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Santo Tomás, Padre Kino, L.A. Cetto, Bodegas San Antonio

Mexico's new wine and old bottles

Domecq Winery - Image by Robert Burroughs
Domecq Winery

I wanted to buy some Mexican wine. So I called a half-dozen San Diego Liquor stores, giant alcohol emporiums like Liquor Barn and Liquor Land, as well as smaller havens for wine connoisseurs such as Vintage Wines on Miramar Road. Not one had so much as a single bottle. And none of the local wine merchants seemed to have the slightest inkling of the remarkable wine boom currently developing in Baja.

The only winery anyone had heard of was the Bodegas de Santo Tomás — even though hundreds of growers within 150 miles south of the border today are producing premium grapes that are being processed now at eight separate Baja wineries. More than fifteen years ago, the giant brandy company Pedro Domecq de Mexico, opened a modern plant north of Ensenada, and ail of Domecq’s extensive line of table wines are produced there. But even Domecq’s robust operations pale beside the growth in winemaking operations of the Tijuana-based Cetto family, who boast that they make the majority of all the wine produced in Mexico.

Grapes from Baja

One local wine seller who acknowledged he had not really tasted any Mexican wine nonetheless told me, “It might be tough making really quality wines in a climate like that.” I understood his skepticism, of course. Mexico may be awash in top-grade brandy, tequila, and beer, but Baja is the land of cactus, not cabernet, no? When I finally tracked down some Americans who have studied Mexican wines, however, I heard some surprising opinions. One came from Philip Hiaring, who for twenty years has published the seventy-year-old Wines and Vines magazine based in San Rafael. When asked about Baja wines, Hiaring stated emphatically, “They are fine wines. They are world-class wines, and the equipment and the varieties that the Mexicans have are the equal of any in the world.” Hiaring ranks the Mexican red wines particularly highly and says the Cetto family’s nebbiolo (a type of wine produced from grapes imported from the Piedmont region in Italy) is “the best nebbiolo I think I’ve tasted outside of Italy.”

A few months ago, Hiaring toured wineries throughout Mexico in the company of another authoritative wine lover, Leon Adams of Sausalito. Besides founding San Francisco’s Wine Institute, Adams also is an author whose many books on wine include The Wines of North America. He’s now working on the fourth edition of that encyclopedic reference book, and he concurs with Hiaring that many of the Mexican wines “are the equal of wines in North America and the world.... And Baja is now the source of the most reliably palatable Mexican wines.” Adams says the improvement in the Mexican offerings over the past few decades has been remarkable, and he thinks American wine travelers are really missing something by knowing so little about them.

I also, less surprisingly, found dozens of Mexican wine lovers and wine producers who also speak enthusiastically about the product of their country’s vines. But even they all acknowledge that wine drinkers in Mexico have had to endure some unique frustrations. Raul Almada, the spokesman for the national winemakers’ and producers’ association in Mexico City, points out that Mexico was the first country in the Americas to produce wine. But Almada follows that boast with the lament that “usually any country with any wine tradition at all will have a much higher consumption of wine than brandy.” In Mexico, however, brandy consumption is several times that of wine consumption and, he adds with an almost audible shudder, “This is the only country in the world where people take their brandy mixed. They drink it with soda, with water, or with cola.”

According to author Leon Adams, strong historical forces help explain why Mexican winemaking didn’t flourish centuries ago. In his chapter on “Wines of Mexico,” Adams points out that wine was essential to the diet and religious celebrations of the Spaniards who conquered Mexico, and the conquistadors first produced the drink from wild grapes. Conqueror Hernando Cortez quickly sought to root viniculture in the New World, first by demanding that Spanish ships bring to Veracruz supplies of vines and seeds, and then by ordering all Spaniards with land grants to plant grapevines tor five years. Adams says by 1554 winegrowing was well established at haciendas as far west as the present state of Michoacán, and the first commercial winery was established in 1593 in Coahuila.

But two years later, regulatory catastrophe struck the infant Mexican wine industry. Disturbed by the shrinking shipments of Spanish wine to New Spain, Philip II decided in 1595 to tighten his country’s grip on the wine trade, and he forbade any new plantings or replacements of vineyards in Mexico. Throughout the next 200 years, subsequent viceroys repeated this edict and even ordered existing vineyards destroyed.

Notwithstanding the edict, some Mexican winemaking did continue and even spread. Baja California received its first grape planting from Jesuit missionaries about 1697, and Dominican fathers brought grapes as well as religion to other Baja sites where they established missions.

Still, the individual most openly defiant of the Spanish suppression of viniculture was Padre Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican Independence. “At his village of Dolores, the rebel priest taught the natives to raise grapes, which he himself pressed into wine, and the civil authorities came repeatedly to Dolores to tear up his vines,” Adams writes. “One of Father Hidalgo’s aims in launching the revolution against Spain in 1810 was to end the Spanish prohibition against winegrowing in Mexico.”

Grapes being dumped to start wine process

Although the revolution eventually succeeded, winegrowing languished amid the civil strife that marred the first fifty years of independence. Throughout the country, monks abandoned their missions and the vineyards lay dormant. In Baja California, however, the impetus for a new demand for wine began building in the 1870s, when a minor gold rush in the mountains about fifty miles southeast of Ensenada drew prospectors and merchants from all over Alta California and Europe. Although the gold rush ended within ten years, the boom resulted in the founding of Ensenada in 1885. Another legacy was that two Californians of Spanish descent, Francisco Andonaegui and Miguel Ormart, founded a winery in the Santo Tomás Valley, about thirty-five miles south of Ensenada, in 1888.

One hundred years later, Bodegas de Santo Tomás is still producing wine. This year’s crush just began two and a half weeks ago at the winery’s aging plant in central Ensenada. The only Baja winery currently open for public tours, the Santo Tomás facility is something of a relic. Inside its walls lies a shadowy realm coated thickly by the years. The heavy wooden tanks that hold the aging fluids have a dark and roughened look, and they impart to the air the deep perfume of wine-soaked pine and tannins.

For many practical reasons, this isn’t the best place for a winery. After the winery was acquired by General Abelardo Lujan Rodriguez (a former revolutionary who also served as the president of Mexico), he moved the winery from the Santo Tomás Valley to its current location on Avenida Miramar between Sixth and Seventh streets. At the time of the move, 1934, the spot was a rural idyll, located close enough to Ensenada’s harbor to facilitate shipping the wine. But today, the winery is cut in two by the busy street, down which cars and heavy trucks rumble constantly. Most of the plant looks less like a winery than a factory, built from sheet-metal roofing and whitewashed stucco, its banks of windows covered with white paint to keep out the light.

Rodriguez’s decision as to where to locate his winery may have lacked some foresight, but he made another decision that decisively shaped the future of Baja winemaking. Rodriguez met a young Italian wine merchant living in Mexico City who had left his native country for political reasons. Impressed by the abilities of this man, Esteban Ferro, Rodriguez hired him to be the general manager and enologist for the winery. Ferro soon set about trying to make the winery s operations more professional. Most of the grapes processed by Santo Tomás had been the sweet, black “mission” variety brought from Spain by the conquistadors and planted by the various religious orders. Ferro replaced most of these with varieties that he imported from Italy. Unfortunately, some apparently got jumbled in the crossing, so that when they arrived, no one knew exactly which varieties were which. Ferro planted them regardless, and today one can still find fields owned by Santo Tomás and other Baja wine-growers identifiable only as “Italian varieties.”

Ferro eventually left Santo Tomás to start his own winery, which he located on the road to Estero Beach and called Vinícola de Ensenada. There the Italian winemaker began producing a table wine that he christened Padre Kino — today one of the most widely consumed wines in Mexico. (Ferro eventually sold his winery to Pedro Domecq de Mexico, and that corporate giant now sells wine under the Padre Kino brand.)

But the vacuum created by Ferro’s departure from Santo Tomás didn’t last for long. In 1962, General Rodriguez made another bold move and hired a thirty-two-year-old winemaker named Dmitri Tchelistcheff to be his new technical director. As unpronounceable as his family name must have seemed to the Mexicans, it was one that commanded enormous respect in the wineries of northern California. Dmitri’s father Andr6, born in Russia, educated in Czechoslovakia, and schooled in French winemaking, was brought to California in 1938 by the founder of Beaulieu Vineyard, then the most famous winegrowing estate in the Napa Valley. To the northern California winemakers, the senior Tchelistcheff introduced the latest findings of French enological and viticultural research, and twenty-five years later his son made a similar contribution to Mexican winemaking. Upon his arrival in Baja, Dmitri replanted some of the Santo Tomás vineyards with French varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chenin blanc, and chardonnay, and “he provided new strength to the wine industry in Baja California,” according to Octavio Jimenez, the young Mexican chemical engineer who in 1971 began working as Tchelistcheff’s cellar superintendent and eventually succeeded him as chief winemaker.

