Drug War, Economy Hurting Tourism in Mexico's Wine Country

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 26, 2009

These are not happy hours for the world's winemakers. The real estate slump has slapped the smug out of California's Napa Valley. Global sales of French champagne are flat; the Italians are drowning in unsold Chianti Classico. There is a grape glut in Chile, a fire sale in South Africa. Even the Australians are drinking less chardonnay.

Now try selling Mexican wine. In a war zone.

For many imbibers, the words "Mexico" and "wine" go together like cheddar and flounder: They don't. According to surveys done for producers here, even connoisseurs admit they are surprised to learn that Mexico makes wine -- let alone drinkable wine -- but it does.

"The climate, the soil, the place is perfect for wine," said vintner Hugo D'Acosta, whose family farm bottles a crisp $20 table white at its Casa de Piedra winery, an hour's drive south of the border. "Unfortunately, there are the other challenges."

Those challenges include the fact that Mexico's wine country is located just south of Tijuana, a hot spot in Mexico's vicious drug war, which last year claimed the lives of more than 725 people in Baja California alone. While the wine country has been relatively calm, Americans heading down for a visit must pass through Tijuana and Rosarito, scenes of daylight firefights, headless torsos and a spider web of military checkpoints. At the nearby beach town of La Mision, Mexican authorities in January arrested Santiago Meza López, a.k.a. El Pozolero (the Stewmaker), who confessed to using caustic soda to dissolve the bodies of 300 enemies executed by a local drug-smuggling cartel. Last week, a Rosarito Beach police officer was found with his head cut off. Late Monday, authorities discovered a corpse dumped on the outskirts of Tijuana. The body was on fire.

The drug war has had many casualties. Tourism has flatlined in Tijuana. Oscar Jesús Escobedo, Baja California's tourism secretary, estimates that 800,000 potential visitors decided not to come to the state last year because of the violence. Fancy beach resorts, started during the real estate boom, stand as half-built skeletons along the Pacific Coast highway, including the luxury hotel-condo Trump Baja, which went bust. In addition to the drug violence, a February travel advisory by the U.S. State Department noted that "robberies, homicides, petty thefts, and carjackings have all increased over the last year across Mexico generally, with notable spikes in Tijuana and northern Baja California."

Yet there is a small, growing and, until now, flourishing wine-producing region in Baja California, which cradles a bucolic valley of deep granite soils, with warm, sunny days and nights cooled by the nearby Pacific -- ideal conditions for making reds and whites. The vintners here were hoping their little valley could be the next magnet for wine nuts.

"Many Americans have told me this was the best-kept secret in the wine world," said Hans Backhoff, a co-founder of Monte Xanic and one of the area's leading vintners.

But the Americans are staying away. "In all my life, security has never been so bad," Backhoff said. "Not here, but to the north. The guy from San Diego? He's not coming anymore. We haven't seen that many American tourists recently."

Soon after the Spanish conquest, the missionaries planted vines and casked wine in Baja California. Later, pacifist Russians fleeing service in the czarist army immigrated here and also made wine. Then came Mexicans like Backhoff, who grew up in nearby Ensenada and began growing grapes in the 1980s.

Wine production peaked here two decades ago at 4 million cases. The region sells about 1.5 million cases a year now, almost all of it for consumption in Mexico. Although there is less wine than there used to be, the quality is generally higher.

In recent years, American and Mexican tourists discovered the region, and wine writers, perhaps after a few too many glasses of Backhoff's cabernet franc, began comparing it to Napa Valley in the old days. The Mexican government promoted the area, with its pretty wineries set amid postcard-perfect rows of grapevines, posting "Ruta del Vino" signs and supporting a seasonal wine festival that drew 30,000 visitors last year. Alongside the RV parks and taco vendors, there are now a couple of premier bed-and-breakfast resorts and at least one destination restaurant. Yet there is also plenty of rural squalor. Washboard dirt roads lead to the vineyards, and visitors are warned not to drive after dark.

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