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Introducing Cal-Mex Wine

September 23, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Duetto is racking up a lot of firsts.

It's the first Cal-Mex wine, produced from grapes grown on each side of the border. It's the first Mexican wine to sell in the futures market (at Vinexpo in Bordeaux last year). And last month, it took first place among Bordeaux blends at Ensenada's annual wine festival, winning out over entries from California, Chile and Mexico.

A joint product of Wente Vineyards of Livermore and Bodegas de Santo Tomas of Ensenada, Duetto is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, with each winery supplying half the components.

The wine is aged, bottled and released in Mexico to avoid the duties that jack up imported wine prices in that country. In California, it's sold only in duty-free shops at Los Angeles and San Francisco international airports.

The first Duetto is the 1996 vintage, released in May. "Eighty percent of it sold within 30 days of release," says John Schwartz, Wente's senior vice president, international operations. Of the 5,000 cases produced, Delta Air Lines bought 2,000, 2,000 remain in Mexico and the rest is scattered around the world, from Switzerland to Hong Kong. Most of this was sold after a 55-gallon barrel was unveiled at the Bordeaux wine exposition. The wine was also introduced at Vinexpo in Hong Kong in June.

The Duetto concept originated three years ago. "We found there was an untapped potential at the high end in the Mexican market," Schwartz said. Wente was already in Mexico as a wine distributor so, rather than build a winery in Mexico, Schwartz said, "we identified what we thought was the current best producer of Mexican wines."

Santo Tomas, coincidentally, was looking for a way to draw attention to its wines. "We feel that we have an excellent area and we need more promotion," said Hugo D'Acosta, Santo Tomas' director and winemaker. "We are doing very well in Europe but not necessarily in the United States."

The winery sells approximately 30% of its wines in Europe but less than 2% in the United States and wants stronger distribution in California.

Wente ferments and racks its half of Duetto in Livermore, then trucks the wine to Ensenada, where it is blended with the Santo Tomas wine. The Mexican grapes are grown in the Santo Tomas Valley south of Ensenada.

The blend is aged for about a year in new French oak barrels. "We're making a big wine that has lots of tannin," said Willy Joslin, Wente Vineyards winemaker, "and I think it stands up very well to the amount of oak. We're trying to build a wine that will last for some time."

The Duetto blend will change from year to year. The 1997 vintage, for example, contains no Cabernet Franc. "When we did the blend, we found the Cabernet Franc didn't give something nice to the wine," D'Acosta explained.

Duetto, at $40 to $50 a bottle, is selling briskly in Mexico. In Mexico City, Duetto is on the wine list at such posh places as Fouquet's de Paris, La Galvia, La Taberna de Leon and Hacienda de los Morales.

Californians can taste it in Tijuana at two restaurants, La Tour de France and Saverios. In Ensenada, it is served at El Rey Sol and at two restaurants owned by Santo Tomas: La Embotelladora Vieja and La Esquina. In Mexicali, it is poured at a second La Esquina.

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