Workers sorting through grapes

Tchelistcheff worked for Santo Tomás until 1976. By then profound structural changes had affected the winery. General Rodriguez had died in 1967, and his widow and sons very quickly sold the enterprise to a Mexico City wine-importing business called Elias Pando. This company still owns Santo Tomás, but in the last twenty years both the nature of Elias Pando’s business and its financial condition have altered drastically. Today the firm is a large conglomerate whose ventures range from manufacturing chocolate to tuna fishing.

Deeply in debt, the company has been pressed hard by both Mexican and foreign creditors, and both present and former employees at Santo Tomás testify to strains resulting from Pando’s financial plight. Several years ago, for example, Santo Tomás exported a respectable quantity of its wine to U.S. markets including San Diego, but the most recent American distributor, Crown Beverages of Los Angeles, says its communication with Santo Tomás ceased completely (and mysteriously) about six months ago. Miguel Navarette, Santo Tomás’s public-relations spokesman, blames his company’s lack of exports on a shortage of Santo Tomás personnel to oversee that activity, and he acknowledges that the winery in recent years has experienced significant management turmoil.

Octavio Jimenez, the Tchelistcheff protégé and former enologist for Santo Tomás, says he eventually left (in 1986) because of the internal chaos and lack of interest in the winery from the current Pando management in Mexico City. “The chairman of the board [of Pando] has only visited Santo Tomás once, and that was five years ago,” Jimenez says. As another indicator of Santo Tomás’s declining fortunes, Jimenez says the winery was bottling 300,000 cases of wine per year at the peak of his tenure as enologist, but now the production has fallen to 100,000 cases. “They used to crush 6000 tons of grapes a year,” Jimenez says sadly. “This year it will only be 1000 tons.”

Though the numbers may be down, Santo Tomás still produces more than two dozen different types of wine, including barbera, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and chenin blanc, and a pure grenache rosé. Santo Tomás spokesman Navarette says roughly fifty percent of the grapes used to make the wines are owned by the winery, with the rest purchased from small, independent growers. Virtually all of the Santo Tomás grapes come from the Santo Tomás and San Vicente valleys, both south of Ensenada.

It is another Baja California valley, however, that today enjoys the reputation for being the Napa Valley of Mexico: the Valle de Guadalupe, north of Ensenada. All of northern Baja’s coastal valleys share certain common characteristics that bode well for winemaking: they enjoy warm, sunny days, and evenings that are cooled by the nearby ocean breezes. The biggest drawback to farming here is the dearth of rainfall. It is possible to coax usable grapes from vines that have been watered solely by nature, but all of the biggest growers in Baja instead irrigate their vineyards with water drawn from deep underground wells. You can see both types of vineyards when you drive through the Guadalupe Valley, and it doesn’t take much agricultural expertise to distinguish the one from the other. The irrigated plants wear a raiment of lush, emerald green foliage; offshoots of the vines lift skyward like the arms of graceful dancers. The unirrigated vineyards, in contrast, contain shorter, browner plants whose vines look cramped, as if writhing from the effort of bearing fruit to this desiccated land.

To find the Guadalupe Valley, you take the road to Tecate that cuts off the main highway a mile and a half south of the last toll booth before Ensenada. For a short distance, this road passes hillsides down which spill the shanty outskirts of the city. Within moments, however, the urban clutter gives way to planted fields and hospitable-looking ranchos; here and there you begin to see unirrigated vineyards. About seventeen miles down the road, a sign announces the Valle de Guadalupe, which extends off to the west. The road continues eastward, however, and climbs slightly to cut through a dramatic rocky pass, on the other side of which opens up an amazing vista.

Luis Cetto Salzar

Bright green vineyards blanket the earth in every direction under powdery blue skies heaped with cumulus clouds. In the fields, black plastic tubing snakes from one bushy plant to another, bringing each its precious quotient of water. Dark, brawny mountains make up the boundaries of this land, rugged and forbidding, but some of their gentler foothills are stitched with the neat lines of still more vineyards. Apart from the two-lane highway, all the smaller roads are dirt, but the overwhelming aura in this valley is one of clean, orderly prosperity. It’s a place purified by the intense sun and cultivated by the hard work of countless diligent hands.

It’s also a fitting setting for the baronial winery constructed in 1972 by the Pedro Domecq company. Located on the north side of the road, the central building containing the offices, laboratory, and wine-producing equipment for the company is a low structure whose enormity is broken up by a frieze of giant arches. An immense veranda is attached to the front of the building, and out of its sides are scalloped still more arches. Even in the heat of midday, the shade and coolness that seem to radiate up from the polished tile flooring of this veranda make it a serene spot for drinking in the views of the enormous valley.

Inside of Domecq winery

By any standard, this is a big winery. One Domecq spokesman says the plant annually produces about 4.7 million gallons of wine, which puts it on a par with such California wineries as Sebastiani, which has a capacity of 6.6 million gallons, and Mondavi, which can produce 3 million gallons. The gleaming processing equipment is state of the art, editor Hiaring of Wines and Vines magazine attests. Even for atmosphere, the Domecq facility could go head to head against many of Napa’s venerable estates. Most romantic is the enormous bodega (wine vault) set back from the road, where some of the company’s red wines age in splendor. Heavily textured stucco and rough-cut stone covers this building’s facade, and two monumental doors studded with giant black iron nailheads form its centerpiece. A step through the portal takes you from blazing sunlight into cool, fragrant gloom. Here, once your eyes adjust, you see that huge oak vats and mountains of smaller oak barrels fill a central vault, and large earthen pots dating back to sixteenth-century Spain lay strewn about in casual ornamentation. A low doorway leads to further corridors and then to chambers within chambers stacked solid with dust-covered bottles of dark wine and lined with wooden casks containing the private reserves of some of Mexico’s most illustrious individuals and institutions.

No brandy is stored in these cellars, nor is any produced in the Baja plant, a startling fact considering that Domecq de Mexico is the undisputed world leader among brandy producers. (Its Presidente and Don Pedro brands ranked first and second in the world, according to 1986 figures, and boasted three times the sales of the next closest competitor.) Although it was directed for many years by one of the members of the Spanish sherry-making company, Domecq de Mexico five years ago passed under the leadership of a Mexican named Antonio Ariza, who up to then had been the company’s vice president. His daughter, Marianela Ariza, today owns an interest in a travel agency in La Jolla, and she says even as a child she remembers her father’s passion for wines. So it was logical for the Mexican brandy-maker to expand into wine production, a move the company apparently made in the late 1960s.

One company spokesman says Domecq in 1969 began producing its first table wines from grapes grown in the state of Zacatecas. Marketed under the Los Reyes label, these didn’t sell well, and one problem was the quality; the Zacatecan grapes are noted for their excessive sweetness. So Domecq began eyeing the Guadalupe Valley, where the Cetto family was firmly entrenched. In 1972, the Cettos and Domecq began an association that has continued through today.

I have a friend, a very savvy, lifelong resident of Tijuana, who couldn’t believe it when I told him that the Cetto family owned part of Domecq’s Baja winemaking operations. He was familiar with both, but he insisted that it had to be the other way around, that Domecq had bought out Cetto. How could it be otherwise, my friend persisted. Why would a giant like Domecq subordinate itself to a homegrown Tijuana operation?

Here’s the answer that Cetto and Domecq executives both give: They say back in the early 1970s, Domecq, the neophyte winemaker, saw irresistible advantages to be gained from drawing upon the Cetto family’s expertise. Angelo Cetto, an Italian with winemaking experience, had immigrated to Mexico in 1926. Today his grandson says Angelo got involved with a small Tijuana winemaking operation in the late Twenties and by 1938 had bought a distillery located on Constitution Avenue that he converted into a winery called Bodegas Cetto. The grandson, Luis Cetto Salazar, says Don Angel bought his first ranch in the Guadalupe Valley in 1936, the beginning of a long string of acquisitions. Today Productos de Uva (as the Cetto family’s company is now called) owns some 16,000 acres of Baja vineyards: about 7000 acres in the eastern Guadalupe Valley, 5000 acres in the San Vicente Valley south of Ensenada, 2000 acres in the eastern Guadalupe Valley, and 2000 acres around Mexicali. Despite the extensiveness of those holdings, those vineyards still supply only about half the grapes used by the Cettos to make their, own wines; they buy the rest from small, independent growers.

