Boosting Baja's Image

A friend of mine who worked in wine retail for a while used to hand-sell Beringer White Zinfandel. It's not that he thought it was particularly good. It's that he was looking beyond what the customer wanted -- which was, basically, White Zinfandel. For my friend, massive sales of Beringer White Zin contributed to Beringer's general well-being, and that boded well for the production of the winery's excellent Reserve Cabernet at a semi-sane price point. He respected the model -- cash flow from below, allowing for worry-free artistry at the top.

It's the model prized -- and of late, imitated -- by Camillo Magoni, winemaker at Baja's largest winery, L.A. Cetto. It's tempting to compare Magoni with Napa's Robert Mondavi -- the shared Italian heritage, the rather iconic status, the promotion of the region's industry as a whole. (Magoni, in his unusual way, has got to be one of the best advocates for Mexican wine in the U.S.: a number of San Diego wineries get their fruit from his vineyards.) But where Mondavi broke away from the family business and started up his own empire, Magoni has stayed put at the same winery where he started in the early '70s. According to Ralph Amey, chemistry professor at Occidental College and author of Wines of Baja California, Magoni is "a very loyal company man. He's very much an experimenter -- he'll have one hectare of a certain grape, and he'll make one or two barrels and try blending different grapes together. But Señor Cetto, until fairly recently, took the attitude of, 'Why spend a lot of money on a fancy wine, when we can make a cheap wine very easily, and make a lot more money, since more people are buying it?' It was only through time and patience that they finally came to the point where Cetto said, 'It might be nice to have some reserve wines.'"

Magoni, who had done his grad work in Italy on Nebbiolo, didn't need to be told twice. It's been a while since I tried one, but I do recall that a Cetto Reserve Nebbiolo once made me wonder why Baja as a region was spending so much time on Cabernet when it could be making Italian varietals.

Still, the Mondavi comparison keeps bubbling up. Wineries and even wine regions thrive on stories, stories that lend the place an air of romance, of the connected quality that history helps provide. It's another part of the packaging. Mondavi did a lot to spread the story of Napa -- to the point where he became its unofficial ambassador. And when Amey started nosing around and introducing himself, Magoni warmed right up -- sharing old photographs, sharing wine, and telling stories.

Magoni wasn't the only one, of course. Amey was able to develop a rapport with a number of winemakers in Baja, due in part, he suspects, to his background in chemistry. "I was able to talk to them about their winemaking practices and their problems with biochemistry. Because we were able to communicate, I think they opened up more" -- something of an achievement in an industry that has been slow to embrace the U.S. media.

For instance: even with that rapport, the enthusiasm for his book in Mexico after its publication appeared to be less than wild. "They're pleased with it, but I've been frustrated with their lack of drive, shall we say, to sell the book, or promote the book." Even L.A. Cetto, which sees a comparative flood of tourists pour through its tasting room doors, was, for a long time, slow about selling. "I'd go in and say, 'How are you doing with those books?' 'Oh, pretty well -- we still have some available' -- and they'd gesture down at some hidden glass case. But more recently, they've been ordering the books in larger quantities. I've appreciated that."

Why the change? "I'm not quite sure," Amey says. "I think they've begun to trust me a little more. I think they see that I'm not just trying to push a book because I want to make money off of it. Also, when they begin to see people come in and say, 'I saw this wine on this page in the book; could I taste that?' they begin to see that there's an opportunity there. That's really what my interest is. I'm overjoyed whenever I see references to Mexican wine in the literature. It's damn seldom that I do, but when I do, I feel that I've contributed something."

Amey's book chronicles the progress made up until its publication in 2001: first, the proliferation of skilled and educated winemakers. Second, improvements in the vineyard, including more attention to varietals: The Baja vineyard owners "tore out a lot of the old stuff. They had Mission grapes until surprisingly recent times, which made a very blah -- and originally, sweet -- wine. Even semi-dry, it's just uninteresting. A few wineries make it now, but it's not their big seller." And he notes that there may be better days to come: "Recently, Baja's Tourism Secretariat announced plans to develop a 'Grape Corridor'.... It is part of a larger plan to promote the wine industry...."

Now, it may be time for an updated edition. For one thing, there are more wineries. For another, the Grape Corridor project is underway. "They've put up road signs, and they're promoting the wines of Mexico. At least, within Mexico. I haven't seen any evidence of their promoting them outside Mexico. But now, at least, they see it as a product worth promoting. Also, when I was writing the book, there was relatively little evidence of Mexican wine in restaurants. Now, you can't go into a restaurant in Baja that doesn't have Mexican wine on the list. In a number of places, they're the only wines on the list -- not just the inexpensive labels, but the premium wines. It's been a wonderful outlet for some of the new boutique wineries."

Amey also wrote that "to the relief of some and the disappointment of others, and unlike Chile, Argentina, and Peru, foreign millions so far have failed to pour into the area to finance new vineyards and new wineries." That may be beginning to change (watch this space), but the investment is still minimal compared to places like Chile and Argentina. "Those are countries which have had a massive input of foreign investment. It has not only provided an upgrade in the quality of the wine, but it has also provided them a conduit for bringing their wines to the U.S. and other parts of the world."

Knowledge is good, but so is foreign distribution. "It leads to a greater awareness of the wines." It's not that Mexico doesn't export product -- as Amey notes, "Only 40 percent of Mexican wine is sold in Mexico. The rest goes to Japan, Europe, and the eastern Asian countries." It's that it doesn't export to us. "The objective is to get involved in California -- and that's still a tough nut for them to crack." The ambassador still has work to do.

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