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Mexico’s Wine Roots

By Carla White

Baja had its own mini-Gold Rush in the latter 1800s…but it didn’t pan out.  Another story for another blog.  However, just like Northern California, where there’s gold in them thar hills, there also seems to be very fertile soil.  Today, instead of panning for gold, entrepreneurs are planting grape stock.  This is Baja’s new ‘Gold Rush’…it’s liquid gold that can be grown sustainably, bottled and sold for anywhere from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.  This precious substance is wine, and it has a long history in Baja.

Santo Tomas wine

Mexican wine-making began in 1524 (making Mexico the oldest wine producer in the Americas), when conqueror Hernan Cortes ordered every Spaniard with a land grant from the crown to plant 1,000 grape vines for every 100 Indians in his employ.  The Spanish discovered that grapevines did well in Mexico; by the 17th century, wine exports from Spain to the New World had almost stopped.  This wasn’t good for Spain, so in 1699, crotchety Charles II of Spain banned wine making in Mexico, with the exception of wine for Church purposes. From then until Mexico’s independence, wines were produced in the country on only a small scale, but that has now changed.

Wine production in Mexico has risen in both quantity and quality, especially since the 1980s.  It has been painstakingly slow, in part because of high taxes and also because Mexico is not traditionally a wine-drinking country, but more oriented to beer, tequila and mezcal.  However, interest in wine and wine regions has grown, most especially in Baja California, which has been winning international awards for its products.  Here, over 90 percent of all Mexico’s wine is produced, mostly in the Valle de Guadalupe — Wine Route – with its more than 50 wineries.

Bodega Santo Tomas

(A great day trip south from Ensenada!)

The Baja wine conversation really begins with Santo Tomas winery.  Although Bodego Santo Tomas was founded by Miguel Ormart and Francisco Andonegui in 1888, the original Misión grape vineyards and 100 olive trees were actually planted in the late 1700’s by missionaries and by Loreto Amador.  General Abelardo Rodriquez purchased the lands in 1932, transforming them into a thriving high-production operation producing more than half-a-million cases of wine annually.  Today, under the directorship of Juan Pablo Núñez and the masterful hands of winemaker Laura Zamora, those very old vines and newer ones are generating a wide variety of grapes, resulting in some of Mexico’s finest vintages.

Santo Tomas produces a scope of internationally award-winning labels, including the reserve line known as El Viento; Tardo; and Misión and Misión 1888, Pixtos-Kanté and sparkling wines.  Although all of the Santo Tomas wines are unique, one that particularly seems to strike a chord with its audience is the premium Duetto, a combination of 60% cabernet sauvignon and 40% tempranillo.

Santo Tomas has an impressive history–one that is conveyed enjoyably at the very cool tours that the winery offers of its Valle de Santo Tomas operation, about 45 minutes south of Ensenada on Highway 1.  Tours range from a basic tour to an expensive and lengthy VIP tour (which includes a great wine-pairing meal).  All involve a trip through the  vineyards on a tractor-pulled taxi, with stops at wine barrels that are located throughout the property that denote a particular type of grape.  At one stop, tasters might sip a merlot; at another, a viognier, and so forth. It is quite sensual to experience the earth, the sun and the wind as you actually taste the wines that they produce.

You can also visit the historic Santo Tomas winery and its renowned La Embotelladora Vieja restaurant at 666 Avenida Miramar in downtown Ensenada. For information about wines or about scheduling tours, call marketing director Iván Cortez at his Ensenada cell number, (646) 151-9333 or email him at



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