As we come upon the 45th anniversary of the Judgement of Paris, it is hard to imagine a world where Napa wines were not as well-known as they are today. Reading George M. Tabor’s book of the same name, one cannot help but feel the excitement of those at the very roots of a regional emergence. Could those Napa wine pioneers have envisioned the global scale to which they were to rise? And so quickly!
What if you could witness a regional emergence today? Well, take a drive across the US Border to the Baja region of Mexico, and you just might well be privy to such an experience. This small and rugged wine region, only about 14 miles long and five miles wide, is on the precipice of a momentum shift. Although winemaking in this region dates to the late 1800s, it’s thanks to the groundbreaking viticultural practices implemented within the last decade by native-born and French-trained winemaker Lulu Martinez of Bruma Vinícola in Ensenada, Mexico, that it is now fast becoming poised to gain global recognition.
Mexican born and raised, Ms. Martinez went to Bordeaux at age 18 to study French, but quickly realized a calling in wine. After finishing a winemaking program in Bordeaux, she began a job on the winemaking team at Château Brane-Cantenac in Margaux— a Grand Cru Classé estate. After a decade in Bordeaux, Ms. Martinez returned to Mexico in 2014 with the French estate to open a new winery in her hometown of Ensenada. It was then that Ms. Martinez made a radical shift in local viticulture practices.
“Lulu broke with conventional wisdom in the region by picking her grapes much earlier than other growers, disregarding the commonly measured Brix, and instead assessing a grape’s overall balance,” said Tomas Bracamontes, of La Competencia Imports LLC, an importer, distributor, and wholesaler of Baja wines. “Rather than letting the grapes hang until they reached higher levels of sugar, she was seeking a balance of sugars, acidity, tannin, aroma, and taste for an overall freshness.”
Ms. Martinez, who does not own a refractometer (the device commonly used to assess the Brix in grapes), indeed did pick her grapes earlier than most; in fact, she began picking around 45 days earlier than other growers. A believer in respecting the fruit and minimal intervention, she begins to walk the vineyards several weeks prior to harvest, tasting the grapes three times daily. She evaluates the skins, the seeds, and the pulp to determine the precise moment of harvest for each vineyard. It is only after the grapes reach the winery that she runs the lab work.
“She picks her grapes earlier than was conventional, in order to preserve freshness and acidity to ultimately result in wines that are elegant, refined, and versatile,” said Martha Cisneros, creator of the Latinas Wine Club, a wine education and networking group aimed at elevating, education, and empowering Latina wine professionals and enthusiasts. “She is helping cull a new style of Mexican wine that is meeting with much success from consumer palates.”
Mr. Bracamontes agrees, “While at first many questioned Lulu’s harvest timing, after tasting her wines, there was an ‘ah-ha’ moment and a noticeable shift in mindset. Rather than pushing for sugars and expecting to add acid back in the winemaking process, other growers and makers began to better understand balance within their vineyards.”
In 2019, Ms. Martinez then joined Bruma Vinícola, where she has continued making radical shifts in the region’s winemaking philosophies, most recently in her rosé production. Derived from Sangiovese intended for a premium red wine, Ms. Martinez, in tasting the grapes nearing harvest, determined that the vineyard was calling for rosé. And so, she made one. Aiming for a more Provençal style than was typical of the regional rosés, the Bruma rosé spends little time in contact with skins, especially when compared to other bottlings in the region. After the success of the Bruma Ocho rosé, other producers began to experiment with similar production methods, also finding a growing appetite for the style.
“Lulu is raising the bar for Mexican wine by infusing her French wine experience with her native knowledge of Baja terroir; and she’s doing it in an industry that continues to remain very traditional and male-dominated,” said Erlinda A. Doherty, partner at Latinas Wine Club, sommelier, and wine educator. “Her passion, drive, and ‘ganas’ to achieve her professional and personal goals are motivating to anyone.”
Indeed Ms. Martinez is motivating, which I can personally attest after attending a tasting with the Latinas Wine Club featuring Ms. Martinez and her wines. She tells her story in a humble and authentic way, while honoring the Baja women that came before her. Just don’t call her a “woman winemaker.” She is a “winemaker” and will insist that no one should expect instant recognition; this business takes hard work, plain and simple.
And hard work is exactly what Ms. Martinez puts in every day.
“I think perhaps one of Ms. Martinez’s greatest assets is her willingness to put in the work on all fronts. She has a brilliant understanding of marketing and business, and her willingness to share her story ultimately leads to sales success. It’s one form of art to make wine. It’s another to make boxes of it disappear,” Mr. Bracamontes said.
Through importers like La Competencia and programs fostered by organizations such as the Latinas Wine Club is exactly how Ms. Martinez makes a point of marketing her wines and region. She has embraced digital marketing, joins virtual tastings regularly, and as travel restrictions allow, she will be back to boots on the ground as well. She creates excitement by connecting directly with the consumers, and keeping an open door to other women in the industry. She makes it personal and universal. As Ms. Martinez said in the tasting, “All of our actions have an impact. We have to be conscious of what we do.”
As Ms. Martinez continues changing the status quo, now on a mission to implement biodynamics across all her vineyards, new faces are also emerging on the scene.
“As techniques modernize and the local gastronomy further catalyzes the wine industry of Baja, we’re seeing not only more women emerging in winemaking and the business of wine, but also more young people arriving in Baja from around the world,” Mr. Bracamontes said. “It is fast becoming clear that demand is well-positioned to exceed that of the past decade in the next few years.”
Much like Napa, as recounted by Mr. Taber decades ago, Baja is a small wine community both embracing collaboration and competition. Different ideas are coming together, innovations are moving into place, and with a climate uniquely suited to grape growing, one can only speculate where things can be in 20 years. And perhaps as the Latinas Wine Club suggests, that future is female.
“Erlinda and I have both had a passion for Mexican wine and realized its potential years ago,” Ms. Cisneros said. “It has been a long time coming, but thanks to women like Lulu, we have role models, mentors, and inspiration.”