Grapes being crushed for wine

All the Cetto wines are processed in a plant that is located barely five minutes from the Domecq facility. Unlike the Domecq plant, which constitutes an imposing roadside landmark, the so-called “Vinícola de L.A. Cetto” is set so far back amid the vineyards that it could almost be overlooked by someone speeding from Ensenada to Tecate. Yet up close the 12.6 million-gallon Cetto plant (built in 1975) makes Domecq’s facility look like that of a boutique winery. Luis Cetto Salazar says his family’s company now owns around nineteen different labels, in which are bottled about thirty-five different types of wine. On top of that, the company also produces wine for a number of other wineries located elsewhere in Mexico, plus the Cettos continue to direct the production of all the Domecq wines.

Although the family now speaks of plans to add offices to its Guadalupe Valley facility, the Cetto family members currently use the offices at the Domecq winery whenever they’re in the valley. (The Cettos also have a Tijuana office —and a private plane to speed the forty-five-mile commute between the two.) Seated behind a big desk with a commanding view of the valley, Luis Cetto Salazar cuts a surprising figure; he looks more like a San Diego State University student than the scion of a Mexican winemaking dynasty. His sandy blond hair runs in long tendrils down the back of his neck, and his blue eyes are framed by gold-rimmed glasses. A small, neat mustache otherwise ornaments his plump face. The only son among four children, he says he’s assuming an increasing range of company duties, in preparation for his father’s retirement someday. Though just twenty-three, the son boasts that he began working in the business at seven, and he indeed discusses the company’s history with a perspective that seems older than his years.

He makes it sound as if the Cetto family has had to give as much thought to teaching their fellow countrymen about wine as to making it. In this land of cerveza and margaritas, “Wine is still used as a special-occasion drink, not as a regular companion at dinners and lunches,” he says. But the young Cetto says an important step toward changing that longstanding attitude came around 1974, when the Domecq and Cetto partnership purchased Don Esteban Ferro’s winery, Vinícola Regional de Ensenada, with its Padre Kino label. Under the Cettos’ direction, the wine was transformed into a light, sweet jug wine, and sales of Padre Kino exploded, jumping from 9 million to 15 million liters the first year, the young Cetto says. As Mexicans thus began drinking more wine, demand for better-quality wine began to pick up, he explains. He says as early as 197 5 his father began yearning to make varietal wine under a Cetto label. (Varietal wine is composed primarily of one type of grape, rather than a blend, and is considered to have a more generally consistent quality.

Interestingly, Mexican law governing varietals is much stricter than the American regulations: whereas American varietal wines must include at least seventy-five percent of the grapes after which they are named, Mexican wines must be ninety-eight percent corrtposed of the varietal. “And at harvest time, this place is crawling with inspectors,” Cetto says.)

Despite a desire to produce the more expensive varietals, he says his family didn’t judge the Mexican market to be ready for such a line from Cetto until the late Seventies. The first grapes were crushed in 1979, and the first bottles finally reached the market in 1983 under a label, “L.A. Cetto,” which for the first time bore the family’s name. Today these offerings are generally considered to be the Cetto family’s best wines, and their price reflects that status. A bottle of Cetto fumé blanc costs the equivalent of six dollars in Tijuana grocery stores; the winery’s cabernet sauvignon and petite syrah cost about $5.50.

The year 1983 brought another big addition to the Cettos. Besides introducing their own “L.A. Cetto” label, they also bought the assets of an eleven-year-old Mexico City winery called Cavas Bach. Those assets, according to young Cetto, include more than a half-dozen wine and liquor labels and a powerful sales force that helped expand the Cetto family’s national market penetration. Today, however, the company’s focus seems as much international as national: Cetto says his family’s wines were introduced in Japan a year and a half ago, and Productos de Uva is hoping to have products in Canada by early next year. Of more importance to Californians, the Cettos just signed an exclusive agreement with a Los Angeles importer named ACA Imports to market their entire line of nine L.A. Cetto wines and Champbrul6 brand champagne in eight states.

ACA’s executive vice president, Walt Stender, says his company is now restyling Cetto’s labels for the American market (incorporating the slogan, ‘America’s first wines are America’s best wine values”), and the finished products should reach California store shelves by the end of this year. ‘‘We’ve had phenomenal interest from distributors so far,” Stender enthuses. ‘‘It blows people away.” Although Cetto’s varietals may sell for five to six dollars per bottle in Mexico, Stender says here they will retail for three to five dollars per bottle. “Their [the Cettos’] white zinfandel is going to be on the shelf for under three dollars,” Stender says. He explains that lower taxes and distribution costs will allow the wines to sell for less here than in Mexico. Stender blames the absence to date of Mexican wines from the American market on a couple of factors. He thinks they’ve simply been overlooked, partly because “the image of Mexico has always been one of lower quality, and there’s somewhat of a snob appeal with wines.” He nonetheless predicts that “most people [here] will be very surprised.... Some of these wines are definitely going to win competitions.”

Paul Borquez

To help promote the new export market, Stender has been urging the Cetto family to open up their winery to tour groups. It’s hardly a new idea; young Cetto says his family and Domecq representatives have talked for a dozen years about offering wine-tasting tours. But a couple of factors considerably weaken the appeal of such a venture. Cetto says for one thing, Mexican law prohibits the sale of wine anywhere near a winery, and even if American customers (a likely target for wine tastings) could make such purchases, they aren’t allowed to take more than one bottle per person back across the U.S. border.

Despite those impediments, Marianela Ariza (daughter of Domecq’s president) says she plans to organize American bus tours (offered through her travel agency) to the Domecq plant sometime next year. But the young Cetto makes it clear that any public visits to the Cetto winery are a lot further off. With obvious disdain, he mentions the parade of tourists through the Napa Valley. If wine-tasting ever gets underway in the Guadalupe Valley, “We would want it to be controlled,” he says. He makes it clear that he and his family view the valley in strongly proprietary terms, and as much as they might wish to promote their products, they wince at the thought of “just anybody” tramping through. I thought I detected even greater ambivalence in Cetto’s comments about his competition in the Mexican wine business. Several times he stressed that the Cettos welcome competition and have been saddened by the consolidation that has occurred among Mexican vintners since the onset of the country’s serious economic woes. “We don’t want anyone to drop out of the market,” he asserted. But when I mentioned the new wineries now opening in the valley, Cetto sounded openly irritated by their appearance. “Nobody heard of this valley before we were here,” he said, his face darkening. “We created it and we developed it, and now certain others are trying to take advantage of it.”

Grape juice fermenting

On a recent sunny morning, I visited one of the new wineries in the valley, Bodegas San Antonio. It’s also located off the road to Tecate, but closer to the coast, in another valley known as San Antonio de las Minas. Low mountains separate this area from the seashore, less than four miles to the west, and they buffer the ocean winds. But breezes always blow here, cool enough so that grapes grown here must be harvested ten to fifteen days later than those grown v in the nearby Guadalupe Valley.

Raul Borquez, the owner of Bodegas San Antonio, is no expert on growing grapes. A native of Ensenada who made his fortune in the insurance business, Borquez is a tall, silver-haired man with aquiline features who has entered this business because of his lifelong passion for good wine. The day we met, he seemed embarrassed to be the center of attention but at the same time shyly proud of what he has accomplished to date. When he first acquired this land in the early 1980s, it was completely undeveloped, and the only thing Borquez knew about it was that a stream crossed the property. He had the ground cleared, and in 1983 about thirty acres 6f cabernet sauvignon grapes were planted. In choosing that type of grape, Borquez relied on the recommendation of winemaker Octavio Jimenez, who for years had paid attention to the area. “I always thought this area was the best in Baja California for cabernet sauvignon,” Jimenez says today. “I think it’s going to be a very good surprise for wine connoisseurs in the future.”

