Making Premium Wine In Baja California

April 2010
by Steve Dryden
In the northwest corner of Mexico, Baja California is home to nearly 40 wineries, but even international enophiles seem largely unaware of the region’s rapidly emerging wine industry. In 1521, Mexico became the first country in the New World to be planted to grapes. Despite the nation’s early start in viticulture, the industry laid dormant until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when James Concannon and Antonio Perrelli-Minetti introduced several French varieties, as well as Zinfandel.

In 1931 an Italian viniculturist, Esteban Ferro, introduced more French and Italian varieties, marking Baja California’s birth as a serious winegrowing region, particularly near river valleys around Ensenada. Today, Baja California is home to more than 90% of the premium vineyards and wineries that are driving the emerging Mexican wine industry.

Six years ago I moved to Valle de Guadalupe, located about 70 miles south of San Diego. At that time, there were seven wineries and a handful of artisan winemakers making drinkable wines. During the past few years I’ve watched the regional industry grow to include nearly 40 wineries and several hundred artisan winemakers, with a handful of wineries creating world-class wines.

Business drying up?
Now, just as Mexico’s wine industry is hitting its stride, climate change threatens to upend its success. Water shortage in Baja California has reached such an extreme that some report tasting sodium from the local water in the region’s wines. In addition, lack of water has been the limiting factor for the increased establishment of vineyards. Some scientists claim that the current water shortage will leave this valley completely dry within the next 10 years.

Hans Backhoff of 45,000-case Monte Xanic Winery, a leader in the local wine community, believes the fear of complete drought to be extreme. “There is a big project now under way that will use recycled water from Tijuana and send it to the valley. We’re talking about a lot of water, and it will make for huge changes in the wine industry, creating much opportunity for expansion and growth,” Backhoff says. “We’re talking about 10 times more water than is currently available in the area. The city of Tijuana throws away 8,000 liters of water per second into the ocean, and we can recover much of that water.”

While conservation is certainly key, I see this remedy as a temporary fix. The National Academy of Sciences in a 2006 study predicted that weather changes bringing extremely hot days in the summer months will reduce premium winegrape production on the West Coast of the United States and in northern Baja California by 81% before 2100. A more permanent solution to water shortage is needed.

Balancing supply and demand
As wine consumption in Mexico has increased during recent years, the industry has been blessed with higher demand than wineries can supply. This has created a boom for many established winemakers, who sell entire vintages before they are made, and has eliminated much of the desire to export Baja-made wine into the global markets. With the current economic downturn, however, some wineries have been unable to sell off last year’s inventory, experiencing reduced sales for the first time. Until recently, here in Mexico the law of supply and demand had dictated the pricing.

Another major problem is a 41% tax imposed by the government on each bottle of wine. Industry leaders have been asking the government to reduce the taxes on wine so they can expand and grow the industry. So far the government has responded with another increase in the bottle tax.

This makes it most difficult to price wines to compete on the global playing field. The average price of a bottle of Mexican wine is about $25, but it is often of lesser quality than wines from Argentina, Chile and Washington state that sell for $15. The good news is that Mexican wines are evolving dramatically; several have won international awards. As this small, family-owned wine industry continues to grow, Grenache, Tempranillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo may become its shining stars.

Steve Dryden is a wine, food and travel writer living in Mexico’s premier wine country, where he guides individual and small group wine tours. He can be reached at: To comment on this Viewpoint, e-mail


Currently no comments posted for this article.