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From The 90 Day Yacht Club Guide to Ensenada

August 2005

Volume 3 , Number 8



A true traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arrival®










Mexico is a diverse and mostly arid country with several areas appropriate for vineyards. Mexican commercial winemaking dates from the 16th century and now is producing several very good wines at competitive prices. In the past few years, the country's leading wineries have collected an impressive array of accolades, gaining a following among wine lovers excited by the prospect of finding excellent vintages in unexpected places. This article will help you discover the varieties of wine from the Ensenada region and learn about these award-winning vintages, as well as the August festival that celebrates this winemaking tradition.  

The vineyards are situated in coastal valleys on the western side of the long narrow Baja peninsula, facing the Pacific Ocean. The main production area is close to the American border south of San Diego. This region has become the leader in reviving the reputation of Mexican wines. 87 to 90 percent of Mexican quality wine comes from northern Baja California, centering around Ensenada. The three wine-producing sub regions, all located within 60 miles of Pacific coast, from north to south are the Valleys of Calafia and Guadalupe, San Antonio de las Minas, and the Santo Tomás Valley and San Vincente Valley. For the last twenty years new generations of ambitious vintners have been laboring to finally put Mexico on the winemaking map. Having decided that the time has come to develop a proper wine industry that competes with California and even France, they have begun to produce a number of surprisingly good table wines. These are accumulating good reviews, international awards and serious export interest.

The major winegrowing sub regions all lie close to the Pacific Ocean where they can benefit from the cooling ocean breezes and mists. Hot days and cool nights is a classic winegrowing combination throughout the world, allowing grapes to develop their sugars without a corresponding drop in acidity. The climate is classically Mediterranean, with low winter rainfall followed by a dry spring and hot summer. Pacific breezes and regular coastal fog make some of the coastal valleys less torrid than latitude would suggest, and several cooler micro-climates have a dependable humidity around 80%. Vines are supported by drip irrigation. All the wine producing valleys feature a mix of alluvial soils and decomposed granite. The Guadalupe Valley and especially its neighbor the Calafia Valley have become the most well-known appellations so far, although the term “appellation” may be a stretch, as the Mexican government seems even less interested in regulating wine than the Mexicans are in drinking it. Nonetheless, most producers do try to label their wines in accordance with U.S. and European standards to avoid difficulties in the important export market. 

Conquistador-turned-governor Hernan Cortez commanded his Spanish colonial subjects to cultivate grapevines as early as 1524, but the name of Mexico has never been associated with memorable vintages. Although winemaking in the former "kingdom of New Spain", now Mexico (or the remains of it, after the American annexation of California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas in 1847, see our archived December 2004 newsletter for a history of that annexation), dates from the early 16th century, the altitude and climate in this country, in general, is not well suited to viticulture. Jug wines have been cheap and justifiably maligned. Yearly Mexican wine consumption has been under half a bottle per person, compared to two gallons in the United States and as much as twelve gallons in Argentina. The preferred drinks, of course, are tequila, rum and beer. Still, the country has never had trouble growing grapes to serve fresh, dry into raisins, or distill. The large brandy industry is the most important in Latin America, and Domecq's Presidente brand is one of the world's best-sellers.   

The Mexican fine wine industry is still in its infancy, but results so far are promising. For wine lovers right now the challenge is twofold: identifying what these up-and-coming wineries do best, and then locating their wines. Production and export are small, and they are more likely to be found in better urban restaurants than in retail shops. Naturally, Mexican vintners are hoping this will soon change. Mexican labels are simple, giving brand, producer, and vintage. Varietal types are often indicated, but this is optional. The best wines, “reservas” or "reservas privadas" (alas, we still don't have any "gran reserva") are more likely to be made with modern and traditional winemaking techniques in a dry modern style that emphasizes fruit.

Domecq purchases all its grapes instead of owning their own vineyards. L.A. Cetto has three major levels of wine: commercial blends, a single varietal series, and their “Limited Reserve.” In addition to the more usual varietals they also sell Chenin Blanc, Malbec, and Tempranillo wines, the Californian specialties of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, and finally some wines that acknowledge their Italian heritage – a Limited Reserve Nebbiolo and a Passito dessert wine (made from dried grapes). Between them Domecq and L.A. Cetto account for about 80% of Mexico’s yearly production of 1.6 million cases, and both companies export about 40% of their wine.

Here’s a short list of desirable northern Baja wines.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon

1999 Divino (sweet white)

2002 Blanc de Blanc (white blend)

2001 Zinfandel

2002 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc

2001 Syrah

2001 Tempranillo Cabernet

2002 Tempranillo

As mentioned above, the best Mexican wines are being produced in the Baja California region near Ensenada, where a group of investors have been developing locally grown "Monte Xanic" varietal wines. It is suggested that you taste their 1996 or 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot; they are now ready to be enjoyed, as they have good ageing potential (five to ten years).

