Mexico is well-known for its alcoholic offerings from beer to tequila, to the newly popular mezcal. But Baja California is also home to a thriving wine region. Producer Meghan McCarty took on the difficult assignment of checking it out.
The drinking started early on the 10-person tour bus down to Baja, but this is not your typical border booze cruise for drunken frat boys. This is a group of discerning foodies on a pilgrimage to the Mexican mecca of fine wine.
The tour is headed to the Valle de Guadalupe, just inland from the beach town of Ensenada. It’s a majestic place of wide open desert vistas hemmed in by mountains dotted with cacti and old haciendas. The van winds slowly over the dusty dirt roads, and you can almost hear the plaintive strumming of a spanish guitar drifting languorously on the breeze.
It’s like Napa 30 years ago they say, though it's doubtful that anyone in the early days of Napa had a setup quite as slick as the one at our first stop, Las Nubes.
“This is the fermentation area. Like most new wineries we try to use gravity as much as possible," said Victor Segura, the winemaker at Las Nubes, which opened in 2008.
Segura utilizes the latest technological advancements in winemaking to turn out his roster of a dozen wines. They’re served in a fortress-like structure made completely of local stones and perched on the side of a hill with a breathtaking view of the valley.
But are the wines any good?
“The wines taste great. You can taste the soul, you can taste that passion he’s got for winemaking. It really comes out," said Marco Montes, who is also along for the wine tour.
Day-tripping tourists aren’t the only ones taking notice. These wines are gaining recognition even among the rarefied ranks of wine critics - people like longtime wine spectator columnist, James Suckling.
“What I like about Mexican wines is they have a certain savory salinity and they also have things like Nebbiolo or Carignan - you know grape varieties that we’re less familiar with," said Suckling.
While the undiscovered nature of these gems appeals to people like Suckling, it’s less advantageous to those who want to grow the industry. Right now 90 percent of the wines produced in Mexico stay in Mexico, but the demand there is limited.
On average, Mexicans drink only half a liter of wine per person per year, while Americans drink nearly 20 times as much. Mariana Martinez de Velasco, who heads up sales for Monte Xanic Winery, has her eye on those customers north of the border.
“That is for us our main focus - the U.S. market," said de Velasco. "Just to have people know that there is Mexican wine. You guys are our neighbors and I just want to invite everyone to taste them.”
The best way to introduce them is tourism, but that industry has taken a major hit due to concerns over security and long waits at the border. Since 2005, cross-border traffic between California and Mexico has dropped by a third. While crime in the region has gone down in recent years, long lines at the border are only getting worse, according to market research consultant, Kenn Morris.
“People are saying, 'is it worth it for me to drive a certain number of minutes, a certain number of hours to get to the border and then be stuck for three hours?' So people always remember their worst border crossing," said Morris.
Even once you make it to the front of the line there’s more bad news. California residents have the unfortunate distinction of being restricted to bringing only one liter of wine back into the state. Even non-residents can have a hard time crossing with their legally entitled bounty, as wine critic James Suckling learned the hard way.
“I was basically held in detention in the secondary checkpoint of the border for over three hours," said Suckling. "They searched my car and made us take everything out of our pockets and said we would be strip searched if we didn’t follow their instructions. It was quite a hairy experience.”
But there is some hope yet. Consumers in California can now order many of these wines online through an importer called Vino From Mexico. They’re popping up in local restaurants, like Loteria Grill and they’ll soon stock the shelves of several Costcos and Whole Foods.
But, if you’re the impatient type, you can always try your luck at the border, like tourist Marco Montes.
"We have three [bottles] in here and two here, and she’s carrying one so we have six," said Montes. "You’re going to have to take a couple of bottles for us.”
Luckily, Montes was able to redistribute his wines among the group and make it over the border with plenty of Mexican wine.
“Larry here helped us out so we’re back in America and we have great wine from Mexico. It was a great day,“ said Montes.
It was a day that brings to mind the old latin phrase: in vino veritas, or in wine there is truth. You may just want to keep it to yourself as you're crossing the border.