Mexico's Secret Vineyards

Christoph Gaertner wanted out of Switzerland. "I was bored," he explains, standing in the tasting room of Vinisterra, one of the more recent winery ventures to spring up in Baja California. "In Europe, everything is full — you have no chance. To do something new" — his family was not involved in the wine industry — "is very difficult there. There's too much organization." Why Mexico? "I have a Mexican wife. I met her while traveling in Mexico City with some friends. I didn't even want to go to Mexico, but they said, 'What are you doing here? Come on, let's go!' It was good to get out of Switzerland; it's too small." Also, Mexico seemed the very opposite of the over-organized world of Europe; it was still a place where a man could chase a vision, be a pioneer.

Gaertner began writing to Mexican wineries. He didn't get much in the way of a response. "It's like a culture. You have to come here, be here, speak and eat and drink with people. By letters, it's not possible." So he came. Once here, he made contact with Hugo D'Acosta, who was then working as the winemaker for Bodega Santo Tomás. "He told me, 'Come, look at what we do. If you like it, stay.' I came, and I stayed." Baja, he says, "is a special situation. The industry is small and new, in the sense that modern enology here is new. But the region has a history — 250 years. There are a lot of older vineyards that people never knew about. People are trying to get the information, the numbers for the region — how many acres, how old the vineyards are, how many varieties."

Steve Dryden, the Baja wine writer who has introduced me to Gaertner, adds a word of explanation. "There are two wine associations now in Baja. The original one was just eight wineries" — the established players in the region. "But now they have a new, government-sponsored association, and everybody's included now. They're saying, 'We want to help the industry grow.'" So they're collecting data, trying to figure out just how big the industry really is and how big it could be. (It's easy to believe that there are a lot of unaccounted-for vineyards in the region. As Dryden and I drove around San Antonio de Las Minas, vineyards seemed to be everywhere — patches of ancient, head-pruned vines tucked between houses, waiting to be nursed back to health; robust, established vineyards producing for private consumption; closely spaced new plantings from well-heeled, ambitious newcomers to the region. Even Dryden has 100 Nebbiolo vines on his lot, and a nearby hotel sports a tiny custom-crush facility out back.)

The government's interest is not surprising; it's looking to catch a rising tide of demand. In the ten years since he arrived in Baja, Gaertner says that he saw rapid growth in Mexican wine consumption, "but no Mexican wine participating in that growth. Just imported wines. But in the last year, there's been an explosion of interest in Mexico for Mexican wines. And at the same time, people from the U.S. are coming to the region as tourists, because it's something new. It's more personal -- not so many people." Small groups began visiting from the cruise ships docking in Ensenada. "When we went to Copia last year with 22 Mexican wineries, we had 900 people come. This year, we're expecting 2500."

The tasting room at Vinisterra is a long way from the artful temples of Copia and the rest of Napa; it's easy to see the appeal for a wine tourist in search of the rustically authentic. It's handsome, but there is no mistaking the fact that the wine bar is a kitchen counter or that the entire open space was once the public part of a home: kitchen, dining room, living room. "When the winery began in 2002," says Gaertner, "this was my partner Guillermo Macouzet's land; he had a house and tennis court. We did the vinification here in the house. The crusher was on the roof, the tanks were in the living room, and the barrels were in the kitchen." A brick winery was completed in 2004, and a matching barrel room, complete with vaulted ceilings, lighted floors, and a soon-to-be-opened circular tasting room, went up in 2006. "Maybe in three years or so, we'll have a storehouse for the bottled wine, and then the project will be finished."

Macouzet, according to Dryden, decided to start the winery after enjoying some amateur successes with other people's wine. He and his friends started buying individual barrel lots from wineries and blending the wines to create the somewhat fanciful Chateau Domino — its name taken from the regular domino game the friends enjoyed. "When he began Vinisterra," says Gaertner, "he wanted the name 'Domino' to survive. So, we make some 400 cases of red wine under the Domino label, plus 50 cases of rosé and white. They're easy to drink, fresh, and fruity. The red is a blend of Grenache, Tempranillo, and Mission."

Wait a second. Mission?

"You know Mission? It's the oldest grape here in Baja California. It also goes into other products — brandy, sweet wines. I found a neighbor who was growing Mission, plus a vineyard up near Tecate. That's a good vineyard. Would you like to try a pure Mission?"

Absolutely. Mission was, famously, the first wine grape in California, but you rarely hear of it outside of a purely historical context. And I've never heard of a winemaker trying to make a commercial dry wine from it. "I first liked it because nobody likes it," says Gaertner, smiling. "And it's been here a long time." But, of course, contrariness for its own sake is not enough, and neither is history. "The nose is delicate, filigreed," he says, and I have to agree. It might be a light-bodied Pinot. "The acidity is good, and I like the tea notes. When you're in the vineyard, the wind smells like a tea shop. There's good red fruit. Plus, the Mission grape always gives some spice, and in this vineyard, it's very spicy." He's definitely right about the tea and spice, and there's a note of tart strawberry underneath. It's fascinating, and it's not the sort of thing you'd be likely to encounter in a more commercially settled region, one where marketing has begun to call the shots. The pioneer has gone exploring the neglected past and has returned triumphant.

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