First, let me relate my love affair with wine. It did not start back when I worked in the wine and spirits industry as a brand ambassador many years ago. At that time my expertise was tequila and mezcal. Therefore I always considered myself a tequila and mezcal connoisseur not only by trade, but also by taste. My love affair with wine started only recently during my first weekend trip to Solvang. I was and am lucky that LA has a close proximity to the Santa Ynez Valley. Equipped with my tequila tasting skills, all I had to do was transfer them; and that I did during my first trip to a winery a few years back.
A few things about my first wine tasting experience captivated me; the small town rural feel created by the large extensions of grape cultivated land, the variety of tastes and scents of the wine, and the charming atmosphere the wineries provide. This seductive combination that stimulated all of my senses enticed me to return. After a couple more trips that followed soon after, I began to develop certain preferences as I began to discern among the different wines available for tasting.
One of my most significant wine tasting experiences came about this year as I returned to the same region to take part in the annual Santa Barbara County Vintners Festival. What stands out about this event is not only the great number of participating wineries or the regions great wine making ability, but the fact that behind most booth tables you got to meet the wine maker. In most cases the wine maker was also the winery owner. Over the years, I've tasted wine at several wineries across California, at restaurants and at home, but what I experienced this past weekend when visiting Valle de Guadalupe in Ensenada, Mexico was completely unexpected and a most pleasant surprise.
If you haven't noticed, you will hardly find a bottle of Mexican wine on the shelf at liquor stores or in restaurant wine lists. Since we do get wine from other Latin American regions like Chile, and Argentina, I always thought the lack of Mexican wine in the US had mainly to do with poor quality. Little did I know what I was getting myself into as I began my wine tasting journey into Mexican wine country.
Valle de Guadalupe sits east of Ensenada in Baja California Norte. We drove down the HWY 1, which follows the coast south into Ensenada. Once in Ensenada the weather felt similar to any other beach town the California coast. The morning was a bit foggy. If you've noticed last year's summer had been quite "forgiving", meaning, we had not experienced 100 degree weather as we have other years. As I write this, the day has been mostly overcast, feels like 60 degrees, and we're in early September.
Back to that wonderful morning driving down to Valle de Guadalupe. The closer we got to the Valle, the more drastic the change in temperature and humidity even though the Valle is only 30 minutes away from the coast where it's cool and foggy. The vine covered hills were a clear indication that we were in a wine region. The first interesting historical fact is that the first wine makers in the region were Russian colonists who arrived at the turn of the 20th century. My interest was definitely piqued.
The region has a wide selection of the classic wine varieties and I was happy to learn they also cultivate Malbec, Viognier, Syrah, Petit Syrah and even Nebbiolo. The interesting quality about this tasting experience is in the touch Mexican wine makers and the region provide to the final product. From the names of the wine brands to every drop of the crafted and artfully fermented grape juice we know as wine or vino in Spanish. You can also find organic wine at Dona Lupe's boutique. Dona Lupes' a charming place where nopales, vines olives and maguey grow side by side. In other words the old world coexisting beautifully with the new world. The famous French word terroir comes to mind while tasting Valle de Guadalupe wine, a special characteristic that geography and agricultural practices lend to wine.
Over all, I was blown away by the qualities of this region's wine and wine making practices. A perfect example is found in the Spanish-Mayan named winery Bar??n Balch?®. A place encapsulated by knowledge, love and tradition- the wines that emerge from this unique place are refined, complex and reminiscent of French wine making know-how with a very Mexicanense touch.
Another winery that I had always wanted to visit and had the pleasure and honor of visiting is Mont Xinac. Let me simply say that I was very impressed.
But why don't we find this delicious wine in California, the world's wine-making epicenter. Could politics have anything to do with this? Is Mexican wine, consumed all over the world, not fit for the American palette? So I kept drinking as I searched for answers during my trip. I found out, plenty of Americans and Californian's for that matter have visited the region. Limited with what they can bring back home (two bottles), they buy little. They do enjoy it, never the less. As it turns out most of what is produced in Mexico, like Tequila, stays in Mexico. In certain cases as in the case of LA Cetto, a majority of their exports go to Luxembourg and various other parts of the world . Could Luxembourg as an example, a small country surrounded by France, Belgium and Germany have something in their palate not fit for Americans?
By the third or fourth winery, the puzzle began to emerge as to why the absence of Mexican wine in the US could be termed as a fiscal disadvantage. Mexico charges its producers a 30% tax and the US a 40% import tariff. This combination can best be described as a kick in the pants to every Mexican vinicultor. The tax is a fiscal measure on the part of the Mexican government, the 40% tariff, on the other hand, is a political statement. A fact that they murmur about, but in the same breath also inform you that "they" are "already looking into this". This being said with a certainty that only a higher power of sorts can provide the confidence that things are soon to change. And for our sake as consumers I hope so.
Francisco Reatas writes:
According to ?º2204 of the Harmonized Trade and Tariff Schedule (http://hts.usitc.gov/), all Mexican wines are free of duty. Before NAFTA there were a lot of high duties in place to protect the California agricultural industry but nowadays, said one winemaker in Ensenada, his greatest obstacle has been the expensive NAFTA paperwork.
There are three principal reasons why the U.S. has seen so little Mexican wine:
(1) The U.S. market does not want it. Importers only import what distributors are willing to sell; distributors will sell only what their customers want.
(2) Economy of scale. Very few wineries in any region can be found outside their home turf. You might not have seen Rancho Sisquoc wines even in Solvang, for example. There are well over a hundred wineries in Ensenada but only a half-dozen have the volume to fill an international supply-chain.
(3) Mexican wines are horribly overpriced. Wine is a rich man's hobby here and the rich men who own the wineries all think they're making the next Opus One. Our wines sell in their national market but cannot compete internationally with the likes of Chilean wines. Even here in Tijuana, Chile outsells Ensenada.