Californians preparing to pack for next month's G20 summit in Mexico might want to toss into their luggage a couple of bottles of California wine.
Otherwise, come dinnertime they'll be looking at bins and lists consisting largely of Chilean, Argentine, Mexican, Spanish and French wines, which pretty much dominate the market at the southern reaches of the Baja Peninsula, where presidents, finance ministers and other global-economy policy wonks are to gather June 18-19.
Some California brands can be found in Los Cabos, to be sure. For the most part, they're from corporate wineries such as Delicato Family Vineyards, Kendall-Jackson, Robert Mondavi, Beringer and Gallo. Boutique California wines are as rare as rain in the neighboring resort settlements of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas.
Nonetheless, while no tropical storm of California imports is stirring off the Baja coast, the prospect of finding more artisan wines from California is picking up in Los Cabos. For one, the region's economy is bustling with development. For another, Mexico last fall repealed a 20 percent tariff on California wine, which had been imposed two years earlier. (It was in retaliation for an Obama administration decision to halt a pilot program that was allowing Mexican trucks to haul goods on U.S. highways in border states, a move that also has been rescinded.)
While Mexico is the 11th largest export market for California wines, the flow has dropped off in recent years, falling from a value of $23.8 million in 2007 to $18.4 million in 2010. For the first eight months of 2011, the latest period for which sales have been tallied, the export of California wines to Mexico had dropped another 26 percent, reports The Wine Institute in San Francisco.
I spotted a sign that the tide could be starting to turn last month as I browsed about the crates of wine on the floor of El Wine Shop in San Jose del Cabo, a stone's throw from the new convention center that will house the G20 summit, provided it is completed in time.
In addition to the usual suspects from Argentina, Mexico and Chile, the selection in El Wine Shop included several California wine labels I hadn't previously seen in Los Cabos, including Pahlmeyer, Artezin, Caymus and Morgan. And would you just look at that a zinfandel from a comparatively small producer in Lodi.
Specifically, it was the Klinker Brick Winery 2009 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel. What in the world was that doing there?
Ricardo Martinez owns El Wine Shop with Alberto Cubilla. They also own the wine importing and distribution business ECM de Vinos, with many of their sales to restaurants and resorts about Los Cabos.
They never had much luck selling zinfandel to the region's sommeliers, said Martinez. For whatever reason, sommeliers generally couldn't be persuaded to add a zinfandel or two to their wine lists. When Martinez and Cubilla began cautiously to stock a little zinfandel at El Wine Shop, however, they were surprised by the warm reception it received from their clientele. Thus, they've been adding to their inventory, which now includes zinfandels under the Artezin brand from Mendocino County and Dry Creek Valley, the Gnarly Head from Lodi, and the Klinker Brick.
What are Mexicans, visitors and ex-pats at San Jose del Cabo finding that they like in the Klinker Brick? It's a classic Lodi old-vine zinfandel, saturated with color, concentrated with the smell and flavor of raspberries and blackberries, and spicy with suggestions of black pepper and clove. Its oak is generous but doesn't overwhelm the fruit. It's high in alcohol but doesn't come off tasting hot, or even warm. And it is sweet, but the sweetness is all up front it doesn't gum up the wine's caressing finish.
In short, it's a mouth-filling zinfandel but fresh and fun, rather than ponderous and challenging. After a winter of drinking mostly Mexican, Chilean and Argentine wine, I was brought right back to the warmth of Lodi and its soothing Delta breezes by the Klinker Brick.
The grapes that go into the wine are from vines that average 85 years old. They're planted in the Mokelumne River district of the Lodi appellation, an area whose sandy and loamy soils are prized for their richness and drainage, explains Klinker Brick winemaker Joseph Smith.
"This combination of the sand and loam is perfect for drainage while still retaining much of the nutrients needed for a healthy vine," Smith said. "The roots from the vineyards in the Mokelumne River sub-appellation tend to push a lot deeper as compared to other areas, so this gives the vine a longer life span."
The 2009 growing year was relatively easygoing for Lodi farmers until heavy rains swept into the area in October, followed by high humidity, all of which threatened to compromise the quality of grapes. As a consequence, Smith found that he needed to take an unusual step to help fill out the zinfandel's mouthfeel and body: He blended in cabernet sauvignon.
The blending of the two varieties rarely takes place in California's cellars, but Smith found that, by blending in just 5 percent cabernet sauvignon, he got the complexity and additional fullness he wanted in the wine.
"In other vintages we may not need to use a blender (for the old-vine zinfandel), but for the 2009 it was an important thing to do," Smith said.
In Los Cabos, wine enthusiasts seem to agree, with the Klinker Brick selling briskly, even though the thousands of delegates expected for the G20 summit have yet to arrive.
Klinker Brick Winery
2009 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel
By the numbers: 15.8 percent alcohol, 25,000 cases, $18
Context: Klinker Brick winemaker Joseph Smith likes the zinfandel with grilled pork ribs, Italian sausages, roast lamb, pastas with a red sauce and pizza. "My absolute favorite is beef stew," he said.
Availability: In the Sacramento area, the wine is stocked by BevMo, Raley's and Safeway. The wine also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.klinkerbrickwinery.com.
Visit: The tasting room at Klinker Brick Winery, 15887 N. Alpine Road, Lodi, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.