After leaving his position as winemaker at the Santo Tomás winery in 1986, Jimenez went into business as an independent wine consultant, and today he counts two other wineries located elsewhere in Mexico among his clients, besides Borquez’s fledgling enterprise. But he talks about Bodegas San Antonio with thepride of a father. He says he was able to buy for the winery some top-grade Italian equipment at a discount price (since it was brought to California for an American Association of Enologists meeting, where it did not sell), plus he’s located other crucial pieces of machinery in Spain and France. In 1987, Jimenez also supervised the winery’s first crush of some fifty tons of grapes: cabernet sauvignon grown on Borquez’s property plus some “Italian varieties” purchased from a neighboring grower. Jimenez says he tastes that wine monthly to check its progress; all of it is currently aging in American oak barrels stored in a tall brick building.

Everything about this operation is modest. Compared to the hundreds of giant containers within Domecq’s facility, Borquez’s winery contains only eight stainless-steel tanks used for both fermentation and storage. But signs of loving attention also abound. The adobe-size bricks of the central building were hand-made locally, part of a long-range vision of Borquez to transform the building into something harkening back to old California. Immediately next to this brick structure, workers are painstakingly setting local stones that will form the walls of a wine-storage building. Borquez can lead the way to the exact spot where he says he will erect a wine-tasting room open to visitors. He hopes to complete that sometime next year. Besides the winery and the bucolic views that extend in every direction, visitors also will be greeted by a profusion of flowers; tall showy rose bushes already have burst forth with color, and new plantings of bougainvillea are thriving in the sun.

Domecq party

“His goal is to leave something in this world. He wants to create something for future generations,” Jimenez told me later. He can’t help comparing Borquez’s reverent attitude with the lack of interest he says was evident in the owners of Santa Tomás. “I know that he [Borquez] really cares about the wine. He’s going to drink it himself. He’s going to tell people about it, to share it with friends”

A short, friendly man with an open manner, Jimenez has gone to some extraordinary lengths to share his own enthusiasm for good wine. Six years ago, he and another Ensenada oenophile, a travel agency owner named Héctor Arriola, organized a public “harvest festival” that benefited the local Lions Club. This past weekend, the sixth annual version of that event unfolded in Ensenada and for the first time in its history included every Baja winery that has products for sale: Santo Tomás, Domecq, Cetto’s Productos de Uvas, Vinícola Regional (a venerable Tijuana winery dating back to 1940 whose wines are sold under the Quinta El Mirador label), Cavas Valmar (a five-year-old winery started by a former production head at Santo Tomás), and Formex-Ybarra, an older company that makes the Urbinone brand wines as well as a wine cooler known as the Catalina Cooler. (Baja’s two newest wineries, Bodegas San Antonio, and another Guadalupe Valley enterprise being guided by Dmitri Tchelistcheff, haven’t yet released their first vintages.) For all the frivolous activities such as wine-stomping and bota-drinking contests, the festival has a serious purpose, according to Jimenez. “We want to give the people the idea that wine is a good thing if you drink it with intelligence.”

If the festival is a populist effort at elevating Mexican wine consciousness, a much more elite and high-toned version of that same enterprise was launched by Arriola and Jimenez two and a half years ago when they organized the “Cofradia del Vino de Baja California.” A sort of brotherhood of Ensenada wine connoisseurs, the group has grown from fourteen to about two dozen members and has met faithfully every month at the showy El Rey Sol restaurant. Few groups of American wine lovers could approach the level of ritual and formality achieved by these men. On the night I joined them, each one wore a dark formal suit, white shirt, and tie, and most were also adorned with the ceremonial cup called a “tastevin” that hung around their necks from ribbons the color of the Mexican flag.

Wine tasting at Santo Tomás

Jimenez says the group’s principal goal has been to educate their own palates, and with this aim it has undertaken many complex exercises. One month, for example, the cofradia members tasted a series of solutions containing minutely varying quantities of sugar, both to test their own level of discrimination and to try to further refine it. More commonly, one member selects a couple of wines and prepares a presentation on them, with the cofradia members tasting and discussing those offerings. Although the group started out by concentrating on Mexican labels, they since have studied wines from all over the world, and with a mixture of surprise and pride, members now say that in blind tastings the Baja products have occasionally bested some illustrious foreigners.

Baja red wines again took center stage on the occasion of my visit, though the bottles were carefully covered with tissue paper. This evening, the challenge was for the cofradia members to taste each of three products and try to identify the winery, the year, and the type of grape used in each. This sounds a lot easier than it looked.

Presented with the first sample, the men plunged their noses into the bowls of their glasses and inhaled deeply; they frowned and held the ruby liquid up to the light; they sipped with solemn, studious faces. A few jotted down notes. Then, tentatively, they began to discuss the wine, which all agreed was brilliant, fruity, a little acid. Yet its parentage divided the men. One pronounced it a Santo Tomás cabernet, while Jimenez sounded confident that it was a Chateau Domecq, possibly 1978.

With a second wine, they repeated the process, and this time they seemed to achieve more consensus. “The first thing that struck my nose was the smell of a humid, old house,” member Carlos Montes avowed. Others concurred that this was the stamp, the unmistakable mark, of a Santo Tomás wine, most probably a 1981 or ’82 barbera. The third wine, a very dark but brilliant liquid with an intense smell of red fruit, also drew argument. Hector Arriola sounded almost cockily certain that this was a 1986 cabernet sauvignon from the new Cavas Valmar winery, but someone else argued about the level of astringency.

When the bottles were finally unveiled, the group had scored one direct hit with the 1982 Santo Tomás barbera. About the misses, the cofradia members seemed philosophic; their goal, after all, is to taste and learn. They also disclose some less personal, longer-range aspirations, however. One day, for example, they dream of seeing greater regulation over the way winemakers legally may describe their products. Jimenez and Arriola both say they know of unscrupulous winemakers elsewhere in Mexico who are touting their products as “Guadalupe Valley” wines when in fact grapes from there constitute only a fraction of the blend. That’s one good indicator of just how far the Baja wines have come, Jimenez and Arriola say. “Just ten, fifteen, years ago, people laughed at the idea of wine from Baja California.”

Private Reserve, Santo Tomás

The insignificant past of Baja wine may be easy to recall, but it’s a lot harder to predict its future. To get some idea of just how hard it is, consider what I encountered as I tried to determine the current levels of Mexican wine production. Domecq’s assistant technical director told me that the annual production at Domecq’s winery runs just about at capacity, that is, 18 million liters. But young Cetto, who helps manage the plant, later flatly contradicted that and told me the Domecq plant capacity is 24 million liters (and that the Cetto plant capacity is double that, he said). Yet when I asked the head of the winegrowers’ association what was the total Mexican wine production, he confidently told me it was 18 million liters (or about 4.7 million gallons). The Wine Institute in San Francisco had no American data on the Mexican industry, but it did offer me a French estimate of 6.6 million gallons (in 1987).

So the statistics confuse, rather than illuminate. The future of the Mexican wine industry also can’t be separated from the future of the Mexican economy, and who knows what that holds. At the same time, anyone inclined to dismiss the Mexican winemakers should have been in their magical valley one night a week and a half ago, when Pedro Domecq de Mexico held its annual, private harvest festival.

Unlike the public fiesta staged in Ensenada, the Domecq party was an invitation-only affair, and a guard armed with a walkie-talkie manned the huge metal gates in front of the plant while a small cluster of uninvited Mexicans gaped at the parade of guests. Once inside, the magnitude of this affair became obvious: several hundred people strolled around, awaiting a schedule of festivities reminiscent of some medieval revelry on the estate of feudal lords. First an open-air mass was celebrated on an altar laden with grape leaves and carnations. Then came a ceremonial grinding of huge vats of red and white grapes, followed by a festive procession of the glittering horde through the darkly romantic wine stores.

Eventually, the huge assembly moved to the front of the winery and took their seats at dozens upon dozens of tables set up on the veranda and front lawns, some situated only a few arms’ lengths away from the heavily laden grapevines. A “queen of the harvest” (the youngest Cetto daughter) was crowned with great pomp, and then a homespun parade, composed of farmers driving their tractors and pulling hoppers full of grapes, rolled past the partiers. Eventually, there was feasting and entertainment by musicians and singers and dancers and horseback performers and ceremonial flyers from Papantla. And then fireworks filled the heavens over the valley.

By then, a huge glowing moon had edged over the jagged line of mountains on the horizon. It climbed high, as if determined to better show off its magnificence. Under its light and the sparkle from the fireworks, one could just barely discern the vast, fertile fields extending in every direction, fields filled with fruit just coming to maturity and heavy with promise.

