Is Baja finally uncorking wine success?

Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe has been dubbed the “the Next Napa.” So why has it been so hard for its wine to gain a foothold in the U.S. market?

In the past few years, this relatively young, rapidly expanding region, which produces an estimated 90 percent of the country’s wine, has become the critical darling of luxury food, wine and travel enthusiasts. Yet despite wide critical acclaim for the quality of its boutique bottlings and reputation as a chic gastronomic destination, sketchy brand awareness and an erratic distribution system have persistently hampered the success of Baja’s wines.

Those promoting it say they’re met with one of two questions: “They make wine in Mexico?” Or, “Why is it so hard to find Mexican wine?”

But that appears to be changing, with several recent developments positioning the Valle de Guadalupe closer to its “Next Napa” nickname.

At least three San Diego-based importers/distributors are widening the channels to allow Baja wines to be shipped directly to buyers and coveted high-end Mexican restaurants across the United States. Bottles are also increasingly landing on grocery store and wine shop shelves, sometimes even commanding their own sections.

Influential celebrity chefs, including Javier Plascencia from San Diego’s Bracero and Chicago’s Rick Bayless — considered America’s preeminent authority on regional Mexican cuisine — have become de facto ambassadors for Baja wines.

And a Valle-centric tasting room has opened in San Diego, marking a first in the county and perhaps the country. Called Planet Wine, the 410-square-foot rustic, wine country-themed venue is tucked behind a converted florist shop turned design studio.

Except for a small sandwich board announcing Winemaker Wednesday outside the building, home to Planet Rooth Design Haus, there’s little indication that inside are the underpinnings of an industry’s transformation. The appointment-only, speakeasy-style Planet Wine seems as elusive to find as Valle wines themselves.

“Not for long,” said Fernando Gaxiola, 38, a Point Loma businessman whose Baja Food + Wine company represents the half-dozen or so wineries being showcased at Planet Wine.

“This will change the perception of Baja wine, but it’s baby steps. People don’t buy things without tasting it first, especially something like wine from Mexico. And when they taste it, they want to buy it. So now when they say, ‘where can I buy it?’ I can say ‘right here.’”

While the tasting room is the most concrete example of the Valle’s emergence, San Diego restaurants and retailers are increasingly embracing the wines as part of the cross-border region’s local bounty.

At Coasterra, the Cohn Restaurant Group’s glittery $10 million waterfront eatery on Harbor Island, about half the wine list is made up of Mexican wine.

“A while ago a lot of the wines from Baja weren’t that good … they were still kind of salty and not quite well-balanced,” said Maurice DiMarino, CRG’s wine and beverage director.

Changes in vineyard practices and in winemaking have improved the quality in the last four to five years, he said, a period that coincides with the Valle’s recognition as a sophisticated wine country destination.

“More people are going down there, and they (wineries) have to cater to a more wine-savvy customer,” Di Marino said.

The wines have reached a high enough caliber that he is even working on a custom Rioja-inspired tempranillo blend that will be sold at retail at Coasterra and its sister restaurant Island Prime.

Bayless, the regional Mexican cuisine powerhouse, is equally impressed with Valle wines today. His sommelier, Jill Gubesch, the wine director for Chicago’s Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco, was recently in Baja on a similar winemaking mission.

Working with the noted winery, and Gaxiola client, Adobe Guadalupe, Gubesch has created a cabernet franc-petit verdot blend that will be sold at Bayless’ nationally acclaimed restaurants.

“We’re very excited by what they’re doing there,” said Bayless by phone from Chicago. “It’s kind of amazing that most people in the U.S. don’t even know Mexican wines exist, and they’re making some amazing wine.”

Landing on his wine lists is seemingly the holy grail for a distributor of Valle wines; in interviews with three in San Diego, each touted that their clients’ wines were already available at Bayless’ restaurants or will soon be.

“I’m shipping a pallet of wines to Rick Bayless as we speak,” said Youssef Benjelloun, president of the La Jolla-based Volubilis Imports.

Benjelloun represents the wines by Hugo D’Acosta, the French-trained winemaker who has been called the Robert Mondavi of the Valle. D’Acosta’s name is a selling point, Benjelloun said, but usually only to those who’ve had Baja wines or visited wine country.

“I say Mexican wine, and people think it’s a joke,” he said. “Sometimes people have the notion that the wine is going to be cheap, so we have to explain to them that it’s not like a cheap T-shirt or a cheap margarita. … But trust me, when they taste it, they buy it. No question.”

Distributors, wine shop owners and restaurateurs all characterized the pipeline for getting the wines into the hands, and wine glasses, of thirsty consumers as haphazard at best. Among the challenges have been distributors relying on ineffective online sales marketing, versus knocking on doors and holding tastings, shipping without refrigeration, inconsistent deliveries, leaving retailers and restaurants with no inventory, and a supply chain that inexplicably shuts down.

“Currently we’re working toward building (the stock) up again,” Bayless said. “The way we were getting them in the past dried up. The availability ebbs and flows. We used to have as many as 30 to 40 bottles on our list, but the contact has just dried up. It’s always been a challenge.”

Like Gaxiola, Bayless has just started working with San Diego importer/distributor/retailer Truly Fine Wine, whose portfolio is almost exclusively German wine — also not an easy sell in the United States. The company has extensive experience shipping wines throughout the country, as does Vintage Wines, on Miramar Road.

John Lindsay, who has owned Vintage Wines for 29 years, said he has select out-of-state customers who’ve been to the Valle and will spend up to $90 a bottle on wines like Viñas de Garza Sombrero, a cabernet, merlot, tempranillo blend.

Mainly, however, it’s locals driving the in-store sales. Lindsay says he now has two full racks dedicated to Baja wine.

“The challenge of Mexican wines is first of all finding someone who brings them in, and luckily we have that now (La Jolla’s Volubilis Imports),” he said.

“We have a lot of (customers) here for whom it’s very convenient to go there and they’re discovering there are some very nice wine there but you can’t bring back more than one or two bottles and if you buy it domestically there’s around a 40 percent duty.”

Lindsay said curious, but tentative, wine drinkers will start off on more reasonably priced bottles, in the $10 to $20 range, and then come back for a $20 to $30 bottle, then $35, and so on.

“It’s all a process but the acceptance is pretty good,” he said.

Tom Bracamontes, of La Competencia Imports, said awareness and demand of Baja wines has recently broadened to big-league wine shops up the coast — LA’s Wally’s Wine & Spirits and K&L Wine Merchants, and Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, Calif.

“That’s a pretty good indicator that this market’s going to take off when three of the most prestigious retailers in Southern California make room for those wines, which means somebody else is being squeezed out,” Bracamontes said.

“Then it signals these wines have arrived.”

They’ve also landed in Texas where the Whole Food-like Central Markets stores, owned by mega grocery chain H-E-B, just ordered nearly 1,500 cases of Baja wine. (Total Valle production is estimated at 2 million cases, compared with Napa Valley’s approximately 50 million.)

Still, nobody’s claiming that it’s an easy sell to grow the Valle’s brand awareness and customer base. In May, Bracamontes is organizing an event called Baja Uncorked that could bring about 40 influencers — media, wine buyers, sommeliers — down to wine country to eat and drink and theoretically then spread the Baja gospel.

“In just the past two years, the tide is starting to turn, we’re at a critical tipping point,” he said. “Just like how rap was underground and then it became mainstream, Mexico is becoming mainstream. … Just like with the food, this is not a fad people, we are experiencing a shift in America that we’re becoming Latinized.”