Quick, what comes to mind when you think about the typical drinks of Mexico? The country’s famed tequilas and beers are obvious choices. But drive just an hour south of San Diego and you find yourself in Baja California and what some are likening to the Napa of 50 years ago. 

Grape growing in Mexico goes back to the 1520s when Cortes and his conquistador buddies not only encouraged the planting of vineyards but went as far as to require by law that every recipient of land plant vine shoots annually. Unfortunately, the King of Spain ruined the party in the late 1600s when, in an effort to create a captive audience for Spanish goods, forbid Mexican winemaking. Though the restriction ended when Mexico gained independence in 1821, the enthusiasm for winemaking and wine drinking had all but evaporated. Still, Santo Tomás became the first winery in the Guadalupe Valley, just south of Tijuana, when it was established in 1888 in the former vineyards of a Dominican mission. It would be almost a century before two corporate wineries, Domecq and L.A. Cetto, set up shop. And not until the 1980s when, thanks to new free trade agreements, new wineries started cropping up and older ones began revamping. Given that up to that point wine was often aged in used whiskey barrels, it’s no wonder that Mexico’s annual wine consumption was less than that of the city of San Diego. 

Today, Mexico’s quality wines are centered in that same valley in Baja. There, hot days combined with cool ocean breezes at night provide the classic winegrowing combination: grapes are allowed to develop their sugars without a corresponding drop in acidity. Monte Xanic, which introduced the valley to high-tech concepts like stainless steel and temperature-controlled barrels, is well worth a visit as many credit it with boosting the quality of Mexican wines when it issued its first wine in 1988. Nearby is Chateau Camou, where the owner and his Bordeaux-trained winemaker have turned old and unkempt vineyards and winery into a state-of-the-art facility. Though modest, the boutique wineries of Santo Tomás and L.A. Cetto offer conventional tasting rooms where the winemaker himself might be the one pouring you a glass and chatting about grapes and vintages. 

Baja is bound to keep growing as domestic and foreign investment allows wineries to improve their facilities and growers become more aggressive about lowering yields. To the surprise of skeptics everywhere, the dedication of Mexican winemakers is finally paying off as their wines compete with those of top-tier winemaking regions of the world. “We are trying to place Mexico on the map of good wines,” says Victor Manuel Torres Alegre of Chateau Camou. A visit to Baja and a sip of its vinos will undoubtedly make you a believer. 


DON’T MISS Fiestas de la Vendimia is an annual vintage festival featuring winery tours, tastings, contests and more, www.fiestasdelavendimia.com and www.bajacaliforniawines.org

STAY Located in the Guadalupe Valley near Ensenada, Adobe Guadalupe is a working winery and B&B with six guestrooms.

Nearby is La Villa del Valle, a small inn with views of the olive groves, vineyards and mountains.

VISIT The following wineries offer daily tours and wine tastings by appointment: Monte Xanic, Chateau Camou, Casa de Piedra, Santo Tomás, and L.A. Cetto.

EAT A former Four Seasons chef, Jair Tellez, prepares creative prix-fixe meals featuring local produce and paired with the region’s wines at Laja

Photo by gabofr on Flickr.com