Baja's Valle de Guadalupe has been dubbed the "the Next Napa." So why has it been so hard for its wine to gain a foothold in the U.S. market?
In the last few years, this relatively young, rapidly expanding region, which produces an estimated 90% of the country's wine, has become the critical darling of luxury food, wine and travel enthusiasts. Yet despite wide acclaim for the quality of its boutique bottlings and reputation as a chic gastronomic destination, sketchy brand awareness and an erratic distribution system have persistently hampered the success of Baja's wines.
Those promoting it say they're met with one of two questions: "They make wine in Mexico?" Or, "Why is it so hard to find Mexican wine?"
But that appears to be changing, with several recent developments positioning the Valle de Guadalupe closer to its "Next Napa" nickname.
At least three San Diego-based importers/distributors are widening the channels to allow Baja wines to be shipped directly to buyers and coveted high-end Mexican restaurants across the United States. Bottles are also increasingly landing on grocery store and wine shop shelves, sometimes even commanding their own sections.
Influential celebrity chefs, including Javier Plascencia of Bracero in San Diego's Little Italy and Chicago's Rick Bayless — considered America's preeminent authorities on regional Mexican cuisine — have become de facto ambassadors for Baja wines.
And a Valle-centric tasting room has opened in San Diego, marking a first in the county. Called Planet Wine, the 410-square-foot rustic, wine country-themed venue is tucked behind a florist shop turned design studio in Bankers Hill.
Except for a small sandwich board announcing Winemaker Wednesday outside the 5th Avenue building, there's little indication that inside are the underpinnings of an industry's transformation. The appointment-only, speak-easy-style Planet Wine seems as elusive to find as Valle wines themselves.
"Not for long," said Fernando Gaxiola, 38, a Point Loma businessman whose Baja Food + Wine company represents the half a dozen or so wineries being showcased at Planet Wine.
"This will change the perception of Baja wine, but it's baby steps. People don't buy things without tasting it first, especially something like wine from Mexico. And when they taste it, they want to buy it. So now when they say, 'Where can I buy it?' I can say, 'Right here.'"
The tasting room is the most concrete example of the Valle's emergence, but San Diego restaurants and retailers are increasingly embracing the wines as part of the cross-border region's local bounty.
At Coasterra, the Cohn Restaurant Group's glittery $10-million waterfront eatery on Harbor Island, about half the wine list is made up of Mexican wine.
"Awhile ago a lot of the wines from Baja weren't that good.... They were still kind of salty and not quite well-balanced," said Maurice DiMarino, the restaurant chain's wine and beverage director.
Changes in vineyard practices and in winemaking have improved the quality in the last four to five years, he said, a period that coincides with the Valle's recognition as a sophisticated wine country destination.
"More people are going down there, and they [wineries] have to cater to a more wine-savvy customer," DiMarino said.
The wines have reached a high enough caliber that he is working on a custom Rioja-inspired tempranillo blend that will be sold retail at Coasterra and its sister restaurant, Island Prime.
Bayless, the regional Mexican cuisine powerhouse, is equally impressed with Valle wines. His sommelier, Jill Gubesch, the wine director for Chicago's Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco, was recently in Baja on a similar winemaking mission.
Working with the noted winery Adobe Guadalupe, Gubesch has created a cabernet franc-petit verdot blend that will be sold at Bayless' nationally acclaimed restaurants.
"We're very excited by what they're doing there," said Bayless by phone from Chicago. "It's kind of amazing that most people in the U.S. don't even know Mexican wines exist, and they're making some amazing wine."
"I'm shipping a pallet of wines to Rick Bayless as we speak," said Youssef Benjelloun, president of Volubilis Imports in La Jolla.
Benjelloun represents the wines by Hugo D'Acosta, the French-trained winemaker who has been called the Robert Mondavi of the Valle. D'Acosta's name is a selling point, Benjelloun said, but usually only to those who've had Baja wines or visited wine country.
"I say Mexican wine, and people think it's a joke," he said. "Sometimes people have the notion that the wine is going to be cheap, so we have to explain to them that it's not like a cheap T-shirt or a cheap margarita..... But trust me, when they taste it, they buy it. No question."
Distributors, wine shop owners and restaurateurs all characterized the pipeline for getting the wines into the hands — and wine glasses — of thirsty consumers as haphazard at best. Challenges include distributors who rely on ineffective online marketing, versus knocking on doors and holding tastings; shipping without refrigeration; inconsistent deliveries, which leave retailers and restaurants with no inventory; and a supply chain that inexplicably shuts down.
"Currently we're working toward building [the stock] up again," Bayless said. "The way we were getting them in the past dried up. The availability ebbs and flows. We used to have as many as 30 to 40 bottles on our list, but the contact has just dried up. It's always been a challenge."