ensenada. It sounds crazy, but it all works to create a light and open space to enjoy great wine.

bike fam samarin

Near the doorway, Samarin bodega.

Our last stop of the day was my favorite cheese shop, run by the Samarin family. In business in the Valle since 1906, they purchase cheeses from local ranchers, then age and flavor them in-house. Try the baked chipotle cheese with the Vena Cava Big Blend…they complement each other perfectly!   And, both were delicious with the carne asada served at the Ranch that night. We’d had a full day – creative, instructive, fun, and delicious!

Saturday morning we focused on the caretaker’s cabin, one of the first buildings you see as you enter the ranch property.

cathe demo cabin 1

Morning light on caretaker’s cabin.

An adorable white brick building, it softly reflected the early morning sunlight with a warm glow. The surrounding garden and oaks made a strong contrast in our compositions. As Catherine lead the way, we worked quickly to capture the light before it solidified into midmorning brightness.

While some of us went into lunch, others in the group stayed to paint on…

skull canvas

Cowskull, oil on canvas

The cow skull hanging on a post, the tack shed, the oaks themselves, and the sheep offered intriguing subjects for those who painted on. Several guests completed four canvases in just 2 and a half days! Practice, practice, practice…

horse and easel

Patient horses make good models.

Some of us went riding after lunch, others chose to work at the easels… a saddled horse was the subject for an impromptu afternoon session.

Dinner was a welcome treat. Raul’s delicious rotisserie lamb, roasted on a spit over an oak fire for hours. Served with mashed potatoes and steamed veggies, it was truly a gourmet meal after a day of pure creative energy. After dinner, we sampled some reserve tequilas, and then some hit their pillows.

nocturn group

Painting the night

Others, including me, decided on a challenge – to stay up late and paint a nocturne. No one in the group had ever attempted one, but the spirits were willing, so why not? What a hoot!  Painting with a headlamp, it’s hard to see the actual color you are mixing due to glare, hard to see how it’s going on the canvas (also glare), and your eyes have to adjust a lot to the actual darkness you are looking into vs. the glare of the palette and canvas.


Cabins by Moonlight, oil on canvas, E. Parry

I went to bed not knowing exactly what I had, but was pleased enough with it in the morning…

Well, when we’d had our first ups of coffee in the morning, we began to amass all the canvases which had been finished during our 3 day workshop…very impressive!

critiqueCatherine’s enthusiasm and spirit had inspired all of us to create much more than we had anticipated, and we were all proud and pleased.   We can’t wait for her to return in 2016!

Please visit our website, for details on our 2 and 3 day trips to Baja’s Ranch and Wine country. Click the Upcoming Events page to see what’s new for 2016, and subscribe to our newsletter for information on upcoming wine trips and art workshops. Or, create your own group and let us customize a tour of this magical region of Baja – just minutes south of the Tecate border, but a world away!

We’ll hope to see you at the ranch –


Helen Shafer Garcia, September 17 – 20, 2015 Instructor-led Watercolor Workshop

New Ideas with Water-based Media

rlb journal

Watercolor Montage of the Ranch, Helen Shafer Garcia, 2015

 Helen Shafer Garcia is a painter, mixed media, found object and assemblage artist and award-winning illustrator. Her whimsical style shows her love for nature found in the landscape, flora and fauna of a particular region. She’s currently working with watercolor, pastel, and mixed media to create contemporary nature -inspired images on paper along with a series of journals showcasing the Icon folklore she discovers in her travels.

Helen brought a group of watercolorists to the Ranch to relax and paint among the oak and sycamore trees of Bellota Canyon. Some guests were new to the media, others brought more experience, but all of us moved forward in our skills during this very enjoyable and instructive weekend.

After a welcoming margarita and carne asada for dinner, Helen discussed our goals for this 3-day workshop. Her approach is very simple – “look for what inspires you – the unexpected, the colorful, the essence of a thing or place”.


The inspiration.

Friday morning we filled our coffee mugs, grabbed a warm muffin, and joined Helen on the sunny patio for a drawing session. We were encouraged to try contour drawings of some of the various plants in the garden area. The assorted succulents made interesting models, and many of us created blended compositions of 2 or 3 on a page, using a water-soluble pen.

succulent painting start

Linework with wash, soon to be a colorful watercolor.

When we were satisfied with our drawings, we washed clean water onto the lines, and they began to bleed and soften, thus creating the first layer of color on our paintings without even touching the watercolor pigments yet.

