VALLE DE GUADALUPE, B.C. – One of my favorite people in the Valle de Guadalupe winemaking community passed away suddenly yesterday. As the news and shock spread, I woke up to no less than a dozen tributes to Ray Magnussen on Facebook this morning, along with an outpouring of love for his wife and family from their many friends.
I regret that I didn’t have the time to get to know Ray as well as I would have liked to. Though I’d learned about Lechuza Winery on the the popular Life and Food blog and was intrigued by the San Diego-born owner, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Ray until 2015.
That year, Ray sent me a message via Facebook, inviting us to come visit his small winery the next time we were in the Valle. When we arrived at Lechuza that summer, Ray, his wife Patty, his daughter Kris, and her husband Adam greeted my wife, son, and I like we were old friends.
That afternoon, we enjoyed wine, cheese, olives, hospitality, and great conversation with Ray on the vineyard’s front porch, overlooking his vines. He was particularly proud of and generously shared a bottle of his “Wedding” reserve Chardonnay, which he created to celebrate Kris and Adam’s nuptials. To this day, it’s still one of our favorite Baja California whites.
Ray was very “easy to know” and we immediately liked him. He told me that he was a fan of this blog and enjoyed sharing my posts with friends and visitors. In turn, we quickly became fans of Ray, his family, and his wines and always enjoyed seeing and chatting with him at his vineyard and at dinners and events around Baja and San Diego.
As we were leaving that first afternoon, Ray and I posed for a photo at the end of the vines by the Lechuza sign. I was struck that the man was a couple of inches taller than me (I’m 6’4”). Ray wore his hair long and curly and I liked to describe him as a “blonde Robert Plant.” (NOTE: After writing this piece, I was told by a mutual friend that Ray wore his hair long so he could donate to the charity Locks for Love). Ray’s physical presence was equal to his presence as a family man, entrepreneur and winemaker.
Ray was one of the most laid-back yet hardworking people I’ve ever met. He was a janitor for 30 years — first with mop in-hand and later as the founder of a successful commercial janitorial service in San Diego. He studied winemaking at UC Davis then decided to move with Patty to the Valle de Guadalupe in 2002 to found the winery.
I’ve heard stories of gringos and gringas who have had difficulties starting business in small-town Mexico, due to the suspicion of the local population. Not Ray. During his first harvest, a piece of crucial equipment failed in the processing of his grapes. Amado Garza, an established winemaker from nearby Viñas de Garza, interrupted his own harvesting to deliver the needed equipment and Ray’s first vintage.
That was in 2007 and his family have been in the winemaking business ever since. I’ve had the pleasure of hosting two tour groups at Lechuza, and both times our guests unanimously agreed that the wines and tasting with Ray and/or Kris were their favorite part of the entire experience (with apologies to our other hosts, who are also amazing).
During our tours, nearly everyone left with a bottle of their favorite Lechuza varietal or blend. Some left with two or three – willing to take their chances at the border since they were over their legal crossing limit of 1 bottle.
The last trip was just this past Saturday. The day before Ray passed. When I IM’ed Kris last week to confirm our visit, she replied. “Yes, Dad has you down here as Gringo party of 8”. Ray always called me Gringo in a way that felt like a humorous, shared term of affection — knowing that we were both really gringos in Mexico, though he is far more worthy of the moniker.
During our visit this weekend, Ray was at Major League Baseball’s spring training in Arizona, the sport being another passion of his. In Ray’s absence, Kris tended to our tasting, expertly explaining the science as well as the art behind each wine we sampled. She sounded a lot like her father.
Kris and I shared a few Ray stories with our guests. I recounted that the last time we’d stopped by, Ray had been out in the vines with his flamethrower. Kris laughed and explained that he was burning the weeds, and let leak that the flamethrower was one of her dad’s favorite “toys”. Although Ray wasn’t with us, he was still very present that day at Lechuza.
I have no doubt that Kris will be successful in continuing the vineyard and her dad’s legacy. And that her two-year old son, Ray’s grandson, is inspecting those vines as he eats the sweet pea groundcover between the rows, looking for imperfections as well as perfections.
When we heard the news about Ray on Sunday, we happened to be drinking Lechuza’s 2014 Amantes blend, which was my one bottle choice during our Saturday tour. It seemed poignant that my wife and I were at home enjoying the literal fruits of Ray’s science, art, and life at that moment. After some tears, we raised our glasses and toasted our friend.
Salud Ray. You will be missed by many, amigo.