Baja Begins

Exploring California's Other Wine Country

by Courtney Cochran

You know a wine region is more or less off the charts when a Google search on the subject turns up a pop song before any meaningful news about the place. And while I'm happy that the band Fields of Wayne featured "Mexican Wine" in the lyrics and title of a recently released tune, I can't say that the gyrating ladies in bikinis shown in the song's video helped me much with my research (although, for the record, they did swill some vino of dubious origin at one point).

Fortunately, a little more digging unearthed more applicable facts about Mexican wine, sans MTV-style embellishments. Chief among these was the reason that we know so little about Mexican wine, originally brought to the area by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century.

False Start

Long known for producing bland jug wine, the Mexican wine industry began gaining traction amongst domestic consumers in a major way in the 1980s when a handful of Mexican producers started making higher-end wines. Unfortunately, a 1989 free trade agreement with the European Union resulted in a flood of European imports, which consumers favored over Mexico's own wines. The industry floundered and has only just begun to resurrect itself thanks to continued improvements underway at some of Mexico's leading wineries. Still, little Mexican wine is exported, which explains why we rarely see it.

Location, location, location

Turns out that Mexico's Baja California, long known for its beaches, tequila-fueled nightclubs and prolific tourist trade, is the hotbed of the country's vinous revolution. Just 75 miles south of San Diego and about 30 minutes from the coastal city of Ensenada, you will find the heart of all the activity - a sprawling, semi-arid valley known to locals as the Valle de Guadalupe.

Here, more than 20 wineries are making wines that are fast gaining the attention of critics and tourists alike, and a cottage tourism industry has sprung up to cater to visitors to a place that's been affectionately dubbed "the Napa Valley of Mexico." Protected from Baja's blazing heat by mountain ranges on three sides and the nearby Pacific's cooling breezes, the Valle de Guadalupe has a surprisingly temperate climate that's perfect for grape growing. White grapes grown successfully in the area include Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, while the reds span a broader spectrum that encompasses Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Nebbiolo, Zinfandel, Barbera and Grenache.

Staying & Tasting There

When it comes to wineries, a visit to the Valle de Guadalupe wouldn't be complete without stopping by L.A. Cetto Winery, which boasts its own bullring and a customer-friendly tasting room reminiscent of those in the US. Chateau Camou is also worth seeking out and credited with leading the charge in the area's new emphasis on quality wine production. Not far from these two spots, Pernod Ricard's Casa Pedro Domecq is Mexico's oldest winery and another hospitable stop for visitors.

The most popular time to visit the area is in August, when the Fiesta de la Vendimia (harvest festival) offers plenty of diversions for visitors, including wine and food competitions, tastings, tours, and concerts.

That said, there is no reason that the spoils of the area can't be enjoyed year-round, particularly for travelers who opt to stay at one of the several charming inns or B&Bs in the valley. Adobe Guadalupe B&B and La Villa del Valle are the two best-known hotels in the area, although many family-run wineries also offer accommodations. Besides these options, nearby Ensenada offers plenty of additional lodging alternatives as well as nightlife for folks inclined to shake their booties a bit after dark.

Guessing You'll Go

Speaking of which, all this talk of drinking and merrymaking reminds me of another song about Mexico I find much more pertinent to the story at-hand. In the words of the wise James Taylor, "Oh, Mexico, it sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low...I guess I'll have to go."