For me, this was a relaxing way to start… to get past the empty whiteness of the paper without actually thinking about painting yet. While I have dabbled with watercolor over the years, I find it to be a challenging medium. It’s like painting without a safety net! Watercolor generally cannot be removed or “erased” once placed, so you need to really plan out the colors, values, shapes, and layering from the beginning, or just decide to get happy with your results. It can take years to achieve true mastery in this medium.   But Helen is an outstanding instructor, understands the potential of watercolor, and had truly set us up to succeed. I loved my first layer! After washing in a second layer of color, it was intriguing to watch the interaction of the ink (from the pen) and the pigment (from the brush). It was easy to just drop in some color and let it flow within the boundary of the line work. In just a couple of hours, we had some very nice botanical studies to work from.

ellen wc barnThe lunch bell rang soon after, and we talked about our morning drawing/painting session and our trip to the wine country that afternoon.

After lunch, we headed to Valle de Guadalupe for wine tasting and the village of El Porviner.

wine toast nubes

Toasting at Las Nubes Winery

A visit to Las Nubes and Vena Cava wineries was followed up with a stop at the cheese shop for some happy hour treats back at the Ranch, where a delicious dinner of carne steak ranchero awaited us.

Saturday morning we found Helen eyeing the caretaker’s cabin, and soon we were all working on this simple architectural subject.

pano group at cabin

Our group painting the caretaker’s cabin.

The white brick of the cabin catches the morning light beautifully, and it tends to cast a golden glow upon this simple building.   After some sketches, we were encouraged to use the cabin as a backdrop to the painting of the succulents we’d done the day before – a great idea, since it brought two simple ideas together into one, more complex composition. The flow of the watercolor pigments married the two subjects beautifully.

helen finished cabin

Helen’s cabin painting, with the succulent shown above, and the horse stamp (see below)

Before we know it, it was time (again) for lunch. That’s one of the pleasures of staying at the Ranch for a workshop. We don’t need to drive to get a meal…it’s all prepared for us, on our schedule. When inspiration strikes, we can even have it delivered right from the kitchen!

group at sycamores

Painting trees up the Canyon

The afternoon was a beautiful, sunny one and brought more inspiration. We took a short hike, and our painting gear and chairs were delivered to a spot under the shady oak and sycamore trees for an alla prima session. Painting alla prima means going right into the pigment, often with no sketch whatsoever. Building upon the energy and experience of the morning session, we boldly went forward with looser, but more confident brushwork, studying the composition of the branches, trunks, and leaf structures of these very old models. Fall colors were beginning to show in the trees, and provided the variety we love in landscape painting.

Then came perhaps the most memorable moment of the weekend, and one we laughed about at the dinner table that night. After a couple of hours in the canyon, enjoying the beauty and sounds of nature, we started hearing music.

margsIn a few minutes, we were delighted to see Raul coming through the trees with a tray of freshly made cantaloupe margaritas – unbelievable! It turned out he had played the music to cover the sound of the blender, working off a generator in the back of his truck…we all agreed they were the most refreshing treat we’d ever had while “working in the field”!   Another reason why we love workshops at the Ranch…

Later in the afternoon, Helen showed us how to create some small vignettes on our paintings, two or three little paintings along the margins of the tree studies from the canyon.

client quad paintingLittle acorns, flowers, rocks, leaves, and dragonflies began to fill the edges of the morning studies. It turned simple tree paintings into stories; visual journals about a special time and place.

Our dinner Saturday night was succulent grilled lamb, one of my favorite meals. Accompanied by fresh veggies, salad, and potatoes, it is a gourmet treat all the guests enjoy. That evening we talked around the bonfire, laughed about the margaritas, gazed at the stars in the dark sky, and went to bed feeling that we were beginning to gain confidence with watercolor.

Sunday morning, some of us went for a horseback ride while others painted, read, hiked or lounged around the pool. It was a warm morning and suited to just about anything. So perfect, we didn’t want it end, and Helen offered to show us one more trick up her artful sleeve. After brunch, we gathered in the barn to carve a small stamp, about 3” square, based on any of the forms that we’d been admiring during our stay.

stamp demo

Helen makes a print of her stamp on rice paper, to attach to her painting.

