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Ever since the 1970s, when a California wine beat out a French rival in a blind taste test, the wine industry outside of Europe has been booming. In fact, experts now praise wines from all over - United States, South Africa, Australia, South America, New Zealand - just about anywhere and everywhere - but Mexico? Reporter Vanessa Romo found out - well, maybe.
VANESSA ROMO: Thursday nights at the Silverlake Wine Shop in Los Angeles are crowded and noisy and full of agents, assistants and even, in this market, unemployed real estate barons, all willing to shell out 12 bucks for a sampling of wines from around the world. A perfect place to ask a simple question: What happens when you say the words booze and Mexico in the same sentence? Michael Bentley(ph), a self-described professional amateur drinker, confessed…
Mr. MICHAEL BENTLEY: When I associate Mexico with drinking, I choose either tequila or some sort of beer like Corona or Tecate.
ROMO: What about wine and Mexico?
Mr. FELIX TIPPER(ph): I've never heard of Mexican wine, actually.
ROMO: That's Felix Tipper(ph). He's standing next to Mia Aria(ph).
Ms. MIA ARIA: Mexican wine? But I am Mexican, and I've not had a lot of Mexican wine.
ROMO: For shame. Dominican monks started making wine in Baja more than 500 years ago. Still…
Mr. DAVID SHIBRICK(ph) (Wine importer): You know, no one thinks of a cold growing climate in Mexico. But you know, why not, I mean…
ROMO: That's David Shibrick. He's a wine importer from Hollywood.
Mr. SHIBRICK: All along the Pacific Coast, there are opportunities to grow grapes and to make good wine.
ROMO: Then again…
Mr. SHIBRICK: I mean, let's face it. Selling Mexican wine is a hard sell.
ROMO: That may be. But Abelardo Rodriguez is far from throwing in the towel. He manages the Vinisterra, a boutique vineyard in Baja's wine country, just an hour south of the U.S. border. He knows firsthand the challenges of getting Mexican wines on U.S. shelves.
Mr. ABELARDO RODRIGUEZ (Manager, Vinisterra): We had a big problem with FDA and trying to get our labels across the borders to States.
ROMO: The problem with the labels?
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: That our wine says Vino Tinto, and that they don't know - they think that Americans are kind of dumb or something, because they don't know what Vino Tinto is. Okay, now we have label that says red wine.
ROMO: Baja produces 90 percent of the country's wine, and while the vineyards themselves may be rustic and unpretentious, it'd be a stretch to call this a beautiful landscape. It's hard to ignore the carcasses of shredded tires along the main highway, and the trash held hostage in the brush of the dry and rocky hills. But a turn around a bend reveals lush hillsides, and rows of vines heavy with big, sun-loving grapes. The grapes benefit from something called upwelling. That's when you've a very hot climate during the day and a cooling, oceanic breeze at night.
A single road connects all of the vineyards. It's called Ruta Del Vino. It leads to the biggest winery in Mexico, La Cetto. They bottle about a million cases a year, with distribution in 24 countries. Lisa Garcia(ph) is a hostess in the vineyard's tasting room.
Ms. LISA GARCIA (Hostess): Our signature wine, it's made with an Italian grape and its name is Nebbilio. It has received four golden medals in France as one of the best wines around the world.
ROMO: Despite the international recognition, Garcia admits Mexican wine is definitely the underdog on the international wine scene.
Ms. GARCIA: Mexico really doesn't have a culture of wine. Many people always thinking of Mexican like, you know, drink some tequila and beer sometime. They don't know too much about the wine, but now we're becoming a popular place to visit now. That's good for us.
ROMO: And as if on cue, four Americans in Hawaiian shirts weave their way unsteadily up to the bar. Garcia is off to pour more drinks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROMO: Back in Los Angeles, Caroline Styne knows her wine. She is co-owner of AOC Wine Bar.
Ms. CAROLINE STYNE (AOC Wine Bar): La Cetto from Baja, Mexico.
ROMO: Now, since this story began with a pretty unscientific survey, it's only fitting that it should end with an unscientific taste test. And Styne and her general manager, Blake Gilbert, have volunteered their palettes. In front of them are three glasses. All are Nebbilios - two Italian wines, one retailing for $50, the other for $20; the third glass a $15 Nebbiolo from Mexico's La Cetto.
Ms. STYNE: Cinnamon.
Mr. BLAKE GILBERT (AOC Wine Bar): Yeah. It's spicy with really - kind of like firm, small tannin.
Ms. STYNE: Very fruity, fleshy, plummy - no tannin, though. Would tend to be a warmer climate; highly astringent.
ROMO: They deliberate for about 10 minutes, but after a few false starts and enough flip-flopping to make a politician blush, they finally make a decision on how the Mexican wine compares - kind of.
Ms. STYNE: Not my style of wine. I know some people who would like it though, definitely.
Mr. GILBERT: People are going to love that really big, lush, rich style and it's really, really interesting, but it's not really my cup of tea.
ROMO: Hmm, a mixed review. One thing is clear, though. Mexican wine still has a way to go before it topples tequila as the national drink - although it does have one major advantage: You'll never have to eat the worm.
For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Romo.
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