There’s nothing like a frozen margarita alongside a steaming-hot plate of enchiladas, or a mezcal paloma to down with a basket of tacos. But Mexican restaurants around Texas are looking toward another type of Mexico-made drink to pair with their dishes: wine.
As Mexican food in the U.S. has been expanding over the past decade, a concurrent renaissance of winemaking has been happening in Mexico, says Tomás Bracamontes, owner of La Competencia Imports, one of the largest importers of Mexican wines in the U.S. “Mexican gastronomy is becoming more multifaceted,” he says. “You’re finding Mexican steakhouses . . . Mexican seafood houses. Wine is a part of that.”
In 2011, when Bracamontes first visited Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe, often called the Napa Valley of Mexico, he was impressed with the wineries that prioritized novelty and originality over high-volume production. He left a career in the music industry to start La Competencia Imports in Napa, California, two years later. He now supplies about thirty Mexican wines to stores and restaurants in 25 states.
While California has historically been La Competencia’s biggest market, Bracamontes describes Texas as a sleeping giant. Within the last year, major grocery chains, like Central Market and H-E-B, and high-end restaurants like Don Artemio in Fort Worth and Mastro’s in Houston and the Woodlands have been buying from La Competencia.
Mexican wine might seem new, perhaps even unheard of, but Mexico is the oldest wine-growing region in the Americas. Wine production dates back to the sixteenth century when Spanish colonial priests brought mission grapes to make wine for the sacrament during Mass. The oldest winery in the Western Hemisphere is Casa Madero, located in Coahuila in the town of Valle de Parras (which translates to Vine Valley). Casa Madero was established in 1597 after Catholic priests and conquistadors discovered natural springs feeding native grapevines.
Casa Madero owner Daniel Milmo says Texas is the winery’s highest-grossing U.S. market, with about 60 percent of their exports going to the state. Casa Madero wines are sold in multiple Mexican restaurants in the Dallas area, including José, The Mexican, Hugo’s Invitados, and Mi Dia From Scratch—but also at other types of establishments like Randy’s Steakhouse and the Ritz-Carlton’s Rattlesnake Bar, where the cabernet is sold by the glass for $32.
The best-selling restaurant for Casa Madero’s wines is Don Artemio. The Fort Worth restaurant opened in March as the second location for chef Juan Ramón Cárdenas’s Northern Mexican cuisine from Saltillo. General manager Adrian Burciaga says he and Cárdenas wanted to showcase Mexican wines that could compete with wines from anywhere in the world. Of 125 labels, there are currently 31 Mexican wines, including eight from Casa Madero. The restaurant hosted a sold-out dinner with Casa Madero pairings in September; another scheduled in January is sold out too. Burciaga says customers are now asking for Casa Madero’s Gran Reserva shiraz and cabernet by name. As he sees it, the newfound interest is due to the increasing sophistication of Mexican cuisine, as well as Americans’ familiarity with it.
Before Don Artemio, Central Market and chef Hugo Ortega’s H-Town Restaurant Group were the first to beat the drum for Mexican wines in Texas. Central Market’s public affairs manager Nichelle Sullivan says Mexican wines were first showcased at a 2016 event, and now all locations offer around two dozen labels, in addition to about fifty H-E-B stores that carry four to six Mexican wines. Sullivan describes demand as steady.
At H-Town, Xochi general manager Elvis Espinoza says he remembers selling Casa Madero merlot by the glass back in 2008, when he started as a server at Hugo’s. Today, varietals like nebbiolo are becoming more popular. Mexico is one of the few places in the world to grow the grape outside of Italy, and diners at Xochi and Hugo’s are finding it pairs well with mole and salsa, Espinoza says.
In regions like Querétaro, Guanajuato, Bajío, and San Luis Potosí, young winemakers are abandoning the Rhône and Spanish varietals that have historically done well in Baja to experiment with newer grapes like caladoc, tannat, and vermentino. “They have access to more information, better studies, and travel during a time when doing something different is cooler than more of the same,” says Juan Carlos Flores Mazón, assistant regional director at Serendipity Wine Imports. According to him, younger generations of drinkers and winemakers “don’t want to be told. They want to discover.”
One such winemaker is forty-year-old Xaime Niembro of Vinos Barrigones. Originally an Oaxaca-based mezcal producer, he started making wine on his parents’ land in Querétaro during the pandemic. One of the first places in the U.S. to carry Vinos Barrigones was natural wine shop Bar & Garden in Dallas. When managing partner Julie Buckner Lane tried a bottle, she found Vinos Barrigones to be “super elegant for a natural wine,” she says. She launched the sale of Vinos Barrigones with a tasting in October that a hundred people attended. All four cases sold out within a week at $50 a bottle—quick for that price point, she notes.
Bar & Garden also carries Bichi wines from the border town of Tecate. “Everyone wants it,” Lane says, particularly the Pet Mex, a sparkling wine with exports going to Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, and Paris. In Austin, Celia Pellegrini, director of operations at Suerte and Este, calls Bichi the most accessible of all the natural wineries in Mexico. She says Bichi’s success is encouraging other restaurants to add Mexican wines to their lists. In the last year, Suerte and Este have gone from offering one or two Mexican wines to as many as eight, when they can get enough. “Absolutely, one hundred percent, demand is going up in Texas,” Pellegrini says.
One San Antonio restaurant embracing Mexican wine is Mixtli. Sommelier Hailey Pruitt has added nine wines from Mexico since she was hired in September. Forming relationships with smaller distributors and importers has been important since they usually have a better selection, Pruitt says. The reception has been “more than positive,” as some guests seek out Mexican wines while others come to discover them. As she says, “It’s a real treat to be able to change the mind of a skeptic.”