Helen chose to carve a simple horse, while others carved a cactus, a horseshoe, a star, etc. When done, the stamps were inked and printed onto rice paper and placed onto the paintings we’d made the days before. They acted like a signature or a watermark, and made a lovely finish for the artworks. It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful, creative, fun, and tasty workshop weekend. Thanks, Helen!

 As we packed up to leave the Ranch, everyone agreed we’d learned a lot and had lovely paintings and memories to take home. We were wishing for just one more day, but we’ll just have to return when Helen comes back in May of 2016. Watch this space!

group at sign

Helen Shafer Garcia’s Watercolor Group

Please visit our website, for details on our 2 and 3 day trips to Baja’s Ranch and Wine country. Click the Upcoming Events page to see what’s new for 2016, and subscribe to our newsletter for information on upcoming art workshops and wine tours. Or, create your own group and let us customize a visit to this magical region of Baja – just minutes south of the Tecate border, but a world away!

We’ll hope to see you at the ranch –


Stuart Burton, June 18–21, 2015, Instructor-led Plein Air Workshop

clay yard

Creekside Oak

Paula, Sonny, Diane E, Diane H., Janet, Liz and I arrived at the ranch Thursday afternoon to work in oils with Stuart Burton of the Art Academy of San Diego. After a settling in, Stuart discussed our goals for our 3-day workshop. His approach is very inspiring – “tell the story with as few words as possible” – reminding us to keep it simple, watch our values, shapes and shadows and let color take care of itself. Thursday evening after dinner we sampled a few premium tequilas as we watched the bonfire, then headed to our cabins for the night.


Diane E. gets some tips from Stuart Burton

Friday morning we received individual drawing instruction, then worked at our easels, capturing the morning light coming into the canyon. Stuart gave a demonstration on composition and color mixing, and his approach is simple. Just 6 colors, plus white, comprise his palette. We joked a bit about our various approaches to color…shopping for the “perfect” color in a tube, and then finding out it doesn’t exist. In nature, every color is affected by the colors around it, so the color you see is unique to the lighting and atmosphere of the moment. Learning to mix accurate colors is a major topic of study for Stuart, and he is an expert. By lunchtime, we were seeing things quite differently, and our canvases were the better for it.

tree drawing

Paula’s Tree Study, pastel on paper

After lunch, we had planned to visit the wine country of Valle de Guadalupe, but we decided to stay at the Ranch and paint. The setting offers so many scenarios for plein air painters, it is often hard to decide what to use as a subject.

tree demo

Stuart demos the structure of a tree.









Stuart suggested we tackle the oaks around the cabins.  He helped us see the basic structure in the trees, and made color-mixing suggestions that brought unity to these studies. By that afternoon, we were feeling much more knowledgeable on the subject of color – both seeing it and creating it.

A delicious dinner of carne asada awaited us after relaxing a bit in the late afternoon.

Saturday morning brought more painting and more inspiration, and then we were off in the afternoon for a group horseback ride.

rideRiding is always an option for guests at our workshops, as we like to highlight the diversity of activities this region of Baja has to offer. Everyone has a great time, from beginners to experienced riders – Raul always takes care of the guests and matches them to the perfect horse.

After dinner on Saturday we were in for an unexpected treat. Unbeknownst to us, we had a musician in our group. Sonny is a great blues harmonica player, and he entertained us with a few classic tunes. I’m always so impressed by people with musical skill; to be able to enrapture people with an impromptu solo is a gift!



Such simplicity – a fire, some music, laughter, and swapping stories before going to bed.

As we packed up our wet canvases, easels, and gear on Sunday, we were wishing we could stay. It’s always this way – folks arrive at the Ranch unsure of what to expect, they become instantly at ease, enjoy themselves and create wonderful things, and never want to leave. If only we had all the time in the world to engage the artist within us. Imagine the possibilities!

Please visit our website, for details on our 2 and 3 day trips to Baja’s Ranch and Wine country. Click the Upcoming Events page to see what’s new for 2016, and subscribe to our newsletter for information on upcoming art workshops and wine tours. Or, create your own group and let us customize a visit to this magical region of Baja – just minutes south of the Tecate border, but a world away!

