Fine wines in a tiny town

Several years ago my wife Melanie and I decided to tailor our
working lives to accommodate our passion: traveling to as many
places in the world as possible. I make a distinction here between
being a

traveler

and being a

tourist.

Several years ago my wife Melanie and I decided to tailor our working lives to accommodate our passion: traveling to as many places in the world as possible. I make a distinction here between being a “traveler” and being a “tourist.” The former is a person who immerses himself in the culture at hand, eating local food, drinking local beverages (not the water, though) and learning and respecting the customs, religions and social interactions of the people where he finds himself. The latter is a person who tries to replicate their home environment as closely as possible while “seeing the sights.” For example, when visiting Hollister, a traveler would eat at Maverick BBQ, a tourist at Taco Bell.

In my last column, I wrote about the wine culture (or lack thereof) in Mexico, on the eve of a trip to that country. One fact I discovered in my research should have been a no-brainer: The oldest vineyard and winery in North America is in Mexico, established in the 16th century by colonists from Spain – a European country with a rich wine tradition.

So I made it a point to seek out wine while traveling around. I went into several stores that cater to locals, including a Chedraui in Chetumal, the capital city of the state of Quintana Roo. Chedraui is a huge, Wal-Mart-type chain retailer that stocks just about everything from clothing to carburetors. They also have an impressive wine selection. Curiously, the wine prices were not displayed, either on the shelves or on the bottles themselves. A bar code scanner was affixed to the shelving and scanning the bottle was the only way to determine the price.

This Chedraui carried very few Mexican wines. I was surprised to find that two of the labels they did stock were ones I had written about, Baja’s Santo Tomas and the sparkling wine called Petillant, produced by Freixenet. Most of the wines lining the shelves were South American, with Chilean producers dominating. American wines were there too. Carlo Rossi is big, as is Boone’s Farm. Don’t get me started on Boone’s Farm.

It had been a year since we visited this part of the country. In 2004 Melanie and I met up with another couple and explored some of the interior of the Yucatan, climbing around the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, swimming in a few cenotes (openings to underground rivers) and checking out non-traditional tourist cities such as Valladolid.

That city has a wonderful hotel and restaurant on the main square called El Meson del Marques. The open air restaurant is idyllic, set in a peaceful courtyard around a fountain, and the menu features the traditional Mayan dishes poc chuc and pollo pibil in addition to wonderful dishes such as avocado soup and the usual Mexican entrees. I did not peruse the wine list on my visit because we had lunch there, and it was a hot day, and well, I was all “cerveza Sol, por favor.”

On this trip, however, I made a point of going over wine lists wherever they were presented, and they were available at more places than I thought they would be.

From Cancun south, the Caribbean shore has been transformed from a series of sleepy fishing villages into a procession of huge mega-resorts stretching almost to Tulum, the site of some dramatically situated but rather drab and over-sanitized Mayan ruins. These self-contained hotels now make up what is marketed as the “Mayan Riviera.” It’s a sure bet that these places have world-class wine lists, since they appeal not only to Americans, but they also attract scads of European tourists.

But I couldn’t bring myself to go near any of those establishments. Just thinking about a beach full of 40-something middle-management German men in tiny Speedos made me press down the accelerator of our rented Nissan Tsuru and head farther into the Yucatan jungle.

And there, in the most unlikely of spots, we stumbled upon a true gem. The Leaky Palapa is a small restaurant – maybe 6 tables – set up right on the beach in Xcalak, a village too somnolent to call sleepy, too small to call tiny.

Run by Marla and Linda, two young and retired Canadian restaurateurs who came here in a Winnebago to spend their days exploring the clear waters of this remote area. Soon becoming bored, they opened the restaurant, bringing fine cuisine to the lucky handful of American expats who call Xcalak home.

Under Marla’s fine hand, local ingredients are transformed into culinary delights that would stand up to the finest available in San Francisco or New York. Her corn and chipotle soup alone is worth the somewhat arduous trip.

These two have assembled a very impressive wine list indeed. They have managed to acquire not only the South American labels that Chedraui stocks (mostly because Chedraui is the nearest large store, though “near” in this case is a three-hour drive, each way) but also a couple of Mexican producers and some familiar Italian pinot grigios. A standout was a particularly nice Venezuelan Cabernet that perfectly suited Marla’s incredible beef medallions over pasta with a chile cream sauce.

I guess my point in all this is to point out that it appears that the culture and appreciation of wine is growing at a fast pace. If a place as isolated as Xcalak can be home to a fine wine collection, can Hollister be far behind?

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