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Domecq Winery - Image by Robert Burroughs
Domecq Winery

I wanted to buy some Mexican wine. So I called a half-dozen San Diego Liquor stores, giant alcohol emporiums like Liquor Barn and Liquor Land, as well as smaller havens for wine connoisseurs such as Vintage Wines on Miramar Road. Not one had so much as a single bottle. And none of the local wine merchants seemed to have the slightest inkling of the remarkable wine boom currently developing in Baja.

The only winery anyone had heard of was the Bodegas de Santo Tomás — even though hundreds of growers within 150 miles south of the border today are producing premium grapes that are being processed now at eight separate Baja wineries. More than fifteen years ago, the giant brandy company Pedro Domecq de Mexico, opened a modern plant north of Ensenada, and ail of Domecq’s extensive line of table wines are produced there. But even Domecq’s robust operations pale beside the growth in winemaking operations of the Tijuana-based Cetto family, who boast that they make the majority of all the wine produced in Mexico.

Grapes from Baja

One local wine seller who acknowledged he had not really tasted any Mexican wine nonetheless told me, “It might be tough making really quality wines in a climate like that.” I understood his skepticism, of course. Mexico may be awash in top-grade brandy, tequila, and beer, but Baja is the land of cactus, not cabernet, no? When I finally tracked down some Americans who have studied Mexican wines, however, I heard some surprising opinions. One came from Philip Hiaring, who for twenty years has published the seventy-year-old Wines and Vines magazine based in San Rafael. When asked about Baja wines, Hiaring stated emphatically, “They are fine wines. They are world-class wines, and the equipment and the varieties that the Mexicans have are the equal of any in the world.” Hiaring ranks the Mexican red wines particularly highly and says the Cetto family’s nebbiolo (a type of wine produced from grapes imported from the Piedmont region in Italy) is “the best nebbiolo I think I’ve tasted outside of Italy.”

A few months ago, Hiaring toured wineries throughout Mexico in the company of another authoritative wine lover, Leon Adams of Sausalito. Besides founding San Francisco’s Wine Institute, Adams also is an author whose many books on wine include The Wines of North America. He’s now working on the fourth edition of that encyclopedic reference book, and he concurs with Hiaring that many of the Mexican wines “are the equal of wines in North America and the world.... And Baja is now the source of the most reliably palatable Mexican wines.” Adams says the improvement in the Mexican offerings over the past few decades has been remarkable, and he thinks American wine travelers are really missing something by knowing so little about them.

I also, less surprisingly, found dozens of Mexican wine lovers and wine producers who also speak enthusiastically about the product of their country’s vines. But even they all acknowledge that wine drinkers in Mexico have had to endure some unique frustrations. Raul Almada, the spokesman for the national winemakers’ and producers’ association in Mexico City, points out that Mexico was the first country in the Americas to produce wine. But Almada follows that boast with the lament that “usually any country with any wine tradition at all will have a much higher consumption of wine than brandy.” In Mexico, however, brandy consumption is several times that of wine consumption and, he adds with an almost audible shudder, “This is the only country in the world where people take their brandy mixed. They drink it with soda, with water, or with cola.”

According to author Leon Adams, strong historical forces help explain why Mexican winemaking didn’t flourish centuries ago. In his chapter on “Wines of Mexico,” Adams points out that wine was essential to the diet and religious celebrations of the Spaniards who conquered Mexico, and the conquistadors first produced the drink from wild grapes. Conqueror Hernando Cortez quickly sought to root viniculture in the New World, first by demanding that Spanish ships bring to Veracruz supplies of vines and seeds, and then by ordering all Spaniards with land grants to plant grapevines tor five years. Adams says by 1554 winegrowing was well established at haciendas as far west as the present state of Michoacán, and the first commercial winery was established in 1593 in Coahuila.

But two years later, regulatory catastrophe struck the infant Mexican wine industry. Disturbed by the shrinking shipments of Spanish wine to New Spain, Philip II decided in 1595 to tighten his country’s grip on the wine trade, and he forbade any new plantings or replacements of vineyards in Mexico. Throughout the next 200 years, subsequent viceroys repeated this edict and even ordered existing vineyards destroyed.

Notwithstanding the edict, some Mexican winemaking did continue and even spread. Baja California received its first grape planting from Jesuit missionaries about 1697, and Dominican fathers brought grapes as well as religion to other Baja sites where they established missions.

Still, the individual most openly defiant of the Spanish suppression of viniculture was Padre Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican Independence. “At his village of Dolores, the rebel priest taught the natives to raise grapes, which he himself pressed into wine, and the civil authorities came repeatedly to Dolores to tear up his vines,” Adams writes. “One of Father Hidalgo’s aims in launching the revolution against Spain in 1810 was to end the Spanish prohibition against winegrowing in Mexico.”

Grapes being dumped to start wine process

Although the revolution eventually succeeded, winegrowing languished amid the civil strife that marred the first fifty years of independence. Throughout the country, monks abandoned their missions and the vineyards lay dormant. In Baja California, however, the impetus for a new demand for wine began building in the 1870s, when a minor gold rush in the mountains about fifty miles southeast of Ensenada drew prospectors and merchants from all over Alta California and Europe. Although the gold rush ended within ten years, the boom resulted in the founding of Ensenada in 1885. Another legacy was that two Californians of Spanish descent, Francisco Andonaegui and Miguel Ormart, founded a winery in the Santo Tomás Valley, about thirty-five miles south of Ensenada, in 1888.

One hundred years later, Bodegas de Santo Tomás is still producing wine. This year’s crush just began two and a half weeks ago at the winery’s aging plant in central Ensenada. The only Baja winery currently open for public tours, the Santo Tomás facility is something of a relic. Inside its walls lies a shadowy realm coated thickly by the years. The heavy wooden tanks that hold the aging fluids have a dark and roughened look, and they impart to the air the deep perfume of wine-soaked pine and tannins.

For many practical reasons, this isn’t the best place for a winery. After the winery was acquired by General Abelardo Lujan Rodriguez (a former revolutionary who also served as the president of Mexico), he moved the winery from the Santo Tomás Valley to its current location on Avenida Miramar between Sixth and Seventh streets. At the time of the move, 1934, the spot was a rural idyll, located close enough to Ensenada’s harbor to facilitate shipping the wine. But today, the winery is cut in two by the busy street, down which cars and heavy trucks rumble constantly. Most of the plant looks less like a winery than a factory, built from sheet-metal roofing and whitewashed stucco, its banks of windows covered with white paint to keep out the light.

Rodriguez’s decision as to where to locate his winery may have lacked some foresight, but he made another decision that decisively shaped the future of Baja winemaking. Rodriguez met a young Italian wine merchant living in Mexico City who had left his native country for political reasons. Impressed by the abilities of this man, Esteban Ferro, Rodriguez hired him to be the general manager and enologist for the winery. Ferro soon set about trying to make the winery s operations more professional. Most of the grapes processed by Santo Tomás had been the sweet, black “mission” variety brought from Spain by the conquistadors and planted by the various religious orders. Ferro replaced most of these with varieties that he imported from Italy. Unfortunately, some apparently got jumbled in the crossing, so that when they arrived, no one knew exactly which varieties were which. Ferro planted them regardless, and today one can still find fields owned by Santo Tomás and other Baja wine-growers identifiable only as “Italian varieties.”

Ferro eventually left Santo Tomás to start his own winery, which he located on the road to Estero Beach and called Vinícola de Ensenada. There the Italian winemaker began producing a table wine that he christened Padre Kino — today one of the most widely consumed wines in Mexico. (Ferro eventually sold his winery to Pedro Domecq de Mexico, and that corporate giant now sells wine under the Padre Kino brand.)

But the vacuum created by Ferro’s departure from Santo Tomás didn’t last for long. In 1962, General Rodriguez made another bold move and hired a thirty-two-year-old winemaker named Dmitri Tchelistcheff to be his new technical director. As unpronounceable as his family name must have seemed to the Mexicans, it was one that commanded enormous respect in the wineries of northern California. Dmitri’s father Andr6, born in Russia, educated in Czechoslovakia, and schooled in French winemaking, was brought to California in 1938 by the founder of Beaulieu Vineyard, then the most famous winegrowing estate in the Napa Valley. To the northern California winemakers, the senior Tchelistcheff introduced the latest findings of French enological and viticultural research, and twenty-five years later his son made a similar contribution to Mexican winemaking. Upon his arrival in Baja, Dmitri replanted some of the Santo Tomás vineyards with French varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chenin blanc, and chardonnay, and “he provided new strength to the wine industry in Baja California,” according to Octavio Jimenez, the young Mexican chemical engineer who in 1971 began working as Tchelistcheff’s cellar superintendent and eventually succeeded him as chief winemaker.

