Baja California may seem like beer and tequila country but its grape-growing valleys like Guadalupe, San Antonio, and Santo Tomas, are producing 90 percent of all of the wine made in Mexico. “There’s a big market for good wine and there’s a lot of money here in Mexico,” says winemaker of Vena Cava, and British transplant Phil Gregory. “Guadalupe Valley is the name that brings people here.” More and more, the Guadalupe Valley is becoming known as the de facto wine route, known as the Ruta del Vino (route 3 from Ensenada) which traverses 135 miles encompassing about 50 wineries.
The industry is growing rapidly and a vexing series of potential problems could derail future wine growth. There are issues with punitive taxation within Mexico and taxes to the wineries can be as high as 45 percent, making exporting problematic. Then there are water woes within the valleys as the resources are stretched thin for agriculture and population growth. Time will tell if the Mexican government can come to terms with the expansive growth and find a solution to securing water to meet the regions needs. The wines here are surprisingly good and when in Ensenada, Tijuana or even Tecate, it’s worth drinking the local wines. In Tijuana the wine store G. Salinas is an excellent stop to source Mexican wine and owner Gilberto Salinas knows the wines very well and can direct you to new and exciting wines you may have never tried.
Wine has been made in Baja since the 1920s when Donata Cetto, an Italian immigrant, bought a whisky distillery in Tijuana, originally built by an American who provided bootleg liquor to other Americans crossing the border during Prohibition. These days Vinos L.A. Cetto is the single largest winery in all of Mexico, producing 10 million liters and shipping to 16 countries. Located in downtown Tijuana, their facility allows visitors to taste wine for fees ranging from $3-5, though they have another facility in the Guadalupe Valley. Camillo Magoni, who grew up in Italy, has been the winemaker here for 45 years, a job he clearly loves. “I never get up and regret having to go to work,” he tells me with a wry smile. I sit with him for a tasting of his wines which vary from inexpensive wines like his successful, though basic, Petite Sirah to his best wines including Sangiovese, reserve Cabernet Sauvignons laden with plush fruit, to Viognier, and a very cool wine called Blanco Boutique; a funky blend of 50 percent barrel fermented Chardonnay, 42 percent stainless steel Viognier and, get this, eight percent Pinot Noir; a creamy, excellent blend with a mild acidity. L.A. Cetto produces wines under five different labels and has 3,000 acres of grapes planted in Mexico, though “wines from Baja are challenging,” Magoni says, referring to the current water issues, and getting the grapes fully ripe. Though large, they are not the only players.
One of the more popular wineries to visit in the Guadalupe Valley is Vina de Liceaga with its spacious tasting room lined with dark Choctaw stone. Tasting fees range from $5-8 and you’ll find Chenin Blanc with a strong acidity, Cabernets, Syrah, Merlot and blends. The red wines in the Guadalupe Valley are good, but lack full fruit and balance, and often there’s a briar component to them, however over all the white wines standout. Other wines to look for when you’re in the Baja region include Rogant, who make one of the best Sauvignon Blancs in the state; Emeve; a relatively new producer who is making a very nice spicy syrah with blackberry fruit and a whisper of coffee, and the Baron Balch’e Double Blanc, a fantastic blend of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc for about $15. Even in Tecate, west of Tijuana, home of the brewery giant Tecate, there are a handful of wineries like Cava Garcia, where the wines are inexpensive ($6-15) and pleasant, and locals gather to share a bottle frequently in the remote though accessible tasting room helmed by winemaker Pedro Garcia Frias.
The bottom line is that Mexico is attempting to compete on the global wine stage and it’s a distinct possibility. Certainly, time, money and a greater dedication to the art of winemaking will need to be in evidence for that to happen. But as it stands currently, the possibilities exist. If you are in Baja, a trip into the beautiful Guadalupe Valley is a must. The infrastructure, including lodging and restaurants, are all in place. All they need now is for visitors to discover the wines of Mexico.