We’ll hope to see you at the ranch –


Rose Irelan, June 4 – 7, 2015, Instructor-led Plein Air Workshop

Rose Irelan returned for her second workshop at the Ranch in June, and her color intuition was on really on display.   Late spring is one of the loveliest times to visit the Ranch, and the weather never disappoints. Long, warm days and cool nights allow plenty of time to work in our studio or in the landscape. We did a bit of each during our stay.

still life set up

Our Still Life arrangement

Rose’s group brought mixed levels of experience to the workshop, so she made an excellent choice by starting our instruction Friday morning with a still life session, working with gouache. Still life refers to painting or drawing a group of objects which do not move, thereby giving the artist plenty of time to study form, light, and color. We set up a charming group of items from around the Ranch – a cowboy hat, some boots and spurs, a coffee pot with mug, and a canteen. These were arranged in the sun on a colorful blanket to give great color and shadow to the scene.

still life paintingGouache is an opaque water-based painting medium, similar to very heavily pigmented watercolor or tempera paint.   It is very forgiving, allowing you to mix wet-into-wet, and paint over anything you might wish to change. I had never used this medium before, so I was intrigued along with our guests. Rose’s background in commercial illustration had taught her the versatility of gouache, which dries quickly and stays true to its color.

Rose had us sketch with charcoal to observe the shadow patterns in another still life, then, comfortable with the composition, we started on a new sheet in color. The buttery smoothness of the paint was instantly appealing. Within just a couple of hours we had some great little paintings of the ranch inspired scene.

After lunch we took our guests to the wine country, and visited two of our favorite wineries, Tres Mujeres and Mogor Badan, then decided to take a chance on a new operation. I’d been hearing lately about the upsurge in interest in micro-brewed beer in the Valle, but had yet to sample any. Why wait? Don Cieli, owner of Bodegas Cieli Winery & Brewery, has built a property that includes a vineyard, a separate brewing facility, a tasting room, and his personal residence. Beautiful valley views complete the setting on the east side of the Valle.


Chatting at Cieli’s Bodega and Winery

We had a great time sampling the wines and beers on his large covered patio. He is not the first to brew in the Valle, but I feel his will be one of the more popular “pubs” in the Valle very soon.



ink studiesBack at the Ranch Saturday morning, we worked on the sunny patio a bit with pen and ink, blocking in some small compositions. I really respect Rose’s approach to media – it’s all the same really, because the art is in the scene. It’s about the shapes, the colors, the composition, and the shadows that tie it all together.

Saturday afternoon we enjoyed a horseback ride, and this group was comprised of some experienced riders, so we rode further and in a bit more challenging area of the 2,800 acre ranch. Raul can always find the right horse and the right ride for the group. By late Saturday, we were feeling relaxed, creative, and full of potential. We looked forward to hearing Rose’s critique of our accomplishments during the weekend.

charcoalBefore we sat down for brunch on Sunday, Rose gathered us all under the palapa to review and share or work. Her notes were spot on as she acknowledged each person’s strengths and areas they could work on. Overall, we were thrilled with our results, knowing we could continue to work from her advice and teaching. Rose’s upbeat attitude had helped us meet the artist within ourselves.

Please visit our website, for details on our 2 and 3 day trips to Baja’s Ranch and Wine country. Click the Upcoming Events page to see what’s new for 2016, and subscribe to our newsletter for information on upcoming art workshops and wine tours. Or, create your own group and let us customize a visit to this magical region of Baja – just minutes south of the Tecate border, but a world away!

We’ll hope to see you at the ranch –


Open Studio Weekend, May 14 – 17, 2015

IMG_3037An Open Studio means each Ranch guest uses their time as they wish – painting, creating photos, pulling prints on our press, or even working with clay. It’s an opportunity to find your private muse, and relax with your favorite medium.


The best views are framed by a horse’s ears!

In May we had a mixed group of riders and artists.  While some came for the excellent terrain and the surefooted horses, others brought their easels, and some guests did both – painting in the mornings, and joining in for an afternoon ride.  On Friday afternoon we decided to visit Valle Guadalupe for lunch, and dined at Vinos Fuentes, one of our favorite restaurants in the wine country.

IMG_9055The Fuentes family has been making wine for 3 generations in the Valle, and has recently added a lovely restaurant to the property. They feature modestly priced meals using fresh local ingredients in traditional combination plates as well as upscale choices like quail and fresh grilled tuna. Knowing it’s all delicious, I have a difficult time making a selection here, but I am never disappointed with my meal. And, when owner Miguel Fuentes in in the house, you are in for a good time – he has a joyful spirit that is reflected in the wine and food served in his restaurant.


storm clouds roll through San Marcos, B.C.

