#DoBaja: Mexico’s Wine Country

The courtyard archway at Quinta Monasterio, a winery in Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe

The courtyard archway at Quinta Monasterio, a winery in Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe

Traveling the winding desert highways and bumpy, dusty backroads of the Valle de Guadalupe, you might think you’ve wandered onto the backlot of a classic Western movie. Instead of gunslingers, though, you’ll find acres of gnarled olive trees, Cab-Merlot blends, open-air dining at farm/sea-to-table restaurants, and architecture that ranges from the early 1800s to sometime in the distant future – because this here valley is the ruggedly elegant wine country of Baja, Mexico.

I’ve recently returned from a Labor Day Weekend trip to the Valle de Guadalupe with my new boyfriend, Joseph, who despite not being much of a wine drinker was kind enough to suggest the Mexican wine country as a destination…probably because by then I’d already mentioned roughly five times that I’d love to go there. (He’s a good listener, that guy.) As you read on, have a listen to Bent’s “So Long Without You,” a little audio inspiration for your own trip to the Valle de Guadalupe:

So Long Without You by Bent on Grooveshark

Joseph kept this song on heavy rotation throughout our weekend, and I found it pairs perfectly with the area’s laid-back vibe and rocky landscape, as well as a Grenache-Tempranillo blend.

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#DoBaja Travel Contest – Now Through November 1, 2014

In a nicely coincidental twist of timing, about an hour after I found a room for us in the Valle de Guadalupe, I received an email from Baja California Tourism, asking me to take a trip to Baja to help them promote their #DoBaja contest, running now through November 1, 2014; they’re giving away a three-night Baja getaway for two to a randomly-chosen Twitter user who tweets them at @discoverbaja and shares how they would #DoBaja (see the contest details here).

Baja’s tourism bureau didn’t have time to put together a whole trip for us for the impending holiday weekend, but they did arrange two lovely experiences that we’d surely have missed. More on those in a bit.

The San Ysidro border crossing into Tijuana

The San Ysidro border crossing into Tijuana

Driving to/in Baja

The Valle is in the Baja state of Mexico, the long skinny peninsula at the bottom of California, and is a roughly 4 1/2-hour drive from Los Angeles. (You can easily fly into San Diego International Airport, but you’ll probably still want to rent a car in order to get around.) Amidst ongoing drug-trade violence in some parts of Mexico, many travelers still think that all of Mexico is unsafe, but on my last two trips to Baja (Tecate and Tijuana in 2011 and Loreto in 2012), I’ve found peace, quiet, friendly people – and easy parking.

Driving in Baja is fairly simple, with non-dramatic border crossings and only occasionally unpaved roads. Most US and Canadian car insurance won’t cover you in Mexico, so it’s necessary to purchase Mexican car insurance while there (bajabound.com, roughly $20 US/day). At about 4pm on the Friday before Labor Day, we entered Mexico via Tijuana’s San Ysidro highway border crossing, a huge, multi-lane herding system that for us involved a 15-minute crawl of traffic, the happiness of not triggering a random vehicle search, and rolling into town without being asked to show anyone our passports.

The happy hour bell at Tijuana's Sotano Suizo

The happy hour bell at Tijuana’s Sotano Suizo

Thanks to a suggestion from Anthony Bourdain, we headed a few minutes into Tijuana’s Zona Rio district and caught a little of the US Open at El Sotano Suizo, a locally popular, vaguely Swiss-themed, and cash-only sports bar set within a cool warren of cantinas and nightclubs called the Plaza Fiesta. Shortly after we arrived, Suizo loudly rang a brass bell to announce happy hour, which inexplicably means two pitchers of beer for every person.

Carne asada tacos handmade with love at Tijuana's Tacos al Pastor

Carne asada tacos handmade with love at Tijuana’s Tacos al Pastor

Since that’s insane, we chose instead to wander outside and have some cheap, delicious carne asada tacos at an outdoor stand called Tacos al Pastór, then begin our drive to the Valle de Guadalupe. Learn from my mistake and make sure you 1) have a clear idea of your route and 2) print out a hard copy of directions to your lodgings before you go, rather than winging it and relying on internet service or smartphone app-based mapping. The route out of Tijuana to the Valle de Guadalupe is about an hour and a half and requires a couple of tricky exits to reach the Ensenada-Tecate Highway 3. Also, don’t wait to leave until late in the day so that you’re out on unfamiliar desert roads at night.

The only advantage to making these mistakes is having an opportunity to show your partner yourself at your worst, giving them an opportunity to accept your most acute travel/personal shortcomings. In other words, “Thank you, Joseph, for still wanting to hang out with me despite my semi-brief and vaguely epic meltdown.” (Whee.)

