Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: California vintners see future in Mexico

For the first time in 20 years, Amelia Moran Ceja is in Cabo San Lucas, the sunny resort settlement at the southern reaches of Mexico’s Baja peninsula.

She’s finding that the town no longer is a dusty little fishing village as she marvels at the string of hotels, golf courses and restaurants along the 20 miles of beach stretching northeast along the Sea of Cortez to San Jose del Cabo.

Not that she has much time to take advantage of them. She isn’t at Cabo San Lucas for spring break.

For her, this is one more day of work in a parallel story of growth and success over the past two decades.

Ceja is the peppy president of her family’s Ceja Vineyards in Napa Valley. She, husband Pedro and other family members – farm laborers from Mexico who had immigrated to Napa Valley to work the vineyards – pooled their money in 1983 to buy 15 acres of vineyard land in the Carneros district at the southern stretches of Sonoma and Napa valleys.

Their vineyards now cover 113 acres, and after nearly 15 years of making wine at other wineries, they are about to break ground for their own winery in Carneros.

Which explains why Ceja is back in Mexico, standing off to one side of a ballroom at the posh Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Golf and Spa Resort Los Cabos, not far from pods of whales frolicking just offshore.

Rather than watch for whales, however, she’s keeping an eye out for importers and distributors.

With the new winery, the Cejas will be able to expand production from 10,000 cases per year to 23,000 cases.

“I want those channels (of distribution) open before we make that much wine,” says Ceja in explaining why she’s eager to get her wines into Mexico.

Thus, she signed on for a quick Wine Institute trade mission to Mexico City and Cabo San Lucas, seen as markets with the kind of affluence and tourism to appreciate California wine.

She was joined by several other Napa Valley vintners, who with 14 Mexican importers and distributors with California wines in their portfolios were about to pour tastes for an anticipated 100 members of the Los Cabos hospitality trade – resort beverage directors, wine-shop owners, sommeliers and the like.

Not without reason, Mexico’s taste in adult beverages is popularly perceived as running more to beer and tequila than wine. In 2009, the most recent year for which the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service compiled statistics on Mexico’s preferences in drink, Mexicans consumed nearly 670 million liters of beer compared with 66 million liters of wine.

Mexicans, however, are developing more of a taste for wine, with sales rising 12 percent yearly in the first decade of this century, according to a report last year by the Economic and Commercial Office of the Embassy of Spain in Mexico. And while Mexico’s wine production also is increasing, 75 percent of the wine sold in the country is imported, noted the report.

Thus, while much of the California wine trade is obsessed with developing markets in China, some of the state’s vintners see opportunity in Mexico. Last year, U.S. wine exports to Mexico hit $22 million, a 21 percent leap over 2012, reports Eric Pope, the Wine Institute’s “director of emerging markets,” who oversaw the trade trip to Mexico.

Not that California vintners are without challenges in developing markets in Mexico. For one, they face a Mexican tax strategy that adds a 30 to 40 percent premium to the price of California wine.

Secondly, Mexicans who drink wine traditionally favor brands and styles from other Spanish-speaking countries, as well as France and Italy. Spain alone accounts for about 40 percent of the wine imported to Mexico, with Chile and France each providing around a fifth of the total. The U.S. provides about 6 percent.

Nonetheless, California winemakers have several things going for them, according to importers and distributors at the Cabo San Lucas tasting. There’s proximity, a shared history, a fondness for similar cuisines and easy movement of residents between the two countries, they note.

Most importantly, California winemakers make just the kind of wine that appeals to the Mexican palate – red, round, fruity, forward but accessible and at least a little sweet. “Always a little sweetness,” says Alberto Cubilla, an importer and wine-shop owner in San Jose del Cabo.

Wesley Alejandro Rodriguez Young, a distributor from Guadalajara, concurs, saying, “Mexicans like wines that are easy to drink. They like them to be fruit forward with good acidity, but not overwhelming acidity. And they really like the aromas of the barrels. They like barrique-oriented wines that aren’t only about the barrique. In a nutshell, that’s what Napa Valley offers.”

When patrons of restaurants and resorts in Mexico City and Los Cabos ask for a California wine, it almost invariably is from Napa Valley or Sonoma County, the engines pulling a very short train of the state’s appellations. Other California regions are virtually unknown, say industry representatives.

That’s largely because one factor driving Mexican interest in California wine is travel. San Francisco is a popular destination for Mexican vacationers, who if they have any interest in wine customarily make the short trek to Sonoma or Napa.

“A lot of rich people go to San Francisco, and they all visit Napa, without a doubt,” says Young of Guadalajara wine enthusiasts.

Many of those tourists are millennials who have the money and the sense of adventure to explore beverages and sources beyond Mexico’s tequila and beer.

“The young kids who travel come back from California and talk about the wine they had there,” says Cubilla, the importer who at one time in his career was the export manager for California’s J. Lohr Winery in San Jose and Paso Robles.

At the Mexico City tasting two days before the Cabo San Lucas gathering, Ceja was impressed by the inquisitiveness of young sommeliers who stopped by her table.

“They were taking copious notes. They wanted to know about rootstocks, clones, viticultural practices and enological processes. They never asked how many points this or that wine got. Not one asked me about points,” said Ceja, referring to the common custom of critics in the U.S. to rank wines on a 100-point scale.

By the end of the tasting, several California wines appeared to have impressed favorably key players on Mexico’s wine scene.

On his way out, Juan Carlos Flores, wine director of the exclusive Capella Hotel tucked into the rocks above the Pacific at the very tip of the peninsula, said he wants to add to his wine list several of the wines he tasted, including releases being poured by Ceja.

“I’d like to get those wines in my portfolio,” said Flores.

To Ceja, that alone was sweet payoff for her trek south, but she also received an offer from Young, the importer at Guadalajara in Jalisco state, to bring in her wines.

“I’m also originally from Jalisco, so we have much in common and he’s thrilled to hopefully soon share our wines and our story with his over 800 restaurant clients,” says Ceja.