Sisters Sophie Esser and Julia Esser, daughters of Napa Valley vintner Manfred Esser, came to the far southern reaches of Baja California this afternoon to help establish a beachhead for California wine.
They ambled about the deck of Container Restaurant & Bar, pouring tastes of Esser Vineyards wines for restaurateurs from the twin resort communities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. In its earlier life, Container Restaurant & Bar was a shipping container, capable of holding more than 1,000 cases of wine. The Esser sisters would love to have sold that much wine, and maybe they did. The curious restaurateurs had encouraging things to say of the Esser lineup.
The old shipping container, freshly spiffed up, now sits on a verdant shelf just above a new marina on the northeast edge of San Jose del Cabo. It overlooks a flotilla of moored luxury yachts bearing addresses from Jackson Hole, Honolulu, Las Vegas, San Diego, Dallas, Cheyenne and Redlands, among other distant ports.
Esser wines run to dry and lean mainstream varietals. While the winery is in Napa Valley, the wines bear California appellations. They are made from grapes grown in the North State's less pricey districts, such as Monterey and Lake counties, Clarksburg and Lodi. In California, they sell for around $10.
"This is a great opportunity," said Sophie Esser in explaining the family's attraction to Los Cabos. "We think Americans want to drink California wines, and so many Californians are down here."
And their seasonal presence is on the rise, especially as spring break draws near. If you are packing for your own escape to Los Cabos, brace yourself to pay highly inflated prices if all you drink is California wine. At a San Jose del Cabo supermarket the other day, the entry-level Kendall-Jackson merlot, which carries a suggested retail price of $18 in California, was listed at 389 pesos, or $30 in U.S. currency at today's exchange rate. This helps explain why so few California wines are available in Baja, and why Argentina, Chile and Spain dominate the area's wine market.
Ivan Silberman, the Los Cabos wine distributor who arranged the Esser introduction, explained why California wines are so dear in Los Cabos. The cost of shipping factors into the equation, of course, but the main culprit is Mexican taxes. They include a 25 percent levy on California wines containing up to 14 percent alcohol, 30 percent on wines with more than 14 percent alcohol. And then there's an 11 percent tax imposed by the state of Baja California Sur. And for the past year, Mexican officials have imposed an additional 20 percent tariff on California wine in retaliation for an Obama administration decision to halt a pilot program that was allowing Mexican trucks to haul goods on U.S. highways in border states. It's a small wonder that Kendall-Jackson merlot doesn't cost more.
If Sophie Esser and Julia Esser were startled by the load of taxes their wines will have to shoulder to get into the hands of wine enthusiasts in Los Cabos, they didn't show it. They went about their pouring and smoozing confident that their wines would find a place at Los Cabos restaurants and resorts, especially in the niche for which their releases are crafted -wine-by-the-glass programs. They've had plenty of experience in cultivating other foreign markets, noting that Esser wines are poured at such posh retreats as the Ritz-Carlton in the Cayman Islands, Half Moon Bay, Atlanta and Chicago, The Fullerton Hotel in Singapore, the Raffles Resort in the West Indies, the Four Seasons in Shanghai, and the Burj al Arab in Dubai. They've already nailed down The One & Only Palmilla Resort at San Jose del Cabo, and are keeping their fingers crossed that Mexico's onerous taxes don't deter other restaurants and resorts from adding Esser to their cellar.