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The story of how wine is what it is today in Mexico

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

And of how it somehow transited from the continent to Ensenada

The history of wine in Mexico is closely linked to the Catholic faith of the Spanish conquerors of the 15th century. The natives made fermented beverages sweetened with honey, some of them from grapes of Vitis rupestris, Vitis labrusca and Vitis barlandieri varieties, at the time satisfying a less sophisticated thirst. The first news of wine made from Vitis vinifera in America was documented during Juan de Grijalva’s expedition, as he shared wine brought from Castilla, Spain, with Mexicas on the coast of Tabasco in 1517.

After the conquest of America in 1524, Hernán Cortés signed an edict ordering all Spaniards to annually plant 10 vines for each slave they had. These first plantations existed in Puebla and Mexico City, and in 1531 Carlos V of Spain ordered that every ship heading to New Spain should carry vineyards and olive trees. Boats from the port of Acapulco left for the viceroyalty of Peru loaded with vines that quickly managed to adapt to the South American territory.

It is until 1554 that wines are made with grapes grown in New Spain, gradually extending to Querétaro, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo. In these central states, Augustinian missionaries managed to produce large quantities of wine to send to Mexico City. An important event came in 1568, when Spanish Conquerors left from Zacatecas in search of gold and, in the middle of the desert, found a huge oasis with water springs and many wild vines: it was the Valley of Parras, in Coahuila, where in 1597 Hacienda San Lorenzo produced wine and brandy,  giving birth to what today is the prestigious Casa Madero.

The young grape plantations in Mexico became so productive and of such good quality, that wine was consumed daily and the importation of spirits from Spain fell. 

In 1699, the good reputation of Parras wines came to Spain, alarming King Carlos II (also known as the bewitched), who issued a decree prohibiting the plantation of vines and the production of wines, except for missionaries who continued to make their sacramental wine in distant villages. This prohibition was in force until 1810, during the War of Independence. Nevertheless, it only made things worse.

Although in the 19th century the vine plantation was again allowed, the technological and cultural backwardness around the wine was evident and the entire industry lacked creativity and personality. Consumption ceased to be popular to target only the noble and rich. A pity that Mexico, being one of the countries with ideal conditions, is actually one of the least table wine produces -and consumers- even today. But that is changing…

The story begins behind a mission amidst the dessert

Grape gets to Baja California Sur in the 17th Century

The Jesuits arrived to the peninsula in 1683 to promote the spiritual conquest of the three Californias: South, Baja and Alta (today California). The first mission in the peninsula was in honor of Our Lady of Loreto, founded in 1697 by the Jesuit Friar Juan María Salvatierra.

The first reference of a vineyard in the peninsula is related to Father Juan de Ugarte, a Jesuit of Honduran origin who, invited by Salvatierra, arrives at the mission of San Francisco Javier Viggé y Biaundó in 1701 (a beautiful mission worth visiting in the mountains behind Loreto). Ugarte learns the Cochimi language and brings poultry, sheep and goats to make cheese, butter, and teach how to spin and weave. He later built a hospital, an arts and crafts school for children and taught the natives to work the land and grow corn, chickpea, barley, squash, beans and fruits such as watermelon, melon and citrus. In 1706, Ugarte traveled to Guaymas, Sonora, bringing provisions for the mission and brought back some vines of Vitis vinífera, later known as Mission Grape. That vine was taken to the missions of San José de Comondú, Mulegé, La Purísima, San Ignacio and Santa Gertrudis by Father Ugarte himself, some of them achieving thriving vine plantations.

In 1719, Ugarte achieved the "first export" of a Mexican product that was not gold, silver or pearls to the other side of the Pacific Ocean: brandy and wine. He built a sloop called "Triunfo de la Cruz" (Triumph of the Cross), that for almost 50 years made 120 crossings to trade with the Philippines. 

Wine travels north during the 18th century

Santa Gertrudis was the first mission in Baja California where wine was made, around 1755. Jorge Retz, a Jesuit Father of German origin, is credited with the wine tradition in Baja California, sowing the first vineyards right in the mountains northeast of Guerrero Negro. Father Retz remained in Santa Gertrudis for 16 years, until Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish crown territories in 1772, being relieved by Dominicans in Baja California and Franciscans in Alta California.