As we returned to the Ranch, we watched a great rainstorm approach and quench the thirst of the agricultural fields in the area. After a very dry winter season, the storm was a welcome sight for all of us, and especially for Raul. Water is a precious resource in all of the Californias, and Baja is especially vulnerable to drought.   Many local ranchos rely on dry farming or low-level irrigation for their crops, so rain is always something to celebrate.

IMG_1820As we arrived at the top of a hill, we stopped for a while to take pictures of some of the dramatic and beautifully tinted clouds rolling through the valley. We shot some panorama views, and I collected some really good source photos for future canvases. I’ve been studying clouds for some time now; they can add such drama and beauty to a simple painting. I’m ready and inspired to go for it now.


Sue and I painted the morning light.

So, whether you come to the Ranch to create, relax, explore, or gather inspiration, there is always a wonderful gestalt there with people who see the beauty in all things, and wish to enjoy an uncomplicated break in our complicated lives.

Please visit our website, for details on our 2 and 3 day trips to Baja’s Ranch and Wine country. Click the Upcoming Events page to see what’s new for 2016, and subscribe to our newsletter for information on upcoming art workshops and wine tours. Or, create your own group and let us customize a visit to this magical region of Baja – just minutes south of the Tecate border, but a world away!

We’ll hope to see you at the ranch –


Kumiai Artistry and Willow Basket Workshop, April 16-19, 2015

Our Hands-on Basketry Weekend in Baja California – Learning from a Native Kumiai Master Weaver

Spring is the season of basket making in Native cultures, and our Kumiai Willow Basket Workshop with Master Basket Weaver Virginia Melendrez was a truly unique learning experience. Virginia is a Kumiai native of San Jose de la Zorra, a region near the Valle de Guadalupe wine country with a rich tradition of basketry.

Kumiai Master Basket Weaver Virginia Melendrez

Kumiai Master Basket Weaver Virginia Melendrez

Kumiai Master Basket Weaver Virginia Melendrez

The Kumiai of Northern Baja California and the Kumeyaay of Southern California are known as the “Indians of the Oaks” and are related, with a modern international border splitting the band into two groups. They share a common history and many traditional crafts. The Kumiai have been basket weavers for hundreds of years; the art form is passed through the generations, mother to daughter.

A Lidded Olla

A lidded olla by Virginia Melendrez

A lidded olla by Virginia Melendrez

We arrived at the ranch in time to relax before dinner Thursday evening, and talk around the table centered on the weekend’s activities. We planned to go wine tasting and enjoy a gourmet winery lunch on Friday (more on that below), then return to the ranch to meet our instructor Friday afternoon. Basketry lessons were set for Saturday and Sunday mornings. I’d like to share the experience here with you. After spending Friday in the wine country, we returned to the ranch and met our instructor, Virginia Melendrez. She would be guiding us through the ancient process of creating individual baskets, starting with gathering the plant materials right at the ranch. Virginia had brought several baskets with her, to show us a variety of traditional shapes and a few new ones. Containers shaped like bowls and vases are traditional, but she also had made some whimsical animal forms, a turtle and a bird.

We would be collecting a native species of willow that grows in streambeds throughout Southern California and Northern Baja. Traditionally, willow is collected in late spring and early summer when it is very flexible, making it easier to bend and form the shape of the base, sides, and lids of acorn storage baskets.

Ready for Our First Lesson

enough willow branches to get started

Enough willow branches to get started

We headed up the canyon Friday afternoon to collect branches before dinner; we wanted to be ready for our first lesson in the morning. Virginia showed us what to cut; basically the thinnest shoots of the new spring growth. Selecting shoots at least 2 feet long, we were taught to cut some bluntly and others at an angle, creating a convenient needle point. In about a half hour we had enough willow branches to get started. We had also worked up an appetite, and while our winery luncheon had been delicious, were looking forward to a home cooked meal.

Chiles rellenos were on the menu for dinner, customized to suit the needs of our guests – no-red-meat, gluten and dairy-free for some, extra cheesy for others. They were stuffed with grilled chicken and chopped veggies, topped with homemade salsa, some with melted local cheese. Not battered and deep fried, these were truly healthy and full of flavor. Good conversation, a bonfire, and we were ready for sleep.

Saturday we awoke excited to begin our basket lessons. The willow branches had been left covered with a damp cloth overnight to keep them pliable, and we selected 4 – 5 thin branches with leaves to begin. We tied our branches into a knot, then bent the remainder of the branch cluster around the knot…the pliable branches bent easily and we were ready for our first stitches.