Workers sorting through grapes

Tchelistcheff worked for Santo Tomás until 1976. By then profound structural changes had affected the winery. General Rodriguez had died in 1967, and his widow and sons very quickly sold the enterprise to a Mexico City wine-importing business called Elias Pando. This company still owns Santo Tomás, but in the last twenty years both the nature of Elias Pando’s business and its financial condition have altered drastically. Today the firm is a large conglomerate whose ventures range from manufacturing chocolate to tuna fishing.

Deeply in debt, the company has been pressed hard by both Mexican and foreign creditors, and both present and former employees at Santo Tomás testify to strains resulting from Pando’s financial plight. Several years ago, for example, Santo Tomás exported a respectable quantity of its wine to U.S. markets including San Diego, but the most recent American distributor, Crown Beverages of Los Angeles, says its communication with Santo Tomás ceased completely (and mysteriously) about six months ago. Miguel Navarette, Santo Tomás’s public-relations spokesman, blames his company’s lack of exports on a shortage of Santo Tomás personnel to oversee that activity, and he acknowledges that the winery in recent years has experienced significant management turmoil.

Octavio Jimenez, the Tchelistcheff protégé and former enologist for Santo Tomás, says he eventually left (in 1986) because of the internal chaos and lack of interest in the winery from the current Pando management in Mexico City. “The chairman of the board [of Pando] has only visited Santo Tomás once, and that was five years ago,” Jimenez says. As another indicator of Santo Tomás’s declining fortunes, Jimenez says the winery was bottling 300,000 cases of wine per year at the peak of his tenure as enologist, but now the production has fallen to 100,000 cases. “They used to crush 6000 tons of grapes a year,” Jimenez says sadly. “This year it will only be 1000 tons.”

Though the numbers may be down, Santo Tomás still produces more than two dozen different types of wine, including barbera, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and chenin blanc, and a pure grenache rosé. Santo Tomás spokesman Navarette says roughly fifty percent of the grapes used to make the wines are owned by the winery, with the rest purchased from small, independent growers. Virtually all of the Santo Tomás grapes come from the Santo Tomás and San Vicente valleys, both south of Ensenada.

It is another Baja California valley, however, that today enjoys the reputation for being the Napa Valley of Mexico: the Valle de Guadalupe, north of Ensenada. All of northern Baja’s coastal valleys share certain common characteristics that bode well for winemaking: they enjoy warm, sunny days, and evenings that are cooled by the nearby ocean breezes. The biggest drawback to farming here is the dearth of rainfall. It is possible to coax usable grapes from vines that have been watered solely by nature, but all of the biggest growers in Baja instead irrigate their vineyards with water drawn from deep underground wells. You can see both types of vineyards when you drive through the Guadalupe Valley, and it doesn’t take much agricultural expertise to distinguish the one from the other. The irrigated plants wear a raiment of lush, emerald green foliage; offshoots of the vines lift skyward like the arms of graceful dancers. The unirrigated vineyards, in contrast, contain shorter, browner plants whose vines look cramped, as if writhing from the effort of bearing fruit to this desiccated land.

To find the Guadalupe Valley, you take the road to Tecate that cuts off the main highway a mile and a half south of the last toll booth before Ensenada. For a short distance, this road passes hillsides down which spill the shanty outskirts of the city. Within moments, however, the urban clutter gives way to planted fields and hospitable-looking ranchos; here and there you begin to see unirrigated vineyards. About seventeen miles down the road, a sign announces the Valle de Guadalupe, which extends off to the west. The road continues eastward, however, and climbs slightly to cut through a dramatic rocky pass, on the other side of which opens up an amazing vista.

Luis Cetto Salzar

Bright green vineyards blanket the earth in every direction under powdery blue skies heaped with cumulus clouds. In the fields, black plastic tubing snakes from one bushy plant to another, bringing each its precious quotient of water. Dark, brawny mountains make up the boundaries of this land, rugged and forbidding, but some of their gentler foothills are stitched with the neat lines of still more vineyards. Apart from the two-lane highway, all the smaller roads are dirt, but the overwhelming aura in this valley is one of clean, orderly prosperity. It’s a place purified by the intense sun and cultivated by the hard work of countless diligent hands.

It’s also a fitting setting for the baronial winery constructed in 1972 by the Pedro Domecq company. Located on the north side of the road, the central building containing the offices, laboratory, and wine-producing equipment for the company is a low structure whose enormity is broken up by a frieze of giant arches. An immense veranda is attached to the front of the building, and out of its sides are scalloped still more arches. Even in the heat of midday, the shade and coolness that seem to radiate up from the polished tile flooring of this veranda make it a serene spot for drinking in the views of the enormous valley.

Inside of Domecq winery

By any standard, this is a big winery. One Domecq spokesman says the plant annually produces about 4.7 million gallons of wine, which puts it on a par with such California wineries as Sebastiani, which has a capacity of 6.6 million gallons, and Mondavi, which can produce 3 million gallons. The gleaming processing equipment is state of the art, editor Hiaring of Wines and Vines magazine attests. Even for atmosphere, the Domecq facility could go head to head against many of Napa’s venerable estates. Most romantic is the enormous bodega (wine vault) set back from the road, where some of the company’s red wines age in splendor. Heavily textured stucco and rough-cut stone covers this building’s facade, and two monumental doors studded with giant black iron nailheads form its centerpiece. A step through the portal takes you from blazing sunlight into cool, fragrant gloom. Here, once your eyes adjust, you see that huge oak vats and mountains of smaller oak barrels fill a central vault, and large earthen pots dating back to sixteenth-century Spain lay strewn about in casual ornamentation. A low doorway leads to further corridors and then to chambers within chambers stacked solid with dust-covered bottles of dark wine and lined with wooden casks containing the private reserves of some of Mexico’s most illustrious individuals and institutions.

No brandy is stored in these cellars, nor is any produced in the Baja plant, a startling fact considering that Domecq de Mexico is the undisputed world leader among brandy producers. (Its Presidente and Don Pedro brands ranked first and second in the world, according to 1986 figures, and boasted three times the sales of the next closest competitor.) Although it was directed for many years by one of the members of the Spanish sherry-making company, Domecq de Mexico five years ago passed under the leadership of a Mexican named Antonio Ariza, who up to then had been the company’s vice president. His daughter, Marianela Ariza, today owns an interest in a travel agency in La Jolla, and she says even as a child she remembers her father’s passion for wines. So it was logical for the Mexican brandy-maker to expand into wine production, a move the company apparently made in the late 1960s.

One company spokesman says Domecq in 1969 began producing its first table wines from grapes grown in the state of Zacatecas. Marketed under the Los Reyes label, these didn’t sell well, and one problem was the quality; the Zacatecan grapes are noted for their excessive sweetness. So Domecq began eyeing the Guadalupe Valley, where the Cetto family was firmly entrenched. In 1972, the Cettos and Domecq began an association that has continued through today.

I have a friend, a very savvy, lifelong resident of Tijuana, who couldn’t believe it when I told him that the Cetto family owned part of Domecq’s Baja winemaking operations. He was familiar with both, but he insisted that it had to be the other way around, that Domecq had bought out Cetto. How could it be otherwise, my friend persisted. Why would a giant like Domecq subordinate itself to a homegrown Tijuana operation?

Here’s the answer that Cetto and Domecq executives both give: They say back in the early 1970s, Domecq, the neophyte winemaker, saw irresistible advantages to be gained from drawing upon the Cetto family’s expertise. Angelo Cetto, an Italian with winemaking experience, had immigrated to Mexico in 1926. Today his grandson says Angelo got involved with a small Tijuana winemaking operation in the late Twenties and by 1938 had bought a distillery located on Constitution Avenue that he converted into a winery called Bodegas Cetto. The grandson, Luis Cetto Salazar, says Don Angel bought his first ranch in the Guadalupe Valley in 1936, the beginning of a long string of acquisitions. Today Productos de Uva (as the Cetto family’s company is now called) owns some 16,000 acres of Baja vineyards: about 7000 acres in the eastern Guadalupe Valley, 5000 acres in the San Vicente Valley south of Ensenada, 2000 acres in the eastern Guadalupe Valley, and 2000 acres around Mexicali. Despite the extensiveness of those holdings, those vineyards still supply only about half the grapes used by the Cettos to make their, own wines; they buy the rest from small, independent growers.

