Guadalupe Valley Wines
What It Was Like 25 Years Ago
By Fernando Favela-Vara
The recent boom in Mexican wine obscures the fact that wine growing in this country has been going on for a long time – in fact, since the 16th century. Jesuit missionaries planted the first vineyard in what is now the state of Baja California in 1752. And here in the Guadalupe Valley wine has been made since 1836.
It also seems to have been forgotten that the current rage for Mexican wines originated in the hard work of a few dedicated people, starting some 25 years ago.
So what was the wine scene like here in 1992?
Since the 1960s, two companies had dominated the valley, making large amounts of wine that tried to imitate European products, even using the same names and packaging. But here and there some good wines were being made, albeit on a very small scale. For example, Fernando Martain had been making outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc since 1985 at his small family winery, Cavas Valmar, from Guadalupe Valley grapes. But these wines were known only locally and in a few places in the U.S.
Then, in 1987, everything changed; winemaker Hans Backoff and four partners from Mexico City bought a mature vineyard, grafted Bordeaux varieties onto the existing vines and founded Monte Xanic. They invested in the latest technology and new French oak barrels. Their wines were named and marketed as Mexican wines, and sold at three times the price of any other domestic product. Their main sales efforts were made in Mexico City, by far the country’s largest market. Their first Cabernet Sauvignon, the 1988 vintage, was released in 1992, won a gold medal in a European competition and sold out in two months.
All this is easy to say and sounds very romantic, but the Monte Xanic founders took an enormous risk: making high-quality wine requires large investments and a long-term vision. Their immediate success proved that great wines could indeed be made here, but how many others would be willing to make those long-term investments? And was there really a market for costly Mexican wines?
My father had dreamed of making wine for many years and decided to take the plunge. In 1993 he and a partner bought an old vineyard in a canyon “just around the corner” from Monte Xanic, and drafted yours truly to do all the work! I got to validate the investment project, supervise construction of the winery, the grafting of Bordeaux varieties onto the existing vines and the planting of new ones; I also designed cooling systems and electrical installations, and reviewd designs of fermentation tanks. Ours was the first winery in the region to use gravity to move the musts and wines from one phase of the vinification process to another. With our first winemaker, Víctor Torres, I even brought in our first vintage, the 1995 Sauvignon Blanc grapes, for our first wine – the Château Camou Fumé Blanc.
Others were also taking up the challenge. The late visionary Antonio Badan, who for years had been making a wonderful Bordeaux blend from grapes his father had planted on his El Mogor ranch, prepared a sales plan and designed his own labels. Don and Tru Miller from California planted a new vineyard and established the delightful Adobe Guadalupe winery and boutique hotel, the first in Guadalupe. Eduardo Licéaga, unfortunately no longer with us, grafted his table grapes vineyard over to Cabernet Franc and Merlot, and Hugo d’Acosta, former winemaker at the state’s oldest winery, Bodegas de Santo Tomás, established his own Casa de Piedra.
In those days, we few were a close-knit bunch of people with a shared purpose: to make the best wines possible and convince consumers that high-quality Mexican wines were a great option. But in the beginning, it was an uphill battle to convince restaurants in Mexico City or Cancún to put our wines on their lists; it took the united efforts and hard work of a small group of winemakers and investors, who believed in the great potential of their product, to open up the market and make it possible for new wineries to be established.
On one occasion, at a wine-tasting in Mexico City, a man approached one of our displays and said rather condescendingly, “Don’t tell me these wines can compare with the wines of Bordeaux.” I remember well my colleague’s answer: “Yes, sir, in this price range I will back my Cabernet Sauvignon against any Bordeaux in a blind tasting!”
The first Fiestas de la Vendimia, held by the Ensenada Vintner’s Association in 1993, featured all of five wineries. The paella contest had eight participants!
Today, there are more than 100 producers – and the wines of the Guadalupe Valley are known and appreciated the world over. Let’s raise a glass to the trail-blazers!