Zipping southbound along the shimmering coastline mid-morning, there is a familiar feel and look. Not for long. From La Misión, La Ruta del Vino (the Wine Route) twists east to a vivid contrast of vines and olive trees, the Sonoran Desert and looming mountain chains. Striking architectural monuments are home to wineries and winegrowers.
We’re in the Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley), Baja California.
Some call it San Diego’s Napa Valley. I beg to differ. After a three-day fling, I submit that the region is most assuredly, spectacularly Mexican.
Begin at the Museo de la Vid y Vino (Vine & Wine) for a panoramic overview- if you wish. It’s November and the vines are not fragrant or heavy with ripe fruit, yet the Wine Museum artfully conveys the emergence of wine since its introduction to America in 1521. Initially, wine was produced for and consumed by missionaries. In this Valle, three individuals (Santo Tomás, Cetto and Domecq) are credited with the growth and development of the region, which currently produces 90% of wine in Mexico.
Senses piqued, I ready for the unexpected.
The rocky dirt road leads to nirvana. In the peaceful landscape of Decantos Vinícola (Decantos Winery) is a juxtaposition of skybound columns and an earth-embracing, labyrinthine cave.
“I didn’t know wine came from grapes,” confesses brainchild lawyer-turned-winemaker Alonzo Granados. He pours, sharing production, fermentation and aging processes at Decantos, engaging the personalized tanks, barrels and space he designed.
A unique gravity flow process eliminates the pump to avoid “a loss of essence,” in his words. Brother Alejandro, PR and communications guru, swoons, as do we, at the pleasurable experience underground. We’re in awe of both brothers as we sip the Tempranillo and seductive 981, a blend of Shiraz, Nebbiolo and Tempranillo. 981 refers to the acceleration of gravity: 9.81 m/s2 (meters per square second). I am deeply affected.
We embraced the evening with zucchini carpaccio with chile sauce and olive oil and delectable pulpo (octopus) in Chef’s rustic, open-air restaurant at Valle center. Bajamed Cocina (BajaMediterranean cuisine) was created by La Esperanza’s Miguel Angel Guerrero. His wife predicted he would become a chef and restauranteur. As he relates, “the dream comes.”
Viniphera (local grape seed, olive and wine) organic skin care products at my bedside and in the river rock rain shower made for a dreamy stay in the spare but sweet, aesthetically correct Hotel Boutique Valle de Guadalupe …Inside and out, I feel the love-for the Valle, the vino & la vida!
In the morning, we’re happy to find Friday is empañada day at La Cocina de Doña Esthela! In the great horno (adobe oven) outside, trays and trays of piña (pineapple) and calabasas (squash) pies go in and emerge baked via the 2 meter-long stainless steel peel. I gratefully accept a freshly baked calabasa empanada with clove and cinnamon spice (heavenly).
Inside, Doña Esthela and crew serve up machaca and eggs, gorditas with spinach and nopales (cactus), and slow-cooked, grilled lamb au jus! They had me at café de olia-wonderfully spiced and sweetened coffee with cinnamon and piloncillo. Braced for the day, we move on.
Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards and Inn, the first B&B in the Valle de Guadalupe, a winery and an Azteca (cross of Andalusian and American Quarter Horse) Breeding and Training Centre, is drop-dead gorgeous. We are moved by a private tasting in the cave among 325 barrels. Each wine is named for an archangel, with some embellishment after the seven in the Bible were utilized. The stem to seal (no barrel) Uriel is a superb blend of seven varietals: Tempranillo, Mouvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Barbera, Cinsault, Viognier. The 2013 Raphael is big with 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo in new French Oak. Manzanita and Mission olives are also harvested for olive oil. The owners, mourning and searching after the loss of their son in the States, felt compelled to begin a life in Valle de Guadalupe. They built the original home for themselves and now share the beauty. Equine therapy, massage, and dining at El Jardin, a seasonal restaurant with guest chefs, add to the desirability.