Grapes being crushed for wine

All the Cetto wines are processed in a plant that is located barely five minutes from the Domecq facility. Unlike the Domecq plant, which constitutes an imposing roadside landmark, the so-called “Vinícola de L.A. Cetto” is set so far back amid the vineyards that it could almost be overlooked by someone speeding from Ensenada to Tecate. Yet up close the 12.6 million-gallon Cetto plant (built in 1975) makes Domecq’s facility look like that of a boutique winery. Luis Cetto Salazar says his family’s company now owns around nineteen different labels, in which are bottled about thirty-five different types of wine. On top of that, the company also produces wine for a number of other wineries located elsewhere in Mexico, plus the Cettos continue to direct the production of all the Domecq wines.

Although the family now speaks of plans to add offices to its Guadalupe Valley facility, the Cetto family members currently use the offices at the Domecq winery whenever they’re in the valley. (The Cettos also have a Tijuana office —and a private plane to speed the forty-five-mile commute between the two.) Seated behind a big desk with a commanding view of the valley, Luis Cetto Salazar cuts a surprising figure; he looks more like a San Diego State University student than the scion of a Mexican winemaking dynasty. His sandy blond hair runs in long tendrils down the back of his neck, and his blue eyes are framed by gold-rimmed glasses. A small, neat mustache otherwise ornaments his plump face. The only son among four children, he says he’s assuming an increasing range of company duties, in preparation for his father’s retirement someday. Though just twenty-three, the son boasts that he began working in the business at seven, and he indeed discusses the company’s history with a perspective that seems older than his years.

He makes it sound as if the Cetto family has had to give as much thought to teaching their fellow countrymen about wine as to making it. In this land of cerveza and margaritas, “Wine is still used as a special-occasion drink, not as a regular companion at dinners and lunches,” he says. But the young Cetto says an important step toward changing that longstanding attitude came around 1974, when the Domecq and Cetto partnership purchased Don Esteban Ferro’s winery, Vinícola Regional de Ensenada, with its Padre Kino label. Under the Cettos’ direction, the wine was transformed into a light, sweet jug wine, and sales of Padre Kino exploded, jumping from 9 million to 15 million liters the first year, the young Cetto says. As Mexicans thus began drinking more wine, demand for better-quality wine began to pick up, he explains. He says as early as 197 5 his father began yearning to make varietal wine under a Cetto label. (Varietal wine is composed primarily of one type of grape, rather than a blend, and is considered to have a more generally consistent quality.

Interestingly, Mexican law governing varietals is much stricter than the American regulations: whereas American varietal wines must include at least seventy-five percent of the grapes after which they are named, Mexican wines must be ninety-eight percent corrtposed of the varietal. “And at harvest time, this place is crawling with inspectors,” Cetto says.)

Despite a desire to produce the more expensive varietals, he says his family didn’t judge the Mexican market to be ready for such a line from Cetto until the late Seventies. The first grapes were crushed in 1979, and the first bottles finally reached the market in 1983 under a label, “L.A. Cetto,” which for the first time bore the family’s name. Today these offerings are generally considered to be the Cetto family’s best wines, and their price reflects that status. A bottle of Cetto fumé blanc costs the equivalent of six dollars in Tijuana grocery stores; the winery’s cabernet sauvignon and petite syrah cost about $5.50.

The year 1983 brought another big addition to the Cettos. Besides introducing their own “L.A. Cetto” label, they also bought the assets of an eleven-year-old Mexico City winery called Cavas Bach. Those assets, according to young Cetto, include more than a half-dozen wine and liquor labels and a powerful sales force that helped expand the Cetto family’s national market penetration. Today, however, the company’s focus seems as much international as national: Cetto says his family’s wines were introduced in Japan a year and a half ago, and Productos de Uva is hoping to have products in Canada by early next year. Of more importance to Californians, the Cettos just signed an exclusive agreement with a Los Angeles importer named ACA Imports to market their entire line of nine L.A. Cetto wines and Champbrul6 brand champagne in eight states.

ACA’s executive vice president, Walt Stender, says his company is now restyling Cetto’s labels for the American market (incorporating the slogan, ‘America’s first wines are America’s best wine values”), and the finished products should reach California store shelves by the end of this year. ‘‘We’ve had phenomenal interest from distributors so far,” Stender enthuses. ‘‘It blows people away.” Although Cetto’s varietals may sell for five to six dollars per bottle in Mexico, Stender says here they will retail for three to five dollars per bottle. “Their [the Cettos’] white zinfandel is going to be on the shelf for under three dollars,” Stender says. He explains that lower taxes and distribution costs will allow the wines to sell for less here than in Mexico. Stender blames the absence to date of Mexican wines from the American market on a couple of factors. He thinks they’ve simply been overlooked, partly because “the image of Mexico has always been one of lower quality, and there’s somewhat of a snob appeal with wines.” He nonetheless predicts that “most people [here] will be very surprised.... Some of these wines are definitely going to win competitions.”

Paul Borquez

To help promote the new export market, Stender has been urging the Cetto family to open up their winery to tour groups. It’s hardly a new idea; young Cetto says his family and Domecq representatives have talked for a dozen years about offering wine-tasting tours. But a couple of factors considerably weaken the appeal of such a venture. Cetto says for one thing, Mexican law prohibits the sale of wine anywhere near a winery, and even if American customers (a likely target for wine tastings) could make such purchases, they aren’t allowed to take more than one bottle per person back across the U.S. border.

Despite those impediments, Marianela Ariza (daughter of Domecq’s president) says she plans to organize American bus tours (offered through her travel agency) to the Domecq plant sometime next year. But the young Cetto makes it clear that any public visits to the Cetto winery are a lot further off. With obvious disdain, he mentions the parade of tourists through the Napa Valley. If wine-tasting ever gets underway in the Guadalupe Valley, “We would want it to be controlled,” he says. He makes it clear that he and his family view the valley in strongly proprietary terms, and as much as they might wish to promote their products, they wince at the thought of “just anybody” tramping through. I thought I detected even greater ambivalence in Cetto’s comments about his competition in the Mexican wine business. Several times he stressed that the Cettos welcome competition and have been saddened by the consolidation that has occurred among Mexican vintners since the onset of the country’s serious economic woes. “We don’t want anyone to drop out of the market,” he asserted. But when I mentioned the new wineries now opening in the valley, Cetto sounded openly irritated by their appearance. “Nobody heard of this valley before we were here,” he said, his face darkening. “We created it and we developed it, and now certain others are trying to take advantage of it.”

Grape juice fermenting

On a recent sunny morning, I visited one of the new wineries in the valley, Bodegas San Antonio. It’s also located off the road to Tecate, but closer to the coast, in another valley known as San Antonio de las Minas. Low mountains separate this area from the seashore, less than four miles to the west, and they buffer the ocean winds. But breezes always blow here, cool enough so that grapes grown here must be harvested ten to fifteen days later than those grown v in the nearby Guadalupe Valley.

Raul Borquez, the owner of Bodegas San Antonio, is no expert on growing grapes. A native of Ensenada who made his fortune in the insurance business, Borquez is a tall, silver-haired man with aquiline features who has entered this business because of his lifelong passion for good wine. The day we met, he seemed embarrassed to be the center of attention but at the same time shyly proud of what he has accomplished to date. When he first acquired this land in the early 1980s, it was completely undeveloped, and the only thing Borquez knew about it was that a stream crossed the property. He had the ground cleared, and in 1983 about thirty acres 6f cabernet sauvignon grapes were planted. In choosing that type of grape, Borquez relied on the recommendation of winemaker Octavio Jimenez, who for years had paid attention to the area. “I always thought this area was the best in Baja California for cabernet sauvignon,” Jimenez says today. “I think it’s going to be a very good surprise for wine connoisseurs in the future.”

