In the land of cervezas and tequilas, there’s a wine haven in the backcountry of Baja. About an hour and a half south of San Diego is one of the hottest up-and-coming wine regions in the world. My friend Kat lives in San Diego and introduced me to this wine world that had me at times thinking I was sipping vino in the rolling hills of Tuscany, but with more of a desert landscape. Production is small and Mexico’s wine tax is high so the only way to taste many of these wines is to visit. From Cabernet to Nebbiolo to Viognier, your wine glass will runneth over in Valle de Guadalupe.
Spanish missionaries introduced wine to Baja California as Jesuit priests planted grapes in the 1700s. Bodegas de Santo Tomás, the first winery on the Baja was established south of Ensenada in the 1888. In the early 1900s, members of the Russian Christian sect Molokans (milk drinkers) fled the czar empire and were given a land grant about 50 miles south of Tijuana. They established a colony in Valle de Guadalupe, planting the seeds for the wine industry on the Baja to flourish decades later.
Taking the Dirt Road
About 45 minutes south of the border, Kat and I stopped for lunch in Rosarito. You could call the coastline from Rosarito to Ensenada a poor man’s Cabo San Lucas filled with beach hotels, tequila bars, cafes, and excellent restaurants, including Calypso. We sat out on the terrace at Calypso perched high above the Pacific Ocean. Yes, we were on the way to wine country, but this is Mexico so first drink has to be a margarita. We noshed on their Ceviche Fresco with fresh fish and shrimp cured in citrus juices and spiced with chili peppers. Margaritas and ceviche – two reasons I love Mexico, but on this trip, I was about to find out I also love Mexican wine.
Saying adios to the coast, we turned on a dirt road heading inland into Valle de Guadalupe. If you want to compare the region to Napa, don’t. This is rustic, rugged, and well, it’s ranchland in Mexico where the dirt roads may be hard to find and drive. For a wine loving adventurer like me, this is nirvana. As we kicked up dust driving down the dirt road, I felt like we were stumbling across a secret in Baja’s backcountry with desert reds and golds contrasting against the green of acres and acres of farmland beckoning us to come in.
Our first winery stop was AlXimia Vino Elemental. The intricate dome-like building looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. The winery was started by Alvaro Alvarez, a mathematician turned winemaker. The building created by Alvarez, his astronomer father, and an innovative architect has been called “the flying saucer that landed in the Valle de Guadalupe” and “a sculpture disguised as a winery.” In this 3-story architecturally stunning building, they beautifully blend the four elements – air, earth, fire and water – into some fabulous wines. Talisman is their 100% viognier white wine they describe as a blend of air earth, which translates into a fruitiness and freshness on your palette. Their big and bold wine Magma, blends the elements of earth and fire into an intense wine with notes of red fruit compote, toast, and chocolate. As we sipped our wine, nibbled on a wonderful cheese platter and ceviche, and enjoyed the view of the vineyards from the deck, we flowed into a blissful state of mind in this wine wonderland.
I was quickly finding this Mexico to be different from the pristine beaches, resort towns, colonial cities, ancient Mayan ruins, and bustling metropolitan areas I had been to before. Here there’s an easy blend of old and new to create a refined culture shaped by the earth and that extended to our home away from home for the long weekend. Losing daylight, we took a twisting dirt road to a hidden oasis. I immediately fell in love with Casa Mayoral as we walked into the modern rustic allure of our sustainably built cabin, handcrafted by the owners. The innovative lightning, ventilation, and use of renewable resources had me as soon as I walked into our bungalow, along with the loft that I promptly scurried up the ladder to claim as my sleeping spot. Kat was quite comfy sprawling out in the king bed on the main floor. The bathroom is what took the cabin over the top for me with the exposed piping, copper sink, natural wood and phenomenal rain shower.
Table to the Farm
For dinner, we snagged one of the last tables for the night at Deckman’s en el Mogor on the property of Mogor Badán winery. The outdoor setting under a canopy of pine trees was idyllic at this restaurant with Michelin-starred chef Drew Deckman at the helm. We had high expectations of this “table to the farm” dining and it was an incredible introduction to the culinary scene in Valle de Guadalupe. All of the wine, vegetables, herbs, lamb, olive oil and eggs are grown or produced on the Mogor Ranch. The five-course dinner was a fiesta of flavors for our taste buds and each course was beautifully presented. I knew when the pre-amuse was octopus and mussels with pickled farm veggies and parsnip purée, we were in for a phenomenal dining experience. My favorite course was the barnacle and yellowtail ceviche with a cucumber emulsion. Other courses included oysters, quail and octopus. The meal was topped off with chocolate yumminess in a confit with hazelnut gelato and toasted marshmallow cream. This was truly a one-of-a-kind dining experience enjoying the bounty of the Baja.
Rise and Shine
The next morning, I woke up at sunrise and took a few moments our on our deck to enjoy the serene silence of daybreak on the Baja. We went on a good walk to explore Casa Mayoral and the surrounding area along the dirt road we had driven the night before. Our escorts – a couple of the ranch dogs. The property is picturesque with flowers everywhere, all sorts of outdoor seating, and vineyards stretching out across the land. After working up an appetite and as the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted in the light breeze of our al fresco dining spot, we indulged in fresh juice, fruit, pastries, and a phenomenal traditional Mexican breakfast.
When the Wine Flows
We headed out on a wine tasting journey stopping first at Solybarro. The tasting room manager, Daniel, started us with their Grenache Cabernet Sauvignon that he described as “good Netflix or a Thursday wine,” or Friday morning wine in our case.
