Sunday, April 14, 2013

MIA: Mexico's Wine Merchants

We're packing up, anticipating the long drive home. It's 1,500 miles of desert, most of it on the Baja California peninsula. To judge by past experience, however, it won't be dull. There's the subtle yet surprising shifts in geology and flora. There's the zig and zag that puts you along the Pacific Ocean one day, the Sea of Cortez the next. There's the Valle de Guadalupe and its wineries and vineyards. There's the little restaurants and inns, the thrill upon rounding a curve to find a herd of cattle or a military checkpoint just ahead, and the big trucks quickly filling your rearview mirror, invariably evoking images from "Duel." Did I mention the lack of shoulders on the road? Or the federales in their ominous aviator shades? It isn't too late to book a flight, is it?

I've much to look forward to in Sacramento, not the least of which is the area's wine shops. To bring myself up to speed on the kind of inventory they're stocking nowadays, I visited nearly all of them shortly before heading south in January. But not until arriving at the southern reaches of Baja and spending a few months visiting wine shops in the neighboring towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, however, did it really hit me how fortunate Sacramentans are to have wine shops of such personality, passion and range.

While beverages identified with Mexico run more to licuado, cerveza and tequila than wine, the country does have a wine industry, however small and struggling it may be. On top of that, several areas of the country, including Los Cabos, boast enclaves of affluent and adventurous Mexicans, as well as residents and visitors from other countries, particularly the United States and Canada. They have a thirst for wine, and presumably the means to buy it, to judge by the number of people I've seen browsing through the fairly well-stocked wine departments in chain markets like Soriana, Chedraui, Walmart, Costco and Mega.

Oddly, the small, independent wine shops of Los Cabos aren't nearly as busy. Often, I've been the only person strolling about the bins. It isn't that the selections are mediocre or the prices outrageous. By and large, the most exciting wines, whether from Mexico, California, Spain, Chile or Italy, are to be found in these shops, and their prices are competitive with what Walmart, Costco and the like are asking. So why aren't the wine shops of Los Cabos busier? I suspect two reasons.

For one, lousy marketing. I don't know what they do to promote themselves, if anything. I never see any advertising. Only one seems to have made any effort to develop an online presence. One has been able to persuade highway officials to put up a roadside sign alerting motorists to its approaching presence. The other evening, we attended a benefit food festival on the central plaza of San Jose del Cabo. More than a dozen restaurants participated, each handing out plates generously heaped with a wide choice of signature dishes. On the other hand, not a single local wine shop was represented on the plaza. Perhaps the organizers didn't want the competition, given that they were selling wine by the plastic cup, beer by the can, but surely some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement could have been worked out. Then again, I have to wonder whether operators of wine shops in the area were at all interested in taking the initiative to get involved; I've a feeling they weren't.

That gets me to my second point. Customer service in Mexican wine shops is basically non-existent. Oh, there are a couple of stores where if a principal partner is on the premises you can count on some assistance, but if not, good luck. No clerk is likely to approach you with an offer of help. If you ask for a specific wine and they don't have it, end of conversation; no one will say, "Oh, if you like that wine or that style, you just might like this." Language differences aren't so much the issue as attitude; the Mexican wine merchant seems reluctant to engage, with the understandable exception of those who claim to be sommeliers. But overall, the reluctance of so many wine merchants to attempt to sell is peculiar. It can't be that they're ashamed of their selections, though in a hot area with a culinary emphasis on seafood their inventories are strikingly thin of appropriate white wines. At any rate, the indifference of wine merchants in Los Cabos is contrary to the tenor of the wine trade in every other area I've visited, where the business thrives on enthusiasm, discussion and sharing. That kind of communication just doesn't happen hereabouts. Until wine merchants in Mexico take the lead to make it happen, I just don't see much chance that wine will start to approach licuado, cerveza and tequila in popularity.

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