Category Archive: Mexican Wines

A Better Understanding of Baja Wines

Posted on June 23, 2016

Baja Wines Uncorked

The first Baja Uncorked went down last week.  Baja what?  Baja Uncorked is the first buyers trip to the Guadalupe Valley put on by La Mision Associates and La Competencia, two distributors of wine from the Guadalupe Valley.  Wineries of Baja invited wine writers, retail shop owners and sommeliers on a three-day journey exploring the wines of the valley.  They were treated to three packed days of seminars, winemaker greet and meets, tastings, winery tours and extraordinary meals.  The wineries presented their valley to a small group of wine professionals in hopes that people will have a better understanding of Baja wines. Today I’d like to fill you with intrigue and shed some of the mystic of Baja  wines.

HISTORY

To really understand Baja, we have to go back and see how it all began.  The first vines in the Americas came by way of Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500′s.  Once their supply of wine ran out, they turned to planting grapes in the Parras Valley in the state of Coahuila in central Mexico.  The first winery was established in 1597 by Lorenzo Garcia called Casa Madero.  The main grape planted in those days was a red grape known today as the Mission grape.  It is said to be the same grape as Listan Negro in Spain, also known as Criolla and Pais in other areas of South America.  This grape made light bodied wines intended for brandy production. Just as Mexico began to produce its own wines, the Spanish crown put an end to it.  The Spanish saw their wine trade suffering, and outlawed Mexico from producing wine.

Casa Madero

Valle de Parras

For many years, the production of wine in Mexico was limited to the missionaries wine for sacramental use.  Two Jesuit “padres”, Juan Uguarte and Junipero Serra made their way into Baja and established the first mission in 1767, in Los Cabos.  These were the first grapes planted in California.  Junipero Serra was tasked to move north and build missions in Alta California while Juan Uguarte built missions in Baja California.

It was not until the 1880′s that Baja built its first commercial winery, Santo Tomas in the Santo Tomas Valley, 30 minutes south of Ensenada. The first European grapes to come into Baja were Grenache and Carignan.  They came to Mexico by way of the Spanish.  During the turn of the century they were the work horses for Baja and Alta California.  It was not until the 1930-40′s when we saw Italian varieties make their way into the valley.  The man responsible was Camilo Magoni, who worked at L.A. Cetto for 50 years.  He was an Italian immigrant from Northern Italy.  Over many years he planted many Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Sangiovese and Aglianico.  The challenge he faced was Mexico’s warmer climate and lack of water. It was a very different climate from the mountainous cool region of Piedmont.  Today some of the best single varieties come from these Italian varieties brought by Magoni.

In the 1950-60′s winemakers started to look for fruitier, softer wines that could be enjoyed with pizza and tacos.  They turned to California nurseries and began to plant cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. These Bordeaux blends made more sense in the market place. People had just heard about  the growth in California in the 1970′s.  Their Cabernets and Chardonnays were winning competitions in France, the Mexican winemakers decide to follow in their northern neighbor’s footsteps.  Back then there were just a handful of wineries such as Santo Tomas, L.A.Cetto and Cavas Valmar.  Cavas Valmar was started in 1983 by Fernando Martain.  He worked at Santo Tomas from 1978-84 and worked with the famous André Tchelistcheff.  Fernando has since been a great inspiration and significant part of the Baja wine movement.

Camilo, Zamora, Martian

Laura Zamora (Santo Tomas), Camilo Magoni & Fernando Martain

His friend Hugo Acosta came on the scene in 1988, he too worked at Santo Tomas.  Hugo Acosta studied at the School of Agronomy in Montpelier France and the Agricultural University of Turin.  He returned to the valley and began teaching people how to make wine.  There was plenty of fruit in the valley, but no one outside the major wineries knew what to do with it.  Hugo started “La Escuelita”, a wine making school for the people in the valley.  He has inspired many of the wineries in the valley and has been a crucial part of the valley’s success. Today he is regarded as the godfather of the Guadalupe Valley.  His brother, Alejandro has been an instrumental part as well.  Alejandro is an architect and has built many of the hotels and wineries that dot the valley.  His creative designs give the valley a special character you can find nowhere else.

glasses baja uncorked

THE LAY OF THE LAND

The Guadalupe is about 1 1/2 hours south of Tijuana and 20 km east of Ensenada.  It was first settled by Russian colonies. In 1834 missions were built, however; the natives of the valley destroyed the missions and kicked out the missionaries. Today the valley is divided into 3 sections.  The first area is called San Antonio de las Minas and you come across it as soon as you enter the valley driving in from Ensenada.  If you continue on the Highway 3 eastward, you will reach Francisco Zarcos.  To the north is an area called Porvenir.  The wines of Baja California are not all grown in the Guadalupe Valley. There are many more vineyards outside the valley.  40 km to the east on the other side of the mountains is Valle de Ojos Negros.  Ojos Negros is a newer region where we are seeing much experimentation such as plantings of Pinot Noir.  20 km to the south of Ensenada is a small valley, the Uruapan Valley. 40 km south of Ensendada is the Santo Tomas Valley, the first area to plant grapes for wine production.  60 km further south is Valle de San Vicente where many of the grapes are harvested.

