There's something about watching tumbleweeds roll through vineyards that makes you appreciate a good wine.
It seems strange to be sipping former Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s favorite artisan meritage while watching jack rabbits and roadrunners frolic from the patio of Bodegas y Viñedos San Rafael, a small, family-run winery atop a dusty hill in Baja California, Mexico's northernmost and westernmost state.
It's 80 degrees, the sun is shining and there’s music playing in the background.
On the horizon, farms, mountains, and an empty, two-lane road go as far as the eye can see. Ludwig Hussong explains why he came back to the wine region after attending culinary training in Napa. The reason? The wine is good and the potential for his hometown is huge.
Mexican wine is on the up and up following a trending obsession with other Mexican products like tequila, mezcal, and sotol.
It also follows the efforts of American and Mexican chefs to bring to light the country's contributions to the food world beyond tortas and black beans.
I had driven just two hours from San Diego to the northern valleys of San Rafael, Santo Tomás, San Vicente and Guadeloupe—the center of Baja's wine country—with an open mind.
Drive into the quiet, 14-mile span in Valle de Guadeloupe where wineries are hidden at the end of a half-mile trail of dust, and where horses roam through olive groves, and it’s hard to believe it’s from where about 70 percent of Mexico's wine comes.
Oenophiles are noticing their quality, even calling the region a burgeoning Napa Valley. But it’s got its own laidback vibe of a wine destination that’s still figuring things out.
“Mexico gets this reputation of being the Wild West. Tequila and mezcal were more synonymous with the reputation Mexico had,” explains Marie Elena Martinez of why wine is the seemingly last frontier of Mexican cuisine.
Martinez is the founder of Baja Meets New York, which brought several Baja Mexican chefs to New York last year for pairing dinners with Baja Mexican wines—New York’s first exposure to them. “Baja is a region beautiful in ingredient. Wine is a natural fit.”
“The wines are beautiful but they’re different. They’re made with traditional ways but untraditional blending, so you get a wide berth of flavors, notes, and textures,” Martinez says.
It’s this lack of rules, regulations, or pressure to produce high-quantity crowd-pleasers that’s attracting new and established winemakers alike to Baja.
A few years ago Chuck Wagner, owner of Napa’s Caymus Vineyards, opened a winery and started making wine in Baja.
This year, Henri Lurton of Bordeaux’s Château Brane-Cantenac started making wine here in the valley. But google this fact and their efforts still seem pretty under the radar.
In other words, wine collectors, it’d be a good idea to get your hands on these bottles now.
But you’ll probably have to travel to Baja to get them, except for a couple of online stores that might be able to ship to your state, or by asking your local stores and restaurants to get in touch with the few importers.
It turns out that because northern Baja has a Mediterranean-like growing climate, rare varietals in California, like Barbera, Tempranillo, and Chenin Blanc, grow beautifully here.
The region also produces a multitude of high-quality artisan olive oils and cheeses.
The Ascolano olive oil made by Bodegas de Santo Tomás, one of the region’s largest producers, even won the gold medal at Milan’s International Olive Oil Competition last year.
The region’s largest producer, L.A. Cetto, has more than 100 awards under its belt, including 20 international awards for Cabernet Sauvignon and eight gold medals for Petite Syrah. Four Casa Pedro Domecq varietals have snagged awards in the International Wine and Spirits Competition in Seville, Spain.
When I say ‘large producer,’ that means just over 100,000 cases annually. Of Baja’s 150-plus wineries, just a few of them produce more than that.
In total, Baja makes just under 1.5 million total cases, according to the Mexican Wine Council. Sales were up 6 to 10 percenth in 2015. To put it in perspective, California wineries produced over 269 million cases in 2014, according to the Wine Institute.
Winemaking in the quaint, undeveloped region of Baja Mexico is mostly about hobbies going wild.
Take the $75-a-bottle meritage, named, appropriately, Passion. The Hussong family (which also owns Hussong’s Canina, Baja’s oldest bar, and which claims to have invented the Margarita) began making it for fun in 2000—that is until a family friend entered it in the 2005 Grandes Tintos Mexicanos Día Siete Contest (Great Mexican Reds), where it snagged a gold. The winery makes several thousand cases annually among its nine labels.
Eileen Gregory, who moved to Valle de Guadeloupe over a decade ago from Los Angeles with her family to start the winery Vena Cava, estimates that of the 30,000 bottles she produces annually, no more than 500 cases winds up in the United States.
Her business began as a passion project but quickly blossomed into a full-scale hospitality operation with a boutique hotel called Villa de Valle, fine dining restaurant called Corazón de Tierra, and a food truck, Troika.
Vena Cava is partnering with other vintners to build importer relationships. Her wines can be found at San Diego’s Wine Bark and LMA Distributors, which ship, but are found mostly at restaurants, including New York’s acclaimed Cosme.
Despite more favorable taxation if they export, it’s easy to understand why Mexican wine producers haven’t.
The Baja valleys can hardly keep up with domestic demand. Wine consumption has doubled in the past 10 years, though Mexicans drink double the amount of imported wine that they do domestic. Baja wine producers ship mostly to Mexico City, Monterrey, and Cancún.
It's no surprise that Mexico’s wine reputation has been downplayed, given its history. In 1699, Spain banned Mexico from producing wine because it posed a competitive threat to the peninsular wines.
Bodegas de Santo Tomás was the first Mexican winery to operate, in 1888. After a century of increased wine production, in the 1980s, the Mexican government removed trade barriers that had kept imported wines out, which threatened to shutter small Mexican wineries.
But ultimately, the move put pressure on them to create better quality wines to compete with foreign imports.
“We try to make people feel comfortable,” Adela Gil, whose father made a living selling grapes to larger companies, tells me.
She learned to make wine at La Escuelita, a winemaking school run by by Hugo D’Acosta, a fellow winery owner and pillar of the winemaking community.
We sip a 2009 Rosado (rosé) under her label, Viñedos Villarino, while dipping fresh bread into house-made, basil-infused olive oil.
Many of the wineries' handcrafted wine and olive oil blends, like these, are tasted at La Cava—Antigua Ruta del Vino, one of the many rustic, charming and small family cellars open only by appointment off the wine country's main artery, Mexico 1.
Several vineyards double as bed and breakfasts, and this co-op also operates a hostel, Posada de La Grulla, nearby.
Baja chefs are doing their part to forge the way for the Mexican wine world, cooking in a style they call “Baja Med” for its heavy emphasis on fresh seafood (thank you, Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez).
Over a tasting that evening at Almazara, one of several new local favorites that is located on a family vineyard, chef Miguel Angel Guerrero tells us about how he hunted the oysters, octopus, duck, and lamb on our plates himself.
We sip a local Merlot. Guerrero, a former lawyer, wears a small Mexican flag on one side of his collar, a Baja patch on the other.
He says, in casual Baja fashion, that God gave the region an abundance of natural resources. The people just do something great with them.