Make sure you know your driving route to the Valle de Guadalupe ahead of time, and plan to drive in daylight

Make sure you know your driving route to the Valle de Guadalupe ahead of time, and plan to drive in daylight

Hotel Hacienda Guadalupe

There aren’t many hotels to choose from in the Valle, so if you’re traveling on a holiday weekend you should pick a handful that fit your budget and style and either call or email them all to check on availability. I chose the email route, and the only hotel that got back to me was the lovely Hotel Hacienda Guadalupe (about $200 US/night + tax). Set off the Ensenada-Tecate Highway, across the road from the new Museo de la Vid y el Vino and up a dusty, bumpy driveway, this stucco and terra cotta compound is far from traffic noise, and guest rooms and the adjacent restaurant look out over the lavender foothills of the Sierra de San Pedro Martir range and acres of grapevines.

Lobby of the Hotel Hacienda Guadalupe

Lobby of the Hotel Hacienda Guadalupe

The Spanish-style Hacienda isn’t especially fancy, but it perfectly captures the comfortably elegant spirit of the Valle. The grounds are draped with heaps of hot pink bougainvillea, walkways are lined with embedded wine bottles, and the gorgeous pool and little hot tub are open ’til 10pm. The airy lobby features wine country murals and tasty, complimentary morning coffee, as well as a friendly (mostly English-speaking) front desk staff who are happy to provide you with a map of the Ruta del Vino (Wine Route), as well as suggestions and directions.

Hotel Hacienda Guadalupe

Spanish style at the Hotel Hacienda Guadalupe

Each tile-floored guest room has free Wi-Fi, an air conditioner and ceiling fan, great soundproofing, a shower big enough for two, and bath products made from local grapes and herbs. The Valle stays sunny and hot throughout the year, but cool morning breezes mean you can turn off your AC, open the sliding doors, and enjoy some coffee either in your big, soft bed or out on your balcony.

The restaurant serves three meals a day and the Hacienda’s own wines, but we only went for breakfast one day and had room service breakfast the next. For the former, sit out on the wide, shaded patio, skip the odd-with-breakfast oatmeal-cranberry cookies, and go for the delicious veggie omelets with roasted potatoes and queso-sprinkled refried beans, which will set you back about $8 US per plate. I’d recommend lingering and watching the light change over the vines (or maybe just each other).

Omelets and grapevines at the Hotel Hacienda Guadalupe's restaurant

Breakfast and vine views at the Hotel Hacienda Guadalupe’s restaurant

In case the Hacienda doesn’t sound like your glass of wine, be sure to check out Booking.com’s lineup of area lodgings; I feel they have the most comprehensive list, from budget to luxury.

Wineries

Wine production in the Valle has been going on for well over 100 years, but most wineries here have only been catering to tourists for a little over a decade. There are presently 60+ wineries on the Valle de Guadalupe’s Ruta del Vino, so you could easily spend a week tasting your way through the area. Many wineries suggest making advance reservations, but this actually proved unnecessary at all those we visited during our weekend.

An abundant grape harvest at the Valle's Hacienda La Lomita

An abundant grape harvest at the Valle’s Hacienda La Lomita

For a while yet, you’re unlikely to find Valle wines in U.S. wine shops and restaurants, so traveling here is the best way to experience them for yourselves. Each winery charges about $10-15 US for each tasting flight, and sometimes you’ll get a really nice snack with your wine. Bottles tend to cost $20-40 US, and you should choose carefully when you buy – U.S. law dictates that you can only bring two full bottles back home with you.

Note that credit cards are accepted just about everywhere, but ATMs are hard to come by; the one that used to be at the gas station in the area town of San Antonio was recently stolen, and hasn’t yet been replaced.

We visited the following wineries:

Monte Xanic

Monte Xanic

Perched high on a hill overlooking a palm-rimmed oasis, Monte Xanic is as starkly high-designed as a museum, but despite its impressive display of funding, ultimately feels formal rather than welcoming. Established in 1987 as one of the first major wineries in the Valle, the vintages here are an intellectual experience – sophisticated, tight and designed to keep – and I was especially taken with the deep, spicy Calixa, a Valle-particular blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Wine tasting with snacks at Quinta Monasterio

Wine tasting with snacks at Quinta Monasterio

Once we found Quinta Monasterio, tucked way back along a dusty farm road, we could have spent the whole day hanging out here on the leather couch, sipping wine and nibbling local olives and manchego cheese topped with walnuts and honey. A cozy, wood-paneled and family-owned hacienda of a place, it’s full of English-speaking young people who clearly have a passion for their work, home, and the Valle. You’re likely to see a toddler scampering around in Underoos and/or a small pack of sleepy dogs, and you might want to call in advance to book a spa appointment (including lunch and wine) in the on-site spa treatment room (email: rsvspa@viniphera.com). Monasterio sells a bright, grassy olive oil, as well as the owner’s wife’s full range of Viniphera spa products made from grapes and wine leavings, and their rich Tempranillo blend is simply gorgeous.

The spaceship interior of Aliximia

The spaceship interior of Alximia

Like a spaceship that landed at the edge of a vineyard, Alximia offers a cool, curved and concrete space, but their brightly acidic wines – all named after space-themed entities – did little to launch our taste buds. Friendly stray dogs, extended families, and Tijuana hipsters all wander the premises. The cute little on-site restaurant looks over a field of vines, uses recycled materials like wine bottles embedded in the outdoor walls, and feels like a breezy getaway even on a blazing hot day. Consider staying for an appetizer and some sangria, just to enjoy the scene.