Wrapping Around the Knotted Core

Wrapping around the knotted core

Wrapping around the knotted core

Selecting an angle-cut branch, also very thin, we stripped the leaves off leaving just a few at the end, and were shown how to insert the point into the knot, wrap it around, and stitch into the core. Beginning to stich the coils together … That made the beginning of the coil which would grow into a basket. Bending, wrapping, and stitching around the knot, the flat bottom of the baskets began to take shape.
For the following rows, we used an awl (a pointed tool) to make a hole in the previous row, then inserted the pointed branch, pulled it tightly, and continued wrapping. We were making individual baskets, and I chose to try to emulate one of the traditional forms, an olla, or storage basket.

As we worked, Virginia explained many uses for baskets in the traditional world of the Kumiai. I was surprised to learn that the willow baskets she had brought were considered “miniatures” – they were between 8 – 10 inches across, and 5 – 10 inches high. Traditional willow baskets were much larger, 3 – 4 feet across, and were used to store acorns for up to six months in the ground.

A Traditional Kumiai Olla

A traditional Kumiai Olla with lid, approx 4 feet in diameter.

A traditional Kumiai Olla with lid, approx 4 feet in diameter.

The Kumiai migrated seasonally between different climate zones (coastal in winter, inland foothills in spring and fall, mountains in the summer), and as they left the inland areas in the fall, they left baskets of acorns buried in the ground to be used in the spring when they returned. Willow is a natural insect repellant and small mammals such as squirrels, mice and gophers don’t like the taste of it, so the acorns were safe in the ground; a ready food supply in the spring, when acorns were not yet mature on the trees.

An Infectious Activity

Left - A new basket, Right – after 6 months in the ground

Left – A new basket-Right – after 6 months in the ground

After several hours of basket wrapping and stitching, we had very promising shapes beginning to emerge. We were ready to break for lunch and a horseback ride to explore the hilltops of the ranch and enjoy the expansive views they offer. After our ride, some of us worked on our baskets until dusk…it’s an infectious activity; I kept saying “just one more row” and before I knew it I had a basket almost finished!

Morteros at Rancho La Bellota

Mortero site on the ranch

Mortero site on the ranch

Sunday morning visited the mortero site on the ranch, where native Kumiai women would have collected and ground acorns from the local oaks, leaving deep depressions in the granite rocks along the streambed.

We learned that different shapes of mortero holes were used to grind different foods; narrow, deep holes for grinding acorns and wide, shallow holes for corn and other grains. Willows were growing there also, and we imagined the conversations among the women and girls of the Kumiai as countless generations gathered acorns, labored to produce their meals, and perhaps sat in those very places to create their willow storage baskets.

Basket Almost Finished

Basket Almost Finished

After our walk, we “wrapped up” our baskets…mine was beginning to look like an olla. We just needed to learn how to finish off the wrapping and stitching by tapering the ends of our branches, using closer stitches near the end, and tucking in the remaining “needle” branches – the ones we used to stitch the rows together.

Overall, I’m very proud of my basket, as were the others in our group. We had learned a timeless craft from a master artist, had a piece of history to take home, and had our memories of another wonderful experience at the ranch.

A Timeless Craft

Back, olla by E. Parry, Front, olla by Virginia Melendez, Kumiai Basketry Instructor

Back, olla by E. Parry, Front, olla by Virginia Melendez, Kumiai Basketry Instructor

The Kumiai Culture of Baja California is rich and enduring – next year’s workshop will be an experience you won’t want to miss!

And if you are a foodie, here’s a summary of the outstanding meal we enjoyed at El Pinar, the outdoor dining room at Tres Mujeres Winery:

Cheese Shop of the Familia Samarin

Friday morning after breakfast we headed for Guadalupe, a small town in the heart of the wine country. At the artisanal cheese shop of the Familia Samarin, we sampled many varieties of cheeses, breads, spreads, and jams, and we saw several Kumiai willow baskets on display. This started us thinking about our upcoming lessons and we studied the construction of the baskets carefully, as if to imprint it on our minds for good luck.

