I’m going to go out on a limb and say there isn’t any Baja California wine at your local fine dining establishment. Stepping out further, I’m going to gamble that you may have not even heard of any Baja wines, much less ever tried one. Wine comes from France. Wine comes from Italy. It splashes in glasses and swishes in mouths from Napa to Marlborough to Margaret River, but wine does not come from Mexico.
Tequila? Sure. Cerveza? Of course. But not wine. That’s better left for elsewhere.
Since 80% of Mexico’s wines are consumed domestically you can be forgiven for not being familiar with it. Most of Baja’s wines go directly to the fine restaurants of Guadalajara or Mexico City, leaving the rest of the world to divvy up the scant amount of bottles hitting the export market. Of the grapes grown in Mexico, 90% are grown in the border state of Baja California, and the Valle de Guadalupe—less than 90 minutes from the San Diego border—is Mexico’s answer to California’s Napa Valley. Sweeping vineyards crawl through narrow valleys, romantic tasting rooms are lit by the desert sun, and tasting fees go for a fraction of the prices you would find back in the U.S.
For those familiar with Baja wines, however, you are on the cutting edge of an industry poised to explode.
Why? Because Mexican wines are proving themselves to rival vintages found anywhere across the globe. In fact, the soil in Baja was historically so amenable to grape production that in 1699 Spain banned the production of Baja wine because of the dire effects it was having on wine exports to the New World.
In modern, independent Mexico, however, the production is growing, the grapes have returned, and two shifts are slowly beginning to take place: The secret is getting out, and the Mexican people are warming to the taste of wine.
A new wine culture in Mexico
According to Ludwig Hussong, operator of the Ojos Negros tapas and wine bar in downtown Ensenada, “people who used to show up with beer or tequila to a party now bring over a bottle of wine.” He claims that not only does the number of vineyards along the “Ruta del Vino” continue to grow, but an increasing number of people are catching on to just how good the wine really is.
Granted, although the wine itself may be of increasing quality, the culture surrounding wine for many Mexicans is still in its nascent stages. An important complement to the burgeoning wine industry, this is something the recently opened Museo De La Vid y El Vino (Museum of the Vine and Wine) is hoping to change.
Set right in the heart of the Valle de Guadalupe, the fact that the museum saw 19,000 visitors in its first three months exhibits the local’s growing curiosity and taste for their wines. More than just a sanctuary geared towards Mexican wines, the museum instead devotes an entire section to the broader history of wine as a whole. According to museum staff, it’s all part of an effort to foster a greater understanding of wine culture among the people who will ultimately end up enjoying the fruits of the valley soil.
Nearby, at Ensenada’s oceanfront Belio restaurant, head chef Miguel Angel Nava openly admits this part of the Mexico’s wine culture still needs a little cultivating. Although the menu is tailored towards pairings with the fresh food, the concept of pairing wine with cuisine is still in its infancy among locals.
He discusses this as I devour a plate of Bluefin Carpaccio, which tastes so fresh I ask him if it had been caught that morning. Smiling, he jokes that having caught it this morning wouldn’t be nearly fresh enough, claiming instead that he hand-procured it from the sea immediately after my having placed the order. From the flavorful explosions bombarding their way through my mouth I question if I shouldn’t be taking him more seriously.
The freshness of Belio’s cuisine aside, in addition to producing palate-whetting wines, there is another sector of the industry the Baja wine community is hoping to tap into: tourism.
Wine tourism in Baja
While Baja’s tourism numbers have taken a hit due to highly-publicized security concerns (nearly all of which are found elsewhere in Mexico), as the Baja region stabilizes, many in this community feel that Mexico wine tourism is one of the region’s brightest stars for drawing visitors back.
And why not? The wine is phenomenal, the setting is a fusion of Tuscany and Hemingway, and lodging has begun to spring up which caters to a high-end, wine-consuming crowd. At the Guadalupe Valley’s Adobe de Guadalupe, not only do the 50-acres of vineyards produce 11 varietals of reds, but the desert bed and breakfast sports six luxurious accommodations replete with horse stables, swimming pool, and a shifting panorama of desert sunsets and stars.
“When I first started building this place,” smiles Don, the American owner, “people thought this was some sort of drug rehabilitation center. Now they know that this sort of business does well out here.”
At a reasonable $193/night, the package also includes wine tasting and breakfast from a private chef. When compared to similar retreats in Napa, Santa Barbara—or even Temecula—it’s a value that would have me heading south of the border when in need of a romantic retreat.
Owners of Baja’s vineyards, however, realize that in order for wine tourism to succeed, there needs to be more than just a few good vineyards—there needs to be an entire region. Given this philosophy, the wine community in Baja is tight-knit and willing to help pull each other forward into what will hopefully be a new era.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the area known as La Antigua Ruta del Vino—the old wine route–located an hour south of Ensenada in the valley of Santo Tomas. Although this region is responsible for producing the oldest winery in all of Baja—Bodega Santo Tomas, opened in 1888, but now operating at the Entre Santos wine cellar in Valle de Guadalupe—much of the modern wine industry has shifted north, essentially leaving the Santo Tomas area to begin anew.
Recognizing that no single vineyard possessed the strength to reignite the entire region, 18 wineries in the area instead formed a cooperative known as La Cava Antigua Ruta del Vino. With the cost of producing wine too daunting for many young startups, not only do neighboring vineyards share the same terroir, they also, in an effort to keep production costs down, even share some of the same winemaking equipment. Though only begun in 2006—and decades behind the glitzy wineries of Valle de Guadalupe—Don Luis of Viñedos Villarino and head of the cooperative is confident the effort will breathe life back into the region.
So too, is Jaime Palafox, owner of Palafox winery, one of the largest producers in the area.
“We’re not just growing wine out here”, he proclaims. “We’re growing an industry.”
“You see that road right there?” he continues, placing his glass of chenin blanc down on a sprawling, outdoor wood table.
“Anyone traveling south of here has to pass by on that road right there, and if there is an entire wine region here to visit, more and more people are going to stop.”
Swirling his glass and finishing off the last sip of its contents, he echoes the sentiment being offered by all.
“Here in Baja, we are building the wine business. We are building it… and the people are going to come.”
Photos courtesy of Kyle Ellison.
– Kyle Ellison