The magical deck at Vinas de Garza

The magical deck at Vinas de Garza

Also family-owned and simply stunning, Viñas de Garza has the deck of my dreams, offering fluffy flowers, a sweeping view of the vines and mountains, and delicious wines. You pay at a counter ahead of time and receive a ticket that they check off as you taste, generally in flights of four wines. Joseph opted out of the tasting here, so I didn’t have to share my flight of deep, well-rounded reds; instead, he just smiled at me while I enjoyed every drop. My bottle of Colina Norte (a lusty blend of Tempranillo, Carignan and Grenache) was packaged up by the improbably-named and silver-mustachioed owner, Beloved Garza, who is no stranger to charming the ladies.

Artful labels and mural at Hacienda La Lomita

Artful labels and mural at Hacienda La Lomita

In terms of wine, food and design, art is the main focus at Hacienda La Lomita, where Baja Tourism arranged a tasting (and lunch, see below) for us. The young owner and winemaker, Fernando Perez Castro, has a soft spot for the modern art scene in Tijuana, and the work of relatively local artists adorns his bottles and his tasting room, the latter of which looks like a tear sheet from Metropolitan Home. The vibe here is young, hip and stylish, and we ended up taking home a square-edged bottle of their decadent chocolate-cherry-tobacco Pagano, a 100% Grenache. Tastings at the little bar or in the living room area are served with bread and jam, and happily, no one’s in a hurry to usher you out the door.

Restaurants

Rustic, funky and lovely, the relatively new Malva Cocina de Baja California hasn’t yet made it onto the Ruta del Vino map, so we were lucky that Baja Tourism arranged a lunch for us there. We were greeted on the upstairs patio by the chef, Roberto Alcocer, who pointed out his bare-bones kitchen and walked us proudly through the locally-sourced ingredients on his menu. Alcocer also runs the Mina Penelope winery, and we were offered its fruity Julio 14 Syrah with lunch. Meals here can be served in four, seven or ten courses ($30-52 US), or a la carte.

Malva Cocina de Baja California

Malva Cocina de Baja California

Malva’s blazingly fresh crudo, grilled fish and oysters from just down the road in Ensenada are served with sprinklings of edible flowers; the octopus with pig cracklings and cactus is crunchy, soft and lightly salty all at once; and a dessert of oxygen-compressed watermelon with lavender and a queso mascarpone is as easy on the eyes as it is delicately tasty. A short walk up the hill allows you to visit the resident dogs, sheep, and goats in their pens.

Finca Altozano

The indoor-outdoor patio at Finca Altozano

Chef Javier Plascencia was my original inspiration for visiting the Valle, for I had one of the best meals of my life at his amazing Misión 19 in Tijuana, where I was introduced to Mexican wines. His second restaurant, Finca Altozano, is a sprawling covered patio set in the midst of a former vineyard. We’d have loved to have been there by sunset, but it was still a trip to park in the totally dark parking lot and wander our way to the candle- and neon-lit restaurant, which manages to feel casual, special and sexy at the same time.

Everything on the menu (and in the little shop at the front) is sourced locally, and the treehouse-style decor spiked with bits of neon is pretty exciting, but we found the food itself a little uneven. We loved the complex, sizzling stew of octopus, ginger, soy, citrus and peanuts, but we couldn’t tell our two orders of wood-fired quesadilla-style tacos (one each of lamb and beef) apart. Waiters here don’t speak much English, so you’ll probably receive more attentive service if your Spanish is up to snuff. I’d certainly come back here and give it another try, but the next time I’d come for lunch to have a better look around.

Traslomita, the seasonal outdoor restaurant at Hacienda La Lomita winery

Traslomita, the seasonal outdoor restaurant at Hacienda La Lomita winery

Traslomita, the seasonal outdoor restaurant at Hacienda La Lomita, is only open for lunch from late April through October, but it does a brisk business in weddings – which isn’t surprising, as its sweeping courtyard with long tables, flowered chairs, reed-filled pond and tented kitchen look like a scene straight out of Pinterest. Tipples are local beers and Hacienda’s wines, and the food is fantastic, so prepare to come hungry and skip dinner.

Menus will vary, but on our particular visit we loved the citrus-soaked, jalapeño-spiked Ensenada oysters and wood-fired tortillas with crumbled goat cheese, dill and yellow tomatoes. I tried a hearty grilled sandwich of steak, potatoes, carrots and pickled cucumbers, and I’m not gonna lie – I swooned a little. (email for reservations: haciendalalomita@gmail.com)

I’d love to return to the Valle de Guadalupe to try more food and wine, hopefully in spring when breezes are cooler, vines are budding and area fields of lavender are in full bloom. This is an adventure to experience with all of your senses.

____________________________________________

Most of my trip to the Valle de Guadalupe was on my own dime,
but a big thanks to the Baja Tourism Bureau for arranging our lunches at Malva and Tras Lomita,
as well as our tasting at Hacienda La Lomita.

Now through November 1, 2014, be sure to share how you’d #DoBaja on Twitter!

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