Lunch at Tres Mujeres Winery

Vinicola Tres Mujeres

Vinicola Tres Mujeres

Then we were off for lunch at Tres Mujeres Winery, and were greeted by owner Ivettte Vaillard. We’d come specifically to dine at El Pinar, the outdoor bistro on site. Chef Iseme was there to greet us, ready to plan her menu around our no-red-meat, gluten-free, and dairy-free guests. As an omnivore, I was wondering what could possibly be left to prepare a meal, but Iseme outdid herself once again.

Our six course meal (remember, this was lunch!) started with two green salads, a chilled cucumber soup, smoked sardine or sausage appetizer (both were amazing), entre choices of flank steak, rock fish, or pork ribs, all grilled over oak coals. Since we couldn’t decide, we each ordered one and shared; I can’t tell you which I preferred, as all were excellent and grilled to perfection. A small cheese plate followed the main course, offering three local specialties, then dessert – an amazing walnut cream mousse topped with honey and a home-baked ginger cookie. All I can say is WOW. We shared a bottle of Ivettte’s wine, La Mezcla, a delicious blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. It complemented the meal perfectly, and was graciously served tableside by the vintner herself.

Tres Mujeres Winery and Restaurante El Pinar always offer the best in regional, artisanal products in a charming setting. We always look forward to seeing what Ivette and Iseme have created out of the local bounty.

Art, Wine, or Horses

Whether it’s art, wine, or horses you love, we hope you’ll join Baja Rancho Art at Rancho La Bellota for a fun, inspiring, and relaxing learning experience. Please see our website at to view our upcoming painting, photo, printmaking and ceramic workshops.

See you at the ranch!


How does a dude ranch become an artist’s retreat?

Two years ago, we began to think about creating a special place for artists…a Studio of the South.  What better venue than Rancho La Bellota, the beautiful 2,800 acre horse and cattle ranch that we’ve enjoyed visiting for many years?  Truly “of the South”, the ranch is located 50 miles south of the U.S./Tecate border, very close to Mexico’s famous wine country.  Since it was originally designed as a dude ranch, we knew the hospitality was already in place; all we needed to do was invite the artists!


We began by asking artists to join us for 3-day weekends, sharing painting techniques and photography tricks.  As the dream is unfolding, this year we will bring ceramic artists and printmakers into the creative mix.  Painters and photographers tend to work outside, but printers and potters often need indoor spaces, and of course, printing presses and kilns are required.

We needed a barn…

Raul is building a barn!  Here is a photo, taken last December, of Rancho La Bellota’s new 3,000 square foot barn under construction.


It’s almost finished now, and will be the site of our first Printmaker’s Studio, March 12 – 15, lead by Carol Catalano Webb, an amazing San Diego printmaker.  Approximately 600 square feet of the barn will be devoted to printmaking, and we are preparing the site with a press, drying racks, a sink, a huge work table, and storage.  In other words, everything an artist would want to create beautiful, multi-layered intaglio prints.  Using foam, Plexiglas, or linoleum, artists will find boundless inspiration in the ranch setting – the natural landscape, traditional architecture, vineyards, giant agaves, livestock, vintage equipment, and of course, the horses which free range on the 2,800 acre property.

Baja Rancho Art would like to invite you to explore a fresh venue in 2015.

Please visit our Upcoming Events page for details, and we’ll see you at the Ranch!

Because of you … 2014 was a wonderful first year

bra-ornaments-2014Baja Rancho Art offered eight creative and fun workshops focused on Painting and Photography with a dash of wine touring for good measure. With seven art workshops already scheduled for 2015 and more in the planning stages, we are set for an exciting new year!

With the completion of a new barn at the Rancho La Bellota, we will be offering something new for 2015 – our first Ceramics and Printmaking workshops! The new construction will include unique facilities to create and fire ceramics, explore printmaking techniques, and will offer plenty of space to get creative!

The benefit of an art workshop weekend at Rancho La Bellota is that we don’t need to travel anywhere else – inspiring subjects, delicious meals, and comfortable lodging are all right there. Our all-inclusive workshops allow us more time to relax and create. Our needs are always met or exceeded with a hospitality that comes so naturally from Ranch owners Raul and Caroline Aguiar, and we wish to thank them.

To those of you who have been unable to attend our workshops but enjoy receiving our newsletters, Facebook postings, tweets, and emails, thank you for allowing us to keep in touch. To all our guests, workshop instructors, clients, and co-workers, thank you for also being our friends. Our lives have been made richer by knowing you.

Wishing You Happy Holidays and a Creative New Year,
The Baja Rancho Art Team