The Guadalupe valley is unique in that the soils are granite base with loamy sandy top soil.  Soils are great for drainage and repelling pests. The Valle is surrounded by mountains, blocking off the marine weather and allowing cool breezes to cool the valley at night.  The change in elevations is excellent for planting varieties on valley floors and at higher elevations providing winemakers with different choices.  Today there are about 120 wineries in Baja, and that number is growing everyday.

Guadalupe Valley Map

ALPHA & OMEGA

So why don’t we see more of these wines in the USA?  The first thing we have to understand, is that although grapes have grown in Mexico longer than anywhere else in the America’s, production of wine is fairly recent.  Baja California is still a very young region.  It was not until the 1980′s when we saw an increase in production.  While California was winning awards in Europe, Baja was still trying to figure out what to grow and how.  The Alpha part of the equation is water. There is very little water in the valley.  Low amounts of water limits the amount of wines which can be produced.  Yields are low due to the inability to irrigate.  Lack of water hinders the building and expansion of wine making facilities.

The Omega part of the equation is marketing.  How do they market their wines in the USA if production is so low.  Lower yields means less production and higher prices.  Wineries have to be sustainable, therefore increase prices to cover overhead and production.  The Baja winemakers choose to make wines that are more intense, from lower yields, therefore require a higher price.  This is very difficult for the general consumer to understand.  No one wants to buy expensive wines from an unknown region.  Why should they, there are so many quality wines at lower prices from Argentina, Chile and California.  The Chileans used another model, they bombarded the market with high yields and inexpensive wines.  Today they struggle to get recognized as a premium wine region.  Baja winemakers have decided to approach it differently, and aim for quality versus high yields.

Baja Vineyards

Now let’s say that the Baja wines make a splash in the market place. Let’s say that everyone falls in love with their intensity and flavor.  People start to seek them out and now Baja wineries cannot keep up with the demand. This can have two outcomes.  One, distributors become upset when they cannot fulfill orders to wholesalers and retailers, so they stop importing Mexican wines.  Or two, the wine collector, infatuated with hard to find wines,  will pay premium prices which increase the cost of wines for the public.  The wines become cult like in status.  Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is number one.  Baja wineries first need the importer and distributor to get the wines across the border, so the cult status would be a long ways down the road.

THE FUTURE

So what is the next step for Baja wines?  Remember, Baja is still very new.  They are sandwiched between veteran producers and consumers of California and South America.  At this time all they can do is grow and learn.  The new generation of winemakers are going outside of “la Escuelita” and learning from other great winemakers in other countries.  While studying abroad and working in other regions they bring back creative ideas on how to deal with their issues in Baja.  Baja already has many grape varieties planted.  Baja is diverse in elevation and soils.  This diversity along with their proximity to the ocean, allows them to plant and experiment with many grapes.  Today, Baja wines are known for their unique blends. In Baja, single varieties have a different expression and are atypical. Hence, allowing winemakers to create blends no one else can make. Sure, Australians can blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Shiraz, but they can’t do what the Mexicans do.  They cannot get away with blending Cabernet, Syrah, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo, crazy new blends only seen in Mexico.

guadalupe Valley

The future of Baja is based on wineries finding their niche and improving their wines.  What they have going for them is that they are not arrogant nor set in their ways.  Baja is one of the few regions which is open-minded and ready to try anything.  Baja is a great haven for bored winemakers of France, Italy and California.  They would have a field day exploring Baja’s wild west of wine.

Distribution is the next issue to tackle.  Baja winemakers need to enter the market with affordable wines.  This is becoming more and more possible.  More plantings are occurring each year.  Winemakers are learning to use what they have and will hopefully begin to produce by the glass offerings.  They need to enter the market with $10-15 wines.  I would suggest they put more focus on whites and roses.  These are far cheaper to produce, they use less water and can generate a profit quicker than reds which need to age. If you are a consumer and you enjoy an affordable Baja Chardonnay, wouldn’t you be inclined to buy a more expensive red from that producer?

People like Michelle Martain, daughter of Fernando Martain is an important part of this growth.  Her import company, La Mision Associates imports Baja wine into the US and is going on 5 years.  She goes door to door, winery to winery trying to make this work.  She was raised in her father’s winery and is determined to share her country’s wines with the world. After much sacrifice, she has opened many doors for her wineries.  She is also very smart.  She knows she cannot do it herself and reached out to Tom Bracamontes of La Competencia Imports, a new Baja wine import company.

