By Joe Bonadio

In the summer of 2016, a tiny new taqueria opened on the dusty, history-soaked stretch of Broadway where San Francisco’s North Beach nuzzles Chinatown. Called Panuchos, the spot was the brainchild of Yucatán-born Juventino Carrillo, whom I met for the first time in August of that year. Carrillo was young and friendly, and his food was fantastic, so we quickly struck up a friendship. I had just launched my Joe Content Blog the previous year, and when I offered to write about Panuchos, at first Carrillo hesitated. But when I asked him if he needed someone to create a written menu for the place, that quickly got his attention.

This was nearly seven years ago, and Carrillo and I (along with his partners Morgan Anderson and Vince Lam) have been working together ever since. Panuchos may be gone now, but their Taqueria Los Mayas has been earning high marks since opening on Clement Street in 2017, and they’ve appeared here on the blog more times than I can mention. Los Mayas made its mark early on, with impressive notices from no less than The Food Network, and the Richmond District taqueria has been showing the Mission how to do Mexican food for over six years now.

In early 2020, encouraged by the local interest in his regional Mexican dishes, Carrillo began hosting small wine tastings at his Clement Street taqueria. There was just one twist: all of the wines were Mexican. Mexican winemakers had been getting lots of attention for their ambitious wines––and many of them happened to pair perfectly with Carrillo’s food. 

Before long there was talk of a wine bar, one that would focus on Mexican wines, married with an elevated vision of the cuisine that Carrillo had learned to prepare in the Yucatan. The place would be called Cantina Los Mayas–and it would soon become the first exclusively Mexican wine bar in the United States.

Accompanied by a flood of positive press (thank you, San Francisco Chronicle!), Cantina Los Mayas opened on July 14th of last year. For a Mexican wine bar on a sleepy street in the Richmond District, it was more or less an immediate hit. Visitors loved the next-level Yucatán menu, carefully crafted by Carrillo and chef de cuisine Marco Mendoza Correon. After just over a year, the Cantina’s reviews are no less than stellar, with five stars on both Google and Yelp.

The bigger surprise was the public’s response to the wine list: almost without exception, people loved the Mexican wines, and Cantina Los Mayas quickly became the talk of the local wine cognoscenti.

I’ve been working with Carrillo on the Cantina since the beginning, and took on the role of wine director in the year leading up to the grand opening. Since then we’ve expanded the wine list to over 70 labels, going well beyond the wineries of Valle de Guadalupe. Many of our producers come from up-and-coming wine growing regions like Coahuila, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and beyond. Mexico’s burgeoning wine industry makes for a dynamic and fascinating list, and it’s only going to get better from here.

One of our favorite small producers is Cesar Reyes, whose Cē Ācatl winery in Valle de Guadalupe bottles Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and one of the tastiest Mexican Nebbiolos we’ve had the pleasure to drink. In addition to making wine in both Mexico and California (Reyes also operates Prohibido Wines out of Napa), Reyes is also an in-demand wine consultant–or as some refer to him, a “wine doctor.” Having worked with scores of Mexican winemakers over the years, Reyes has a wealth of experience, and a unique insider’s perspective on Mexican wine.

Cesar Reyes

Cesar Reyes, proprietor of both Cē Ācatl and Prohibido Wines, relaxes at North Beach’s Belle Cora. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

I spent some time with Reyes just last week, and the winemaker was kind enough to fill me in on some of the details of his work. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: Cesar, thanks for sitting down with me. 

Cesar Reyes: It’s a pleasure.

JB: Where are you from originally?

CR: El Salvador. I moved here on March 2, 1999, I’ll never forget that date. I came to LA, and spent eight months there. Then right before Y2K, I went back to El Salvador, because it was supposed to be the end of the world. (Laughter)

Cesar Reyes

Reyes inspects the vines at his Cē Ācatl vineyard in Valle de Guadalupe. | Photo Courtesy of Cē Ācatl

JB: I remember that! I was in New York City.

CR: So after spending a few months down there, I came back to LA. I decided that I didn’t want to live in LA, and I took a little trip to Northern California, Santa Rosa. I went to visit my uncle, took the Greyhound. He was working nights cleaning offices, and also some wineries. I went with him one day, and I saw all the tanks, and the lab, and all these things I had only seen in books; I had a background in biology and chemistry, but I never expected to see them in real life. It was my first time seeing a 3,500 gallon steel tank, and I was impressed.

