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WINE

Mexico Takes to an Insider

August 10, 1995|DAN BERGER

FRANCISCO ZARCO, Baja California — The road to Monte Xanic is not paved. In fact, it has no name.

"You can call it Main Street, Calle Principal," says Hans Backhoff, the man who runs this outpost deep in the dusty, rock-strewn hills of the sprawling Guadalupe Valley, 30 miles northeast of Ensenada. "It's the only street."

From the dirt road you can see a tall white building standing on a rise hard against the barren hillside slope, the only modern building for miles. There is little in this small town to indicate that Monte Xanic is changing the face of wine in a country that might not care.

Mexico has a dismal wine past. Its annual per-capita wine consumption is figured in ounces, not gallons, where soft drinks sell as fast as anything and where beer is the beverage of choice.

The activity in the Valle de Guadalupe, however, demonstrates that Napa Valley, Bordeaux and a few other places aren't the only ones blessed with the right conditions to make world-class wines.

True, it may take a bit of time for Baja California wine to come to mind when connoisseurs gather, but the signs were apparent to me last Friday when I toured the valley with Ensenada-born Backhoff, a former college professor.

This remote region was the site of the last Baja California missions, built in the late 17th Century. For the next 100-plus years, the Guadalupe Valley remained inhabited mainly by Cora Indians.

In 1904, pacifist Russians fleeing czarist oppression landed here and founded the Molokan Guadalupe Community. The 1,500 Molokans built modest homes; some remain and look out of place among adobe construction. They planted vegetables, wheat and fruit trees and soon realized that the Mediterranean climate was perfect for olives and grapes.

Wine was an afterthought here, however. It wasn't until the 1960s that wine grapes were planted commercially. By then, the Russian settlers were gone, evicted from their land in 1958 by Mexico's agrarian reforms.

For the past 30-odd years, grapes have been made into wine here, but with little distinction. It wasn't until 1987 that a small group of Ensenada businessmen headed by Thomas Fernandez decided that the Guadalupe Valley was more than just a place to grow grapes for cheap wine.

They did some homework and discovered that Backhoff, a former professor of fermentation science, could direct a project to make great wine.

"We saw that we could produce something good," Backhoff says in his understated manner. "We saw that there was a niche for fine wine."

Yet Mexicans originally were skeptical of wine from Baja California. Backhoff attributes this to an inherent disregard for native products.

"Yes, I know well this malinchismo ," he said over a Caesar salad in Tijuana, before our trek to the wilds of the valley. " Malinchismo is named after La Malinche, women who preferred men who weren't local. So malinchismo is a preference for whatever comes from outside."

This feeling was so embedded in the Mexican psyche in the past few decades that no matter how good the wines from Mexico were, they were granted little favor. France was the model, and only French wines were bought by the wealthy.

The only Mexican wines that sold here were inexpensive. Still, the L.A. Cetto Winery and the Domecq Winery, both in the Guadalupe Valley, grew to hundreds of thousands of cases per year, and the Santo Tomas Winery, using vineyards southeast of Ensenada, grew large enough to export to the United States.

Even so, world-class quality was not a major consideration with these wines. So when Monte Xanic released its first wines four years ago, it was with trepidation that Backhoff and his partners charged $10 for a Chardonnay.

To their surprise, the wine was snapped up in Mexico City and other major centers of culture by savvy Mexican connoisseurs who loved the taste. And this tipped off Backhoff that malinchismo was rapidly fading in the face of a new, young, affluent generation that was proud of Mexican culture, not embarrassed by it.

Development of Monte Xanic (the name in the local Indian language means "mountain of the flower that blooms after the first rainfall") coincided with changes in the Domecq winery, which is linked to Cetto by cross-investments.

*

Domecq, under ownership of Allied-Domecq of Europe, has as a partner the dynamic and controversial Luis Cetto, who founded his family winery in 1957. Although a minor partner in Domecq, Cetto was a driving influence in how it was run until 18 months ago, when Domecq asserted leadership, changing the winemaking regime.

Domecq brought in Ron McClendon, former winemaker at Culbertson Winery in San Diego and at R.H. Phillips in Esparto.

"As soon as I got here, I knew we had the potential to make great wine," McClendon said in his office at the sprawling Domecq facility. "We have the gravelly soil, we have the warm days and the cool nights and we have great grapes.

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