Baja uncorked


Michelle Martain (La Mision Associates), Myself, Michael Langdon (Whole Foods), Tom Bracamontes (La Competencia) & Danny Fancher (Estancia Hotel)

Tom’s background was in the music industry, hip hop.  Tom, a “Gringo-Mexican” who does not speak Spanish made a name for himself at Tommy Boy Records.  Tom does not pretend to know it all. However, he understands people and how to approach situations with transparency and a no bull attitude.  This has earned him trust among wineries in Napa Valley and wine buyers in many states.  He represented Mi Sueno winery for many years and took a handful of Mexican-American owned Napa wineries under his wing helping to bring their wines into a competitive market.  He is a marketing all-star who today has opened 5 new markets for Michelle and the Baja Winemakers; California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Chicago.  Together, Michelle and Tom will open the doors for these Baja wineries and our palates to new intriguing wines.

I suspect that one day when our children are drinking a glass of Baja Pinot Noir in Paris, they will be telling this history of Baja wines. They will mention Father Juan Uguarte planting grapes, Santo Tomas producing wines, Camilo Magoni expanding the horizons, Fernando Martain’s influence, Hugo Acosta’s inspiration and the risk and hard work of Michelle Martain and Tom Bracamontes.

Team Baja Uncorked

SOME WINE

While spending those few days in the valley, I decided to make a wine for my restaurants.  My intention was to make a red blend which could be enjoyed by itself, but better with carne asada tacos.  I worked closely with Laura Zamora, winemaker of Santo Tomas, the oldest winery in Mexico. Tempranillo was my backbone.  The Tempranillo was aged for 6 months in American oak and provides the tannin and structure.  I then tasted several samples of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Barbera and other grape varieties.  I landed on adding an un-oaked Syrah.  I am looking for fruity, juicy freshness and the Syrah gave it just that plus body.  Something was lacking, so I turned to one of the grapes that I think grows best in the valley, Barbera.  The Barbera brought the wine together with acidity and red fruit.

Costa Tierra Blend

Blending Costa Tierra Wine

The name of the wine is Costa Tierra, meaning seacoast and land.  The reason for this is to unite California and Baja California.  For centuries we have shared the same sea-coast, the same land and the same people. When it comes to food and wine the border is a fictitious border.  I want to tear down the wall and unite the two regions.  We may speak different languages and celebrate different holidays, but we both share in the rewards of a thriving epicurean future.

Costa Tierra Wine

The wine will be available at Coasterra and other Cohn Restaurants.

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Wines with Soul: The Future of Baja Wines

Posted on March 1, 2015

Baja Wines

The first wine grape growing region in the America’s was Mexico.  The first vines planted were in the Parras Valley around the 1500′s for brandy production.  Grapes arrived in Baja California sometime in the 1600′s. They made their eventual move into Alta California in 1769 by way of the missionaries.  This means that Mexico has had a long history of making wine.  Then why is it that their wines are not well-known?  Why do we not see them in our restaurants and bottle shops?  Could it be that they are on Mexican time?

In the 1980′s Chilean wines made a big hit in the USA.  In the late 90′s Argentinian wines started to make their way to the US and today are on every wine list.  Uruguay is barely entering the market, but so far has made more head way than Mexico.  Brazil? Well, not yet. About 4-5 years ago, there was a company called Baja Wines which started to bring Baja wines into the US.  They had a very strange business model.  Instead of importing wines and setting up a partnership with a distributor, they decided to go direct to consumer through internet sales.  If one was selling knitted sweaters or other crafts that might be the way to go.  However, it does not work like this in the wine business.

Wine needs to be sampled, tasted and shared with the buyer.  The buyer sets the price for wine.  They will not buy wines that do not fit within the price of their quality.  When Baja Wines came into the market they had everything priced at retail prices starting at over $25 a bottle.  Many wines were in the $50 range. I don’t know about you, but I won’t pay $50 for a bottle of wine if I am not familiar, never tasted or never heard of it.  Obviously, putting photos on a website and charging $50 a bottle was not a viable business plan.

Since then Baja Wines has gone out of business, but there have been other companies importing Baja wines into the US.  I have tasted the wines from four different distribution companies.  Before I start to give you my opinion, I want to give you a quick look at what is happening there.

The wine regions of Ensenada are divided into different valleys such as Ojos Negros, San Vicente, Santo Tomas, San Antonio de las Minas and the Guadalupe Valley.  Artisan wineries, creameries, farms and restaurants line the valley.  It is a true farm to table region where some restaurants have their own garden and livestock.  The valley has seen some dramatic growth in the last several years.

