Baja Wineries Say New Law Allowing Development Threatens Budding Industry

By Jill Replogle
November 27, 2013
Jose Luis Jiménez
Rain falls on bare vines in Valle de Guadalupe.

Baja California's budding wine industry is fighting against new land use regulations that they say would ruin the valley's rural charm and compromise its scarce water supply.

Winemakers in Baja California, Mexico are outraged by a recent change in land use regulations that they say opens the main wine valley to urbanization. The Valle de Guadalupe, just outside of Ensenada, has gained popularity in recent years as a producer of quality artisanal wines. It has also become a low-key tourist destination for sipping, relaxing and eating at an increasing number of trendy farm-to-table restaurants serving “Baja Med” cuisine.

But Ensenada’s city council recently approved new zoning regulations that allow for more dense housing developments than currently allowed in the valley. Winemakers worry the change will open up the area to housing density and real estate speculation, and strain the already scarce and dwindling water supply.

“We see it as a strong threat to the valley,” said Natalie Badán, owner of Cavas del Mogor winery, in a phone interview. “The valley’s (rural) landscape is its principal value. It can’t have an urban landscape.”

Currently, the Valle de Guadalupe is sparsely populated, with most of its inhabitants concentrated in a handful of small villages. Vineyards and olive trees dominate the valley floor, while small hotels and wine tasting venues are springing up along the valley’s mostly dirt roads.The Wall Street Journal recently likened the valley to Napa in the 1970s.

The majority of winemakers in the Valle de Guadalupe had banded together to oppose the zoning change, which has been in the works for the past few months. The change was finally approved earlier this month in what winemakers say was an unannounced city council session, which may have been illegal.

Victor Manuel Torres Alegre, who owns the Torres-Alegre winery and also teaches winemaking at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Ensenada, said that when winemakers found out about the meeting and showed up at city hall, city council members told them they were just there for a celebration. Then, they voted to approve the change.

The regulation still has to be published in the state’s official gazette; a step the governor of Baja California could block. Currently, under a state development plan for the wine region, only one home is permitted per four hectares (about 10 acres) in areas zoned for agriculture. The new regulations would reduce the lot size requirement to one hectare (about 2.5 acres) and allow for multifamily apartments or townhomes on a lot. The rules would also allow for hotels with a capacity of up to 50 rooms on agricultural land.

Winemakers and others involved in tourism in Valle de Guadalupe say the changes would ruin the valley’s rural charm and set back the work they have done to make it a top tourist destination, and they worry that urban development would suck away more water than the valley has.

Water in the valley has become increasingly scarce as wineries multiply and the city of Ensenada fights to take more of the valley’s water for its growing urban population. The outgoing mayor of Ensenada (a new city council and mayor will take over on Dec. 1) abstained from voting on the new land use changes in Valle de Guadalupe. He did not respond to an interview request but defended the changes in a statement. He called the winemakers “elitist” and said that requiring a 10-acre lot size for one family was “discriminatory and offensive to the population of Ensenada.”

“That’s not it,” Torres Alegre countered. “What we want is a development plan that keeps the agricultural part (of the valley) agricultural.” He added that housing and tourism development are welcome in the part of the valley designated for those uses.

In the wake of the council vote, winemakers led a caravan through the streets of Ensenada denouncing the city council, and the local winemakers association canceled the valley’s popular fall harvest festival, but it is now looking like the winemakers may get their way. The new governor of Baja California has said he will not approve the new regulations as they currently stand, and on Nov. 27, state legislators met with the winemakers and other interested parties, concluding with a request to the Ensenada city council to revoke the new rules.