So I was thinking, I hope I can get a job up here. One Monday I went with my uncle to pick up a check, and we met the owner. He told us they were hiring, and the money was more than I was making in LA, so that was my opportunity. It was a place that used to be called Vinovation, and it was a really revolutionary company.

They discovered how to remove VA–volatile acidity–from wine. That’s the chemical that makes wine turn into vinegar. If I’m not mistaken, for red wines, if it’s more than 1.4 grams per liter, you’re legally not supposed to bottle that wine.

Cantina Los Mayas

Reyes visits Cantina Los Mayas for our first birthday. Left to right: Co-owner Vince Lam, Reyes, co-owner Juventino Carrillo, and yours truly. | Photo Courtesy Cantina Los Mayas

JB: So clearly you started out on the chemistry end of things. They were quick to take advantage of your educational background.

CR: Actually, I was taking advantage of them as well. Because I was learning a lot! (Laughter)

The guy that invented all of these techniques was one of the smartest men I’ve ever met, Clark Smith.

JB: He’s one of the founders of Vinovation?

CR: Yes, him and his partner Rick Jones. They were the two guys that began putting together all these new tools for winemaking.

JB: So how long were you doing that before you started making your own wine?

CR: Well, I began to go to school, and I got my viticultural management diploma at Santa Rosa Junior College. With that done, I was finally able to get my hands into some grapes.

So to answer your question, it was probably six years before I made my own wine. It was kind of homemade with a friend of mine, and it was a pinot noir from some vines that Shone Farm in Santa Rosa was tearing down, so we got the fruit for free.

My partner at the time was working in wine compliance, so once we made the wine he submitted it to competition. And we got gold.

JB: The first wine you ever made, you won a gold medal?

CR: Yes. And I never got anything, they just sent an email saying Hey, thank you. By the way, you got a Gold Medal!

JB: (Laughter) Wow, that’s still impressive. In addition to winemaking, you’ve captured a reputation as a sort of wine doctor. What exactly does that mean?

CR: As I was telling you about my work with Vinovation, I learned the techniques used to remove volatile acids from wine via reverse osmosis, and also how to remove Brettanomyces. Brettanomyces is a bacteria that a lot of people know about, and it’s controversial. A lot of people in France think it’s a good thing–but not everyone thinks so. Its two different compounds, 4-ethylphenol and 4-ethylguaiacol.

We can control all of that, and I learned the whole process while working with Clark Smith and Vinovation. So that’s why they call me the wine doctor.

JB: How many wineries have you worked with?

CR: Oh, a lot. It might be 90% of the wineries in California, and most of the wineries in Oregon and Washington. British Columbia, all around. And of course in Mexico. I’ve probably worked with close to 100 wineries there.

Cantina Los Mayas

Chef Marco Mendoza Correon prepares fresh habanero salsa in the kitchen at Cantina Los Mayas. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Wow, you’ve done a lot of work.

CR: Yes. I’ve probably worked with a billion gallons of wine over my lifetime.

JB: That’s unbelievable. That’s nearly as much as I’ve drunk! (Laughter)

CR: Haha! That’s a good amount.

JB: So when working in Mexico, what grapes do you enjoy working with most?

CR: The varietals that are doing really well in Mexico–and are very easy to work with–are varietals like Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Syrah: the varietals that do really well in hot weather. Those are the ones I enjoy the most, because they are a pleasure to work with. There are a lot of other varietals being planted down there, but the weather can make it very hard for some grapes.

JB: One of my favorite grapes, and one that has a unique expression in Mexico, is Nebbiolo. From what I understand, there is some controversy behind the genetics of that particular grape down there. Can you shed any light on that?

CR: Yes. There is one varietal that people call Mexican Nebbiolo–but in that viticultural area, genetically it doesn’t exist. In the records, a Mexican Nebbiolo doesn’t show up anywhere. Some people say it is probably a varietal called Lambrusca di Alessandria.

JB: The way I’ve heard the story told, when the grapes were originally transported to Mexico from Italy, the paperwork showing their genetics was lost.

CR: That may or may not be true, I can’t tell you. But I would say that 70 percent of what’s called Nebbiolo in Mexico is not true Nebbiolo.

JB: That’s fascinating. You produce Nebbiolo, and your winery Cē Ācatl has some new releases. Can you tell me about them?

CR: Of course. Pretty soon, I’m going to be releasing my very first blend. As a winemaker, I generally don’t like blends, to be honest.