After leaving his position as winemaker at the Santo Tomás winery in 1986, Jimenez went into business as an independent wine consultant, and today he counts two other wineries located elsewhere in Mexico among his clients, besides Borquez’s fledgling enterprise. But he talks about Bodegas San Antonio with thepride of a father. He says he was able to buy for the winery some top-grade Italian equipment at a discount price (since it was brought to California for an American Association of Enologists meeting, where it did not sell), plus he’s located other crucial pieces of machinery in Spain and France. In 1987, Jimenez also supervised the winery’s first crush of some fifty tons of grapes: cabernet sauvignon grown on Borquez’s property plus some “Italian varieties” purchased from a neighboring grower. Jimenez says he tastes that wine monthly to check its progress; all of it is currently aging in American oak barrels stored in a tall brick building.

Everything about this operation is modest. Compared to the hundreds of giant containers within Domecq’s facility, Borquez’s winery contains only eight stainless-steel tanks used for both fermentation and storage. But signs of loving attention also abound. The adobe-size bricks of the central building were hand-made locally, part of a long-range vision of Borquez to transform the building into something harkening back to old California. Immediately next to this brick structure, workers are painstakingly setting local stones that will form the walls of a wine-storage building. Borquez can lead the way to the exact spot where he says he will erect a wine-tasting room open to visitors. He hopes to complete that sometime next year. Besides the winery and the bucolic views that extend in every direction, visitors also will be greeted by a profusion of flowers; tall showy rose bushes already have burst forth with color, and new plantings of bougainvillea are thriving in the sun.

Domecq party

“His goal is to leave something in this world. He wants to create something for future generations,” Jimenez told me later. He can’t help comparing Borquez’s reverent attitude with the lack of interest he says was evident in the owners of Santa Tomás. “I know that he [Borquez] really cares about the wine. He’s going to drink it himself. He’s going to tell people about it, to share it with friends”

A short, friendly man with an open manner, Jimenez has gone to some extraordinary lengths to share his own enthusiasm for good wine. Six years ago, he and another Ensenada oenophile, a travel agency owner named Héctor Arriola, organized a public “harvest festival” that benefited the local Lions Club. This past weekend, the sixth annual version of that event unfolded in Ensenada and for the first time in its history included every Baja winery that has products for sale: Santo Tomás, Domecq, Cetto’s Productos de Uvas, Vinícola Regional (a venerable Tijuana winery dating back to 1940 whose wines are sold under the Quinta El Mirador label), Cavas Valmar (a five-year-old winery started by a former production head at Santo Tomás), and Formex-Ybarra, an older company that makes the Urbinone brand wines as well as a wine cooler known as the Catalina Cooler. (Baja’s two newest wineries, Bodegas San Antonio, and another Guadalupe Valley enterprise being guided by Dmitri Tchelistcheff, haven’t yet released their first vintages.) For all the frivolous activities such as wine-stomping and bota-drinking contests, the festival has a serious purpose, according to Jimenez. “We want to give the people the idea that wine is a good thing if you drink it with intelligence.”

If the festival is a populist effort at elevating Mexican wine consciousness, a much more elite and high-toned version of that same enterprise was launched by Arriola and Jimenez two and a half years ago when they organized the “Cofradia del Vino de Baja California.” A sort of brotherhood of Ensenada wine connoisseurs, the group has grown from fourteen to about two dozen members and has met faithfully every month at the showy El Rey Sol restaurant. Few groups of American wine lovers could approach the level of ritual and formality achieved by these men. On the night I joined them, each one wore a dark formal suit, white shirt, and tie, and most were also adorned with the ceremonial cup called a “tastevin” that hung around their necks from ribbons the color of the Mexican flag.

Wine tasting at Santo Tomás

Jimenez says the group’s principal goal has been to educate their own palates, and with this aim it has undertaken many complex exercises. One month, for example, the cofradia members tasted a series of solutions containing minutely varying quantities of sugar, both to test their own level of discrimination and to try to further refine it. More commonly, one member selects a couple of wines and prepares a presentation on them, with the cofradia members tasting and discussing those offerings. Although the group started out by concentrating on Mexican labels, they since have studied wines from all over the world, and with a mixture of surprise and pride, members now say that in blind tastings the Baja products have occasionally bested some illustrious foreigners.

Baja red wines again took center stage on the occasion of my visit, though the bottles were carefully covered with tissue paper. This evening, the challenge was for the cofradia members to taste each of three products and try to identify the winery, the year, and the type of grape used in each. This sounds a lot easier than it looked.

Presented with the first sample, the men plunged their noses into the bowls of their glasses and inhaled deeply; they frowned and held the ruby liquid up to the light; they sipped with solemn, studious faces. A few jotted down notes. Then, tentatively, they began to discuss the wine, which all agreed was brilliant, fruity, a little acid. Yet its parentage divided the men. One pronounced it a Santo Tomás cabernet, while Jimenez sounded confident that it was a Chateau Domecq, possibly 1978.

With a second wine, they repeated the process, and this time they seemed to achieve more consensus. “The first thing that struck my nose was the smell of a humid, old house,” member Carlos Montes avowed. Others concurred that this was the stamp, the unmistakable mark, of a Santo Tomás wine, most probably a 1981 or ’82 barbera. The third wine, a very dark but brilliant liquid with an intense smell of red fruit, also drew argument. Hector Arriola sounded almost cockily certain that this was a 1986 cabernet sauvignon from the new Cavas Valmar winery, but someone else argued about the level of astringency.

When the bottles were finally unveiled, the group had scored one direct hit with the 1982 Santo Tomás barbera. About the misses, the cofradia members seemed philosophic; their goal, after all, is to taste and learn. They also disclose some less personal, longer-range aspirations, however. One day, for example, they dream of seeing greater regulation over the way winemakers legally may describe their products. Jimenez and Arriola both say they know of unscrupulous winemakers elsewhere in Mexico who are touting their products as “Guadalupe Valley” wines when in fact grapes from there constitute only a fraction of the blend. That’s one good indicator of just how far the Baja wines have come, Jimenez and Arriola say. “Just ten, fifteen, years ago, people laughed at the idea of wine from Baja California.”

Private Reserve, Santo Tomás

The insignificant past of Baja wine may be easy to recall, but it’s a lot harder to predict its future. To get some idea of just how hard it is, consider what I encountered as I tried to determine the current levels of Mexican wine production. Domecq’s assistant technical director told me that the annual production at Domecq’s winery runs just about at capacity, that is, 18 million liters. But young Cetto, who helps manage the plant, later flatly contradicted that and told me the Domecq plant capacity is 24 million liters (and that the Cetto plant capacity is double that, he said). Yet when I asked the head of the winegrowers’ association what was the total Mexican wine production, he confidently told me it was 18 million liters (or about 4.7 million gallons). The Wine Institute in San Francisco had no American data on the Mexican industry, but it did offer me a French estimate of 6.6 million gallons (in 1987).

So the statistics confuse, rather than illuminate. The future of the Mexican wine industry also can’t be separated from the future of the Mexican economy, and who knows what that holds. At the same time, anyone inclined to dismiss the Mexican winemakers should have been in their magical valley one night a week and a half ago, when Pedro Domecq de Mexico held its annual, private harvest festival.

Unlike the public fiesta staged in Ensenada, the Domecq party was an invitation-only affair, and a guard armed with a walkie-talkie manned the huge metal gates in front of the plant while a small cluster of uninvited Mexicans gaped at the parade of guests. Once inside, the magnitude of this affair became obvious: several hundred people strolled around, awaiting a schedule of festivities reminiscent of some medieval revelry on the estate of feudal lords. First an open-air mass was celebrated on an altar laden with grape leaves and carnations. Then came a ceremonial grinding of huge vats of red and white grapes, followed by a festive procession of the glittering horde through the darkly romantic wine stores.

Eventually, the huge assembly moved to the front of the winery and took their seats at dozens upon dozens of tables set up on the veranda and front lawns, some situated only a few arms’ lengths away from the heavily laden grapevines. A “queen of the harvest” (the youngest Cetto daughter) was crowned with great pomp, and then a homespun parade, composed of farmers driving their tractors and pulling hoppers full of grapes, rolled past the partiers. Eventually, there was feasting and entertainment by musicians and singers and dancers and horseback performers and ceremonial flyers from Papantla. And then fireworks filled the heavens over the valley.

By then, a huge glowing moon had edged over the jagged line of mountains on the horizon. It climbed high, as if determined to better show off its magnificence. Under its light and the sparkle from the fireworks, one could just barely discern the vast, fertile fields extending in every direction, fields filled with fruit just coming to maturity and heavy with promise.

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