Leña Brava, the latest restaurant from Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless, features more than two dozen wines from Baja California, Mexico, on its extensive list. The venue’s manager and sommelier, Leslie Lamont, says the wines make sense given the restaurant’s Baja-centric cuisine. While Mexican wines are barely a blip on the radar for most American consumers, Leña Brava’s guests “trust us to offer a great selection,” Lamont explains.
Wines from Mexico are popping up elsewhere around the country as well, mainly in the border states of California and Texas, but increasingly in larger cities elsewhere in the U.S. market. And Mexican restaurants aren’t the only venues. “Interest in Mexican wines initially came from Mexican restaurants, but now we’re selling to bars and restaurants that don’t specialize in Mexican cuisine,” says Youssef Benjelloun, principal at San Diego–based Baja Wine USA.
Tom Bracamontes, owner of La Competencia Imports, adds that Latin influences are pervasive in the on-premise, and it makes sense to complement them with Mexican wines. “Latino cuisine isn’t a fad—it’s a shift in our culture,” he says. “There are a lot of hip, young sommeliers out there who are looking for the cool new place. To me it makes sense that Baja will be the next up-and-coming region.” La Competencia represents eight wineries from the region.
Bracamontes has formed an alliance with another importer, Michelle Martain of San Diego–based La Mision Associates, to expand distribution of Mexican wines. So far this year, the importers jointly added Nevada, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina to a base that included California, Texas, Illinois, New Mexico and Arizona.
U.S. imports of Mexican table wine totaled 17,604 cases in 2016. That’s an increase of 48 percent over 2015, according to Impact Databank. Baja California, and specifically the Valle de Guadalupe region, produces the lion’s share of bottled wine exports from Mexico. Valle de Guadalupe is slowly building a following despite price tags that typically exceed $15 a 750-ml.
“Right now the retail sweet spot is $17 to the mid-$30s,” Bracamontes says. “Because of their lack of water, because of their lack of infrastructure, it’s not a market that’s suddenly going to produce 20 million cases.” The region’s location just south of the California border is fortuitous given the increasing popularity of tourism between the two countries.
“More and more people from California are going down to explore the region,” notes Greg Majors, beverage director for San Diego’s Blue Bridge Hospitality Group. Blue Bridge carries Mexican wines in its restaurants and at the Grape Smuggler store. “At the retail shop, people are coming in and asking for Mexican wine in general because their curiosity has been sparked,” Majors says.
At The Twisted Fork in Reno, Nevada, the exploratory nature of customers, coupled with staff enthusiasm, has translated into growing demand for Mexican wines, according to manager Dave Grayden. “They’re definitely more of a hand-sell to the regular guests who have confidence in our ability to bring in cool stuff,” Grayden says, noting the high quality, especially in some of the more unique blends.
“I don’t come across too many blends that surprise me and then back that up with the quality—that’s exciting,” he says. One popular blend is the Corona del Valle Tempranillo-Nebbiolo, which sells for $57 a 750-ml. on the Twisted Fork wine list. Bracamontes also notes the “craziest blends” coming out of Baja California. He points to the Tempranillo-Nebbiolo blend, as well as a Viognier-Fiano blend from Casa Magoni.
“We look for all these nontraditional blends or unusual grape varietals that you just don’t see in the United States, and often those are the ones we carry because there is no direct comparison on a wine list,” Bracamontes says. He expects further creativity and experimentation as the region matures. “Mexico still has a lot of hit-and-miss offerings, and there’s a lot of experimentation,” Bracamontes says. “But that’s part of what makes the region so exciting.”