From L.A. Cetto we would recommend "Reserva Privada 1993", a bordalese-type blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, aged in wood. All Cetto wines are made from grapes grown in the Guadalupe Valley a few miles northeast of Ensenada on Highway 3 en route to Tecate. See our archived June 2004 Newsletter for our article that chronicles the major stops and highlights along Highway 3 on your way to Tecate.

"Vino de Piedra" is a new brand label from Baja California to be followed and enjoyed; it is being made by the same wine-master who in 1996 and 1997, when working for the Santo Tomás winery, created the truly remarkable "Duetto" wine in a joint venture with Wente Brothers (USA).

Tasting other wines, apart from the above mentioned, could be a little adventurous, but never risky. While the region may not be ready to take on the best of Bordeaux, the wines of Mexico’s Baja region are coming into their own. An influx of European vintners looking for affordable vineyard property has sparked the recent growth of an area in which grapes have been cultivated for centuries.

Mexican wines are well worth trying, and have begun to lure vacationers to the source. Visitors to Baja California’s beaches and marinas find its wine country a pleasant side trip while visiting the beautiful seaside town of Ensenada, 90 miles south of San Diego. Ensenada’s annual Vendimia Wine Festival in August has been eagerly awaited, and better hotels partner local wines with lobsters and seafood year-round. Baja Mexican wines are being made increasingly available in Acapulco, Mexico City, Cancun and the larger American cities. Visit our Photo Page for wine country views of the Guadalupe Valley.



            Located near the corner across the street south from Papa’s and Beer on Ruiz at #96 is a favorite place to dine on fine pastas, salads, and the best wood fired pizza we have found in Ensenada. The restaurant has a full bar and you will marvel at the interior decor in its unique style and comfortable atmosphere. There in an outside sidewalk covered and enclosed dining area that reminds us of our French campaigns surfing in France. Back to the pizza, the crust is so light and thin resembling a carefully crafted piece of baked crispy bread that could stand on its own. On top of the crust is the best tasting and most perfectly mixed assortment of cheeses, pepperoni, sausage and mushrooms. The classic wood fire stove located behind the bar brings this all together with a crunchy and delightful completeness that you will simply have to try next time you are in Ensenada. The last time we were there for lunch the restaurant had perhaps 7 tables full of beautiful local girls and we were the only guys in the restaurant! Needless to say we lingered after the food was gone and the check delivered just to enjoy the Buena Vista as we also viewed the wide assortment of plates of delicious food being delivered to the patrons. The waiter said this was just a sample of the action that is experienced in the night as this little place rocks due its location near to the Ensenada nightly hot spots. All this is making me hungry, time to shut down the computer and get into town and visit the Pueblo Café and Deli… Oh, did a mention, all this for about $12 with two sangria drinks, a perfect compliment to the flavor of our Mexican/Italian pizza pie!  

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            Welcome to perhaps the most beautiful still unspoiled area on the planet. Jacques Cousteau once called the area, this Sea of Cortez, “the aquarium of the world”. The Sea of Cortez was apparently named by sea captain Francisco de Ulloa after he sailed the entire perimeter of this body of water in 1539 and 1540 at the command of the most famous of all Spanish conquistadors Hernan Cortes. Previous attempts to colonize the peninsula four years beforehand by Cortes resulted in an aborted and futile spearhead into the Sea’s adjacent lands. The name of Mar de Cortes thereafter appeared intermittently on maps of the region, alternating with Mar Vermejo (Vermillion Sea, in reference to the color of the reflections caused by huge numbers of pelagic crabs) until the Mexican government officially renamed it the Gulf of California (Golfo de California) early in the twentieth century. Modern day visiting sailors, and those that live in the area and on her shores, prefer to call this green and blue aquatic body by its more common name, the Sea of Cortez.

            The sea is more or less 700 miles long with an average width of 93 miles. It is divided into four regions based on the characteristics determined by the depth, bottom contours and marine productivity of each zone. The northern quarter of the gulf, between the Colorado River delta and the Midriff Islands, is shallow in relation to the zones farther south because of silt deposited by the Colorado river. The silt also has rounded the bottom contours in this area. Thus the title range in this zone is up to extremes of 33 feet from high to low tide. The seawater in this area is characterized by the presence of a high salt content due to the evaporation of the sea. Before the damming of the Colorado River, the bore created when the seaward river currents met the incoming tide was powerful enough to sink ships.

            The next zone farther south encompasses the Midriff Islands, where underwater canyons reach up 27,000 feet and strong currents bring nutrients up from the bottom while aerating the water. This leads to an usually high level of biological product and nutrients, attracting and nurturing the local sea life, which is very beneficial to the local private and commercial fishery industries.

            In the third zone, from the Midriff Islands to La Paz, canyons depths double, silting is minimal and water temperatures begin decreasing dramatically.  The final sea zone below La Paz is oceanic, with trenches and submarine canyons over 12,000 feet deep. Around the tip of the cape, Cabo San Lucas, the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean and their respective currents battle, producing some wicked riptides. This means that although the Cape has the warmest area of the peninsula in the winter months, the beaches are known for their treacherous swimming conditions. It is interesting to note that the prevailing current out of the Sea of Cortez is reported to flow unabated all the way to Australia, where lost floating flotsam from the area is often found.