JB: Why is that?

CR: As a viticulturist, I believe that wine is made in the vineyard. So to make a really good wine, you’ve got to have really good fruit. To me, the reason you blend a varietal is because the varietal is not presenting really well on its own. That’s why I’ve  been making monovarietal wines all this time, because I want a pinot noir that represents the characteristics of a pinot noir. Same thing with Nebbiolos, with Merlots, with Cabernets.

When you make a blend, I think you’re taking the personality away from one grape. One of them is going to be more dominant than the other one.

JB: To play devil’s advocate, the French say the highest level of winemaking is the blending of grapes. What would you say in response?

CR: It’s the same situation with whiskey; you see a lot of blending in whiskey as well. And it’s supposed to improve….something. But why not just make it right in the beginning? Monovarietal wines also give more opportunity to the small player. I think winemakers should pay more attention in the vineyard, and make sure the clone or varietal is  expressing the best that it can. Do your job. This is probably going to piss off a lot of French people…

JB: Excellent! (Laughter)

CR: Right! But I think they came up with all these Bordeaux blends for the same reasons. It’s like old vines–they’ve got a lot of very old vines in France. But as I’ve learned growing here in the U.S., the ideal life span of a vine, depending upon the varietal, is 25 years at most. Then you cut it down and plant another one, because the nutrients have been sapped–the vine can’t give anymore. The French have gotten stuck on their old vines, and they market it as an advantage. But if you compare an old vine zinfandel with a young vine zin, I guarantee the younger vine will produce a wine that is more aromatic, fruitier and more energetic.

That being said, I’m producing my first blend, 2020. Then I’m going to have the Cabernet Sauvignon as well. Just two barrels of production. I noticed something in the 2020 Cabernet, these two barrels have something that is very different from other Cabernets. It’s coming out this week, I’m having a release party down in Baja.

JB: Will you be bringing it into the States?

CR: I’m thinking about it….the only problem is there are only two barrels. I’ve got to decide where to allocate it.

JB: Get us some if you can. At least me!

CR: (Laughter) You’ve got it.

JB: So let’s talk about your Nebbiolo. What has the reception been so far?

CR: Well, it’s a very Italian style, so it depends on who you’re talking to. People who’ve been drinking inky, tannic Mexican Nebbiolo might not like it.

Mexico's wine

Reyes recently bottled his very first vintage of Cē Ācatl brandy–what he likes to call ‘Mexican Cognac.’ | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: We love it. It’s got such an elegant nose, and just exuberant fruit.

CR: Those are the qualities I’m looking for. I never use brand-new oak for that reason, because I don’t want the toast or the wood to take over the fruit. I want the wine to taste the way it is supposed to, and show the characteristics that are unique to each varietal.

JB: I agree. For instance, typically if I’m going to drink chardonnay it’s going to be with minimum or no oak. The wood can just crush the flavor of that grape, in my opinion.

CR: It’s true.

JB: There have been so many changes in the Mexico’s wine industry over the past decade. What do you see for the future of Mexican wine?

CR: I think they need to prepare, and work a little harder on implementing rules, regulations and quality control.

JB: It’s funny, because many might argue that the lack of rules and regulations is one of the things that makes Mexico’s wine so interesting. They call it the ‘Wild West of Winemaking.’ I imagine they used to say the same thing about Napa back in the early 70’s.

CR: They probably did.

JB: So how important are rules, really? As someone who understands chemistry, do you need somebody to tell you what can be blended with what, and in what percentage?

CR: No. But I think that whatever you put on the label, you need to be able to demonstrate that it’s true. If it’s a blend, you need to divulge that. If you sell a 2020 vintage, you need to be able to prove that’s the year it came from.

JB: So you and your wife recently came into Cantina Los Mayas for the first time. How important do you think projects like ours are for the future of Mexican wine?

CR: Very important. I like the connection to the culture, and the roots of the cuisine. I know that by saying no to a lot of amazing California wines, you are really taking pride in Mexican wine. The food is wonderful, and can go with any type of wine, but you’ve decided to stick with the culture, and represent Mexican wines.

You’re taking a chance, and I really admire that.

Cantina Los Mayas is open for dinner from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM, Wednesday through Sunday.

Cantina Los Mayas
431 Balboa Street
San Francisco, CA 94118
(415) 571-8027

Cē Ācatl Wines
Prohibido Wines