The first reference of any enological work in Ensenada was written by Franciscan friar Junípero Serra in his transit to what is now California. He wrote a letter to his superior brother Francisco Palau mentioning the virtues of what is now the Valley of Santo Tomás, appreciating its good lands, abundant water and grapevines “quite good and fat, some very heavy grapes ”, where “good and very different land from that of the old California”.

Dominicans finally sow vines in Ensenada 19th century

The Mission of Santo Tomás de Aquino was founded in 1791 by Dominican friar José Loriente. The future “Bodega de Santo Tomás” was born with two thousand vines of mission grape and 100 olive trees that were brought from the mission of San Ignacio, a well known oasis in Baja California Sur located very close to the gray whale sanctuary.

Friar Loriente was an entrepreneur. Not only did he sell wine from his vineyard -which apparently wasn't very good either- but he sold it to Yankees and Englishmen, sometimes for money, sometimes bartering for sea otter skins, bait or leather (otter skin was hunted furtively by English, Spanish, American and Russians until mid 20th century, when it was declared extinct).

The Mission was very prosperous thanks to these exchanges, especially given the isolation of the peninsula with continental Mexico. Despite its success, it was permanently abandoned in 1849; Some authors mention it was a consequence of epidemics suffered, and others for robberies perpetrated by adventurers attracted by the gold rush in Real del Castillo (in fact, this newly founded town became the capital of the northern territory of Baja California a few years later).

The first legal owner of the Mission of Santo Tomás was Don Loreto Amador, who after the secularization of the church's assets in 1859, managed to buy the mission from the federal government. By 1870, Don Loreto produced an excellent wine and, to finance his expenses, embarked on loans with two American merchants of European descent: Francisco Andonaegui and Miguel Ormart. Not being able to meet the payments, Loreto dies inheriting his debt. In 1888, after a legal process, this two businessman acquired the vineyard.

These two characters industrialize winemaking and take it by cart to Ensenada, creating the first commercial house in the city: Bodegas de Santo Tomás. Miguel's cousin, Juan José Ormart Uturburri, would arrive in 1895 from Navarra, Spain, becoming the pioneer winemaker in the peninsula of Baja California. To achieve more sophisticated wines, he imported Palomino, Moscatel, Rosa del Perú and Tempranillo vines. By the end of the 1910s, Santo Tomás produced 20 thousand gallons of red wine a year.

In 1931, with 80 years of age (in an action that historian Hilarie J. Heath describes as “suspicious”), Andonaegui sells Bodegas de Santo Tomás to General Abelardo Rodríguez, who a couple of years before had been governor of the territory of Baja California, and the following year would be interim president of Mexico. The $50,000 USD transaction included a parcel of almost 500,000 acres, more than 50,000 gallons of red wine and 2,500 of Porto. It was the era of the Volstead Act (or dry law) in the United States, when the Hotel Playa de Ensenada (now Riviera) was newly released and the alcohol business was in full swing.

General Abelardo is a very interesting character: baseball promoter among destitute children in Sonora, colorblind and professional music lover, he took advantage of the opportunities that life gave him. His contributions to the region's winemaking earned him recognition as a true pioneer, as he injected money, technology and hired the second winemaker in the region, Italian Esteban Ferro, who brought Nebbiolo and Barbera grapes to produce European-style wines.

Honor to whom honor is due

A  little known key character as the ultimate impeller of oenology in Mexico is General Lázaro Cárdenas. In 1940, this former president increased taxes on all foreign wine by 400%, causing them to cost up to 5 times more than national wines, immediately raising their local consumption and promoting the establishment of companies such as Martell, Domecq, Seagrams and Osborne. "Tata Cárdenas", as was commonly named, was also responsible for the oil expropriation and opening Mexico’s doors to exiles of the Spanish civil war, who also promoted Mexican viticulture.


This blog has talked about the vicissitudes that all wine grapes suffered in order to reach Ensenada. Like any story that is worth telling, it has been complex, interesting and sometimes confusing, but we finally got to the Guadalupe Valley! Now, the Kumiai natives have a role to play, the Molokan russians must take hard decisions and the new era of oenology will rise in our quiet and beloved valley. Please, be aware of our next blog, where all this stories (and some gossip) will be unveiled!

By Lizette Rolland


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