Hugely accommodating Bodegas del Valle is a massive, open, inspiring venue across from the Museo de Vino! Behind the bar are 8,000 bottles of wine. The amphitheatre draws music lovers. Here, we enjoyed an exceptional impromptu tasting of Toros Pintos Chenin Colombard and Casa Magoni 2014 Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, complemented by homemade bread with black olive, EVOO and homemade mayonnaise. Aaahh!
What a (beer) flight at a Pacific perch in Ensenada, where marine biologist Nathaniel Schmidt injects his other life passion into the design, art, labels and craft beer names.
From Sirena (pilsner) to Mantis (wit) to Marea Roja (amber; mucho sabor) to Matarran (oatmeal stout; yum coffee, caramel) to Lo Marina (bourbon stout: whoa!) to Astillero (IPA; 7%) to Barracuda (Session; low alcohol IPA) to Sea Serpent Cider, I am game for all that Cerveceria Agua Mala brings my way.
Plus more on the horizon! I look forward to the oyster stout…
The carved Ensenada coastline is dramatic as the sun drops. A refresh at Bajamar Oceanfront Golf Resort does wonders.
An immense caoba (mahogany) bar is almost as incredible as the 6-course tasting menu at Manzanilla! The margarita was perfection. Hangar steak lollipop appetizers with béchamel were complimented by Monte Xanic 2015 Chenin Colombard.
Sorpresa Marina (fish tiradito); black lyncod, raspberry vinegar, olive oil, ginger, soy, serrano; Geoduck clam tiradito, lemon vinaigrette; blue cod ceviche; fried mussel;
Shells: 3 ostiones (oysters: raw with mignonette sauce, raw with pigfeet salad; grilled with tarragon butter) and 1 clam, grilled with gorgonzola; Adobe Guadalupe Uriel;
Abalone: seared, olives, garlic; smoked with tomato sauce; fried with parsley and soy;
Amuse: mussel cream “shot;”
Tic Tac Toe Quail: seared in sage butter; kimchee quail carnitas with guajillo; poached quail egg; Baron Balche 2013 Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah Private Reserve;
Catch of the Day: Yellowtail with black bean puree, green tomato, parsley salad, fish broth foam;
Queso Camote: local fresh cheese ice cream, pureed sweet potato, caramelized oats, scalded milk, cinnamon, brown sugar= dessert to beat the band.
Finca La Carrodilla boasts beauty and brains! The first organic winery in Valle de Guadalupe is coupled with a 1 ½ acre certified organic garden where a biodynamic approach rules, described as “somewhere between organic and voodoo.” Our garden and winery tour and tasting with Jonathan rocked. The produce (tomatoes, carrots, watermelon, strawberries, green onion, beets, artichokes, chard, chiles, cilantro, basil, to name a few) is utilized in their restaurant and others locally. Farmers in the Valle coordinate plantings to ensure variety. Platters of fresh cheese and vegetables knock our socks off! Currently there are six varietals made from organic estate grapes which ferment in stainless steel tanks; aging takes place in French and American oak barrels. The not-yet-released Cantos de Luna (Moonsong) is a blend of Syrah, Tempranillo, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Jaw-dropping” is an accurate descriptor for the cuisine and setting at Finca Altozano-and so delightfully distinctive. Once again, the dirt road to the unknown- and entry to the inviting ranch, where they bake bread, farm veggies, raise pigs, and kids play. Families and friends gather-dressed to impress- to dine well in Javier Plascencia’s take on rustic sophistication under blue or starry skies. Yummy aqua pepino (cucumber) con menta (mint) drink was tasty. We lunched on grilled pulpo (sake, soy, citrus, peanuts), mushrooms in cilantro, chile, wine & butter, calabasas rellenos, on and on.
What I treasure most from my visit to El Valle de Guadalupe is each story of the artisan with a dream drawn to the region. Over and over. Each different yet the same. Magnifico!
Note: Before you go to El Valle de Guadalupe, first check out on-line info at descubrebajacalifornia.com (discoverbajacalifornia.com). A comprehensive Baja California Ruta del Vino map is available at the Wine Museum. The app LA RUTA vcc+ is a big boost. Try downloading LA RUTA ENG in the app store.
*The author was one of a group of IFWTWA (International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association) journalists hosted by the Secretaria de Turismo de Baja California.