 Guadalupe Valley

The person most responsible for this incredible growth is enologist, Hugo D’Acosta winemaker for Casa Piedras.  Hugo studied winemaking in Montpellier, France.  He worked his first vintage in 1982 in St. Emillon.  He returned to Mexico with his eyes on Baja California.  There he was inspired by the wines of Monte Xanic.  He worked with Santo Tomas and eventually started his own project, Casa Piedras.  But what makes Hugo the Robert Mondavi of Baja was his school.  He started “la Escuelita” a winemaking school where he passes his knowledge onto other winemakers in the region.  In recent years, we have seen much more influence from outside winemakers.  This influence will eventually lead to rising the quality of wines in this prosperous region.

My Two Sense

I believe that Baja Wines will eventually make a huge presence in the US wine market.  The big obstacle is figuring out a competitive price for the wines.  Many winemakers are selling their wines at retail to the distributor and wholesale markets.  Since their production is small, it is difficult to come up with competitive prices that rival the wines of other regions of the same or better quality.  They need to put the money into marketing, which eventually will pay back later.  This is an investment many winemakers are not able to make.  They are trying to make a living from their current production, but to enter a new market they need to make the sacrifices.

Another obstacle they face is that their terroir is so unique.  Many might be wondering why that is an obstacle. Let me explain.  The region is hot and sandy.  Many believe that this is the reason the wines tend to taste salty.  Although this may attribute to the salinity, the believe is that poor winemaking and not understanding the terroir is the reason.  I have spoken to winemakers and tasted wines from the region that are not salty.  The salinity can be toned down through proper wine growing and  winemaking techniques.

Some winemakers are also hell-bent on producing single varieties.  They see the California model and want to mimic it.  I have tasted 100% Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo.  I believe this sort of approach is harmful to their growth.  The reason being, if a consumer wants to buy Chenin Blanc, they have a history of Chenin Blancs that has typicity.  Chenin Blanc usually shows flavors of honey, orange oil, wet wool with razor acidity.  The Chenin Blanc from Baja is nothing like that.  It might have some of those aromas but the structure is big and opulent.  The wines are not bad, in fact for fat wines they are actaully pretty good, but as a Chenin Blanc, they taste nothing of the sort.  It would be better if they labeled the wine “Baja Blanc”  and not Chenin Blanc.  This way they would not have to meet the expectations people have come to expect for Chenin Blanc.  This is also true of many other single varieties in Baja.

vena cava

Enough of my constructive criticism.  The wines I have tasted recently have been very good.  These wines have been blends.  And I believe that blends are the future for Baja wines.  They are creating blends that cannot be mimicked elsewhere.  For example, they blend Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Tempranillo.  The French could not do this, they don’t produce Nebbiolo.  The Italians would not attempt this because their prized king of grapes Nebbiolo would never be blended with Cab.  Plus, the Nebbiolo in Baja is dark, inky, tannic and much fruitier than that of Piedmont. In the USA we might see this attempt, but our Cab tastes completely different from Baja’s.  Since their wines do not meet the standard typicity, they can make ridiculous blends that are absolutely delicious.  We once thought California was the wild west of wine, but Baja is the new wild frontier.

I look forward to see what new styles of wine Baja will begin to produce.  Their wines taste very different from the traditional old world and different from their neighbors in California.  People are always looking for something unique, and Baja has it.

If you would like to learn more about Baja wines, I will be hosting a Baja and Napa wine symposium and tasting at Sea 180 on March 14th.  There will be 8 winemakers from Baja California and 12 Mexican winemakers from Napa Valley discussing the wines of the two regions.  This will be the first time these winemakers meet and taste each other’s wines.  I am attempting to unify Mexican winemakers from both sides of the border so that they can share their ideas which eventually will benefit us, the consumers with better wines.  The wines of these winemakers have soul.  They are worlds apart from the over produced homogenized wines that fill our stores and restaurants.

On Sunday March 15th, Indigo Grill will host a brunch featuring 3 winemakers from Baja and 3 winemakers form Napa. You can make reservations by calling Indigo Grill at 619-234-6802.

Buy Tickets

Sea180 Mexi wine

Indigo Baj Brunch

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Wines of Mexico: 400 years in the making

Posted on June 8, 2012

Most people do not realize, Mexico was the first country in the Americas to start planting vines for wine production and dates back to 1597.  The Spanish, upon arriving to the “New Spain” saw that it was an area that was suitable for grape growing.  Although indigenous grapes already grew here, they brought Spanish varietals and started planting in different regions.  The first vines planted were in the state of Coahuila and Durango, known as La Laguna, which lies in Northeast Mexico bordering Texas and the Rio Grande.  This region was first planted in 1593 and is home to the 1st Mexican government recognized appellation, the Parras Valley. (more…)

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