We tasted a few more wines then made a stop at Vinicola 3 Mujeres, a small winery only producing 400-500 cases a year. This is artisan wine created by three women, hence the name of the winery. The rustic yet charming tasting room was the original Tres Mujeres wine cellar. While sipping their La Mezcla Mestiza, which is a blend of zinfandel and grenache, I perused to art and artisan goods in the tasting room and fell in love with a pair of beautiful metal earrings handmade by Isabelle, who did our tasting. Close to the tasting room were stunning sunflowers lifting their heads to the sun and other beautiful flowers surrounding delightful outdoor seating areas.
Next stop on our wine tasting day was Bodegas Cieli. The owner, Don Cieli, is a character. Originally from the San Francisco area, he left the United States in 1972, traveled the world and settled on the Baja and met his wife Georgina. They produce six Italian style wines along with creating a pilot brewery. As we sat in the covered patio looking out over the vineyard, eating cheese and bread, and sipping wines, we just got lost in the moment. At one point a winery gray cat named Porter jumped in my lap for a catnap. After trying all six wines, including Tres Sorelle, a wine blend named three brothers after the three grapes syrah, cabernet, and sangiovese, we sampled the beers ranging in names and lightness from Hot Blonde to Porter. Of course, Hot Blonde was my favorite! I bought a bottle of the Tres Sorelle wine, maxing out the one liter you’re allowed to bring back. You can find some Baja wines from distributors such as LMA Wines and Truly Fine Wines, both in San Diego.
Our next wine stop was Adobe Guadalupe. Built in 1999 by an American businessman and his Dutch wife, it is the area’s oldest hotel. In addition to the hotel and winery, they are the most prolific breeder of Azteca Sport Horses in the world. If you’re a hotel guest, you get a chance to ride their horses through Adobe Guadalupe’s vineyards. If you’re like us and just tasting wine, you are treated to a wonderful garden perfect for sipping their Jardin Magico Sauvignon Blanc paired with some nibbles from the Adobe Guadalupe Food Truck like camarones al ajillo, which is shrimp sautéed with garlic, guajillo pepper, and olive oil. With wines named after angels Uriel, Serafiel, and Gabriel, this winery experience is heavenly.
A Night in Ensenada
After a wine day, we headed to Ensenada for a night. I found an AirBnB that’s way up on a hill. Casa Venezia was a perfect spot to take in a sunset over the Pacific. Owner Scott was fantastic too. If you’re heading to Ensenada, book Casa Venezia! The sunrise view the next morning was pretty amazing to wake up too as well.
We headed into town to walk around. We were full from the day of eating and sipping, so we called it an early night after watching the water fountains dance, which draws a crowd.
The next morning, we took a break from wine tasting and drove to La Bufadora, a marine geyser south of Ensenada. We arrived early and missed the typical crowds to watch the water spew up to heights close to 100 feet with rainbows forming in the mist.
This is Mexico, so of course, there’s a legend. “The Bufadora” legend was conjured up by whalers over a century ago and goes like this: one night a baby whale left its mother to explore a mysterious underwater cavern. Since a calf whale grows quickly, by morning it was too big to squeeze through the crevice-like entrance of the cave. Whalers saw a small spray rising from the cave and heard the frightened sobs of the trapped baby whale. As the years passed the spouts and cries grew bigger. According to the legend, the tumultuous spray is the now-grown whale blowing his spout and the thunderous noise is its cries, hence the name “La Bufadora” or “The Blowhole.”
The Wine Flows Again
After our Saturday morning excursion, we spent the rest of the day wine tasting starting with Viñas de Garza for white flights on their glorious patio. It was late morning, perfectly within brunch hours, and whites are great breakfast wines every once in a while.
Fun and quirky is how I would describe their tasting room filled with bright art and décor of our next stop, Lomita Winery. I tried their rosé wine Cursi first, partly because I loved the hands making a heart on the label. It’s a tutti-frutti wine with notes of red lifesavers, watermelon, and hard caramel.
From there we made a quick stop at Vena Cava, which touts itself as “the hippiest winery in Mexico.” The scenery is funky for sure. The winery is made from recycled boats. They were busy with a party, so unfortunately we didn’t get to taste the wine.
We weren’t far from AlXimia and decided to make our last winery stop back at the place where we started our Valle de Guadalupe weekend. To pair with the wines, we nibbled on more ceviche and a cheese platter for a puro Baja wine tasting experience.
Dinner to Remember
To cap off our wine weekend, we headed to Restaurante Laja, considered one of the best restaurants in Latin America. I guess you could think of it as the Baja’s version of The French Laundry in Napa, but not nearly as expensive. Chef Jair Téllez is credited with starting the culinary scene of the valley when he opened his seasonal operation in 1999 as a “destination restaurant in the middle of nowhere.” Even though it’s not so in the middle of nowhere anymore, this restaurant is an experience. There are two choices for each course of the 4-course menu. I had the catch of the day, which was sea bass with wing firewood vegetables. Other courses included tastes from the sea like scallops and octopus. The dessert course was rather unusual with a lemongrass and kohlrabi (dehydrated kale and onions) ice cream with herbs infusion. Sounds odd, I know, but it was savory perfection. It was the perfect send-off meal as we said salud to the wine wonderland of Valle de Guadalupe.
Back at the Casa
After dinner we headed back to Casa Mayoral. After our first night there, we were thrilled to get a last minute room since there was a cancellation. The next morning I took in my last Valle de Guadalupe sunrise and enjoyed a wonderful traditional Mexican breakfast. After a relaxing slow start to the day, we hit the road to head back to the United States, already dreaming of our next visit.
*Article published in Ten West Living, a luxury lifestyles publication in San Antonio, Texas.