            Within the Sea you will discover a myriad collection of islands which are a result of the geological split between the mainland of Mexico and the Baja Peninsula as the earth’s continents evolved into the shapes so familiar to us today. Twenty-five of these islands are named and are arranged in such a way that the visiting mariner can travel easily from island to island up the Sea from La Paz to the Bay of Conception and aside from the need for supplies, become delightfully lost within an isolated environment of solitude with a sense of old-world pioneering discovery.

            The upper half of the eastern Baja Peninsula is largely only accessible from the sea due to the main road south being routed along the western coast. The lower half of the eastern Baja Peninsula is also only accessible by boat, as the road south to La Paz must travel west back to the Pacific Ocean near Magdalena Bay due to the sierra range that bars a direct route to the south. This inaccessible solitude has resulted in the perpetuation of a high number of endemic species of insects, animals, undersea life, and flora and fauna on the islands of the Sea of Cortez. 

            The largest of these islands, Isla Tiberon (Shark Island) possesses an area of approximately 1,000 square kilometers. The shores of little Isla San Francisco just north of La Paz has a wealth of puka shells for the browsing spelunker. The inhabited Island of Isla San Marcos has a reported population of over 600 supported by a gypsum mining operation and a thriving fishery. At least half of the 120 cactus plant found on the islands are endemic to this area alone. The Sea is known as the most biologically rich body of water on the planet, supporting over 900 species of marine vertebrates and over 2000 invertebrates. These numbers continue to rise as each new marine study is published. Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego has proclaimed the Sea of Cortez “one of the most productive and diverse marine nurseries on Earth”. As push button navigation make it possible for a greater of number of yachts to visit the area, look for this rich and incredibly striking region to go the way of the Mediterranean Sea, the Caribbean Sea, and the south Pacific Islands. Please be aware of your ecological habits while you visit and help us all to avoid the pollution and degradation of this area, perhaps the last bastion of unspoiled natural beauty we posses. 

From the forthcoming “90 Day Yacht Club Guide to La Paz and the Sea of Cortez” currently in development.



Baja California Sur, state in western Mexico, occupying the southern half of the Baja California peninsula. Baja California Sur is a sparsely populated region best known for its tourist resorts and sport fishing. The state is bordered on the west and the south by the Pacific Ocean, on the east by the Gulf of California, and on the north by the Mexican state of Baja California.

      The northern part of the state is typically hot and extremely arid, with vegetation typified by desert shrubs and cactus. The highest point in the state is San Lázaro peak, 2090 m (6857 ft) high, located in a mountain range that extends north to south along the entire eastern coast. The southern end of the peninsula receives significantly more precipitation, with tropical showers in late summer bringing about 130 mm (about 5 in) of rain on the coast, and 640 mm (25 in) in the mountains. Forests grow in the mountainous areas, and cotton, olives, sugarcane, and wheat are cultivated in the lowlands. The state covers an area of 71,428 sq km (27,579 sq mi).

     Baja California Sur is largely unpopulated and has the least number of residents of any Mexican state. The population is primarily mestizo—people with a mix of Native American and European ancestry—and many people are recent immigrants. The state has virtually no indigenous population, and only a tiny minority speak an indigenous language. Of the 31 Mexican states, Baja California Sur had the third highest rate of population growth between 1980 and 1990. The state’s only major city is the capital of La Paz, a tourist destination and sport fishing center located near the southern end of the peninsula, on the Gulf of California. Two other small cities at the extreme southern end of the peninsula-San José del Cabo and San Lucas—are both centers for tourism and sport and commercial fishing. San Lucas is also a stopping point for large cruise ships. The state’s population in 1995 was 375,494.

     Agriculture, fishing, ranching, and tourism are all important economic activities in Baja California Sur. The ocean surrounding the peninsula has some of the richest sea life of all Mexico’s coastal states. The state is also a leading producer of salt, which is processed in Guerrero Negro, near the state’s northwestern border. The Compañia Exportadora del Sal operates a sophisticated, industrialized plant in this isolated region, exporting salt to Europe, the United States, and Canada. Much of the state’s agricultural production comes from irrigated lands located in the Santo Domingo Valley south of La Paz. A ferry connects Santa Rosalia, on the eastern side of the state, with the major mainland port in northwest Mexico—the city of Guaymas in Sonora state. Other ferries also run to the cities of Los Mochis and Mazatlán, in Sinaloa state, as well as to the resort community of Puerto Vallarta, in Jalisco state. Overland, the only major route is Highway 1, which runs from the tip of the peninsula, at San Lucas, to Tijuana, on the northern border across from San Diego, California.

     Baja California Sur shares much of its history with the state of Baja California; the two did not formally separate until 1930. Both states remained federal territories for most of the 20th century, with Baja California Sur becoming a state in 1974.


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Customer consumed empty beer bottle boxes, curio shops, religious crosses and corner stands define this colorful day in Ensenada

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