Mexican Culinary Delights Becoming World-Renowned
August 09, 2012

One of Santo Tomas' vineyards
Much of mainstream San Diego likes to forget we have a neighbor to the south. But in doing so, we miss so much.

You’ve heard, perhaps, about the food revolution going on in Tijuana? If not, check out FOX News, or Carrie Kahn on NPR, or even theNew York Times.

It’s all about one Chef Javier Plascencia in Tijuana, who has been shaking up the food scene there with new restaurants that take advantage of local fruits and vegetables, as well as new, artisanal food producers in Baja California, creating award-winning cheeses, olive oils and wine.

So that’s part of what made me so excited to experience the Fiesta de la Vendimia in Baja this past weekend. No time, this trip, to check out Plascencia’s restaurants, but I could check out the wine that is making Baja famous, and the atmosphere which the PR folks claim is similar to Tuscany, or Napa Valley.

Visiting the famed Bodegas de Santo Tomas just a few miles outside of Ensenada, I met Juan Pablo Nuñez, CEO of the Mexican conglomerate Grupo Pando, which owns the winery. (As an aside, Grupo Pando has a strange but intriguing mix of products: fine wine, chocolate, tuna and sardines.)

Nuñez told the tale of Santo Tomas, the second-oldest vineyard in all of California (Baja and Alta), and the oldest vineyard in Mexico, in continuous operation since 1888.

Juan Pablo Nuñez, center, with his staff at Santo Tomas.

Pablo Nuñez waxed poetic about the qualities of the wine produced in Baja. “Each wine has its own personality,” he said, and the wine of Baja is a product of the sun.

Certainly, the sun was shining -- hot, dry and lovely -- the day we visited. Northern Baja is said to be a perfect climate for cultivating grapes, which is why hundreds of years ago the Jesuits planted the first vineyards here, and why this wine industry continues to grow.

The Santo Tomas winery is one of the largest and most well known in these valleys and, according to Pablo Nuñez, their wines have won more than 160 medals in the last five years in contests in Brussells, San Francisco and Ensenada. Their success comes, he said, from “mixing the passion and the expression of the land that transforms the desert.”

Now, any wine connoisseur can favor unusual descriptions for their favorite wines, and it may be especially difficult when one is speaking in a foreign language. Pablo Nuñez kept using the term “expression” when speaking about his wine. When I asked for a better description, here’s what he said: “When I talk about a wine’s expression, I’m talking about the conversation we have between the land and the soil. Our vines are very old, and the soil is not the best in production. But we learn, through our skill, to get the most out of the soil” to produce wines that have this distinct Baja sun and soil expression.

At least that is my interpretation.

The view from the tasting room

And its not just the wines that are award-winning in these valleys. Some of the very best olive oils in the world are produced here, including Santo Tomas’ own Ascolano olive oil.

Bodega de Santo Tomas shows off its wares in a spectacular tasting room at the top of a hill with a broad sweeping view of a valley lined with grape trellises. As you walk into the tasting room you’re struck by a vast back wall stacked with 300 black boxes stuffed with wines. In style, design, taste and locale, it most definitely rivals anything I’ve experienced in Napa, or in Tuscany.

Finally, our host, Juan Pablo Nuñez, has some interesting observations on this changing wine and food landscape of northern Baja. For him, clearly, the food and wine are all tied in together.

“Mexico is rich in gastronomic culture,” he proclaimed, pointing out that UNESCO has named traditional Mexican cuisine as part of the world’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

Bodegas de Santo Tomas tasting room

“In Mexico,” Pablo Nuñez explained, seeming almost astonished himself by the revelation, “something is happening that has never happened before. We are becoming Mexicans. We are understanding ourselves as Mexicans,” with a renewed pride and enjoyment of their own culture, food and products. Mexican cuisine is emerging onto the world stage very strongly, he said, but reinventing itself as it does so.

OK, I’m convinced. After a few sips of Santo Tomas’ heralded Duetto wine, a complex and lovely tonic, I’m more than ready to come back to Ensenada, or Tijuana, and check out the food. Perhaps for the next blog entry.