One’s first thoughts of Baja California might be Cabo San Lucas to the south and Tijuana to the north, but Mexico’s wine region is so easy to access (barely a 90 minute drive from San Diego, and about 4 hours from Los Angeles), its proximity to southern California makes you wonder why everyone isn’t flocking here for long weekends. The Seinfeld-meets-Kafka experience of a 5-hour wait at border crossing back into the U.S. answers that riddle (nothing happens, but what even is happening?), but doesn’t diminish the quality and warmth this isolated valley delivers. We’ve got you covered on what and where to drink, eat, and stay during a visit to the Valle de Guadalupe.
What & Where To Drink:
“You have to understand, this is like the Alaska of Mexico. Everyone speaks English and drives American cars, this isn’t Mexico-Mexico”, we’re told as while sampling series of blends and single grape reds at Decantos Vinicola. It’s a fine first stop on the Ruta del Vino, a valley with most of Mexico’s best producers, stretching from Tecate to Ensenada on the coast. The winery’s modern architecture and spacious tasting area make the views out its giant windows almost stupidly majestic, which instantly makes one envious of resident corpulent canine Goofy, who glances lazily at visitors without moving his head off the floor, but whose palate is discerning enough that he’ll spring into action for a chance at a cheese plate being served. The tasting was representative of what this valley has proven to do very well – cultivating grapes like Nebbiolo and Tempranillo with increasing nuance and varied techniques, while executing blends with Merlot, Granache, and Cabernet Sauvignon that run the gamut on affordability and drinkability. Their Petit Syrah and Nebbiolo stood out, and are about US$30/bottle at the vineyard, with some Reserve bottles retailing closer to US$60.
Moving down the craterous dirt road, Las Nubes felt a little more dated. Their all red ‘Reserva’ tasting runs 220 pesos (about US$12) and lets you sample five different wines, both blends and single grape. The tasting area itself lacked the striking architecture or homespun charm of other wineries (it won’t impress the Design Within Reach crowd), but the views from the patio on a clear sunny afternoon would make you forgiving towards any tipple.
A visit to Finca la Carrodilla proved to be among the most charming experiences of the bunch. The only downside was that it was crowded enough by mid afternoon that it was difficult to get seating or service on their succulent stuffed roof-top patio. The modern, hipster vibe felt like it could’ve been teleported from Silve Lake, and the younger clientele indicated that the word was out. Go early, park at a picnic table near the Virgin Guadalupe statue, and enjoy the tasting flight. The house made cheese and chocolates pair nicely, and, while it took a few bites, the cheese with coffee-ground rind was unexpectedly nice.
La Lomita is also a rewarding visit. In line with the more hipster, design-oriented wineries, one couldn’t help but feel like you’d stumbled into a W Hotel lobby circa 2007 attached to a wine making operation. The orange plastic chandelier felt like something from a Jonathan Adler fever dream, and the artisanal trinkets for sale laid bare the cross-merchandising opportunities available to the enterprising vintnerer. Their quite affordable—and drinkable—100% Grenache rosé offers a bit more heft compared to its old world counterparts, and its 14.4% ABV takes no prisoners. A Grenache red was the first wine the vineyard produced, and its heritage is still evolving. The overall vibe felt a little more like interacting with Barney’s salespeople who’d much rather you weren’t there bothering them compared with the rest of the Valle, but it was surprisingly empty and has nice nooks and crannies to explore while sampling the house wares.
But make no mistake, the region isn’t resting on its oak-aged laurels. Neighboring Ensenada is nurturing a vibrant beer culture, with several breweries, and a large beer festival. The festival was popular enough to sell out while attracting over 3,000 beer lovers in mid March. It turns out sampling from hundreds of beers on a perfect weather day next to the ocean has a certain mass appeal.
With the region’s hop heads distracted by the beer festival, we set up shop at Wendlandt – a newish brewery set up in an industrial zone directly on the water in Ensenada proper, which is about a 25 minute drive from most vineyards. Wendlandt has gained some international acclaim, notably, exporting its Stout and IPA as far as Japan while collecting some international recognition. On a hot sunny day, we settled in with some draught pints of their Saison and Pale Ale at a picnic table outside, and waited for the food truck to start selling their chilequiles tortas (asada with green sauce being the pro’s choice here). If gorging on a carb stuffed sandwich washed down with several pints while basking in the ocean breeze isn’t your thing on a sunny day, I . . . can’t believe you’ve read this far.
Where To Eat:
With several restaurants and chefs making names for themselves in the Valle de Guadalupe, a short trip is enhanced by choosing two very contrasting, but elevated, dining experiences: Laja, and Deckman’s en el Mogor.
Laja feels like a proper rustic fine dining establishment in wine country, or this region’s version of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (minus the farm tour). At the end of a dark dirt road, the stand-alone building welcomes you with a quiet reverance. While not stuffy, one quickly senses that Laja is aspiring to something uncommon in the region. Upon entering, the room felt a little like a small church or schoolhouse had been retro-fitted with a bar and tables. But the menu, with its offering of a daily 4- or 8-course tasting menu, strives to show off the region’s seasonal bounty. Combining Mexican elements an in unpretentious way with classical technique, the 8 course menu consistently delivered in an understated way. Drinking options are to either choose the wine pairing, or select from a small wine list with local offerings.
Deckman’s offers a combination of rustic and refined at the other end of the spectrum from Laja. An all-outdoor kitchen and restaurant, this wildly popular outpost by Michelin starred chef Drew Deckman (be sure to make reservations in advance) is a casual, friendly spot that will bring out your inner caveman as you pass the open-fire kitchen. My mind was fixated on trying the beef from Sonora we’d heard so much about (“coveted by discerning Canadians and Japanese alike!”). Trust us that the Sonoran rib-eye is worth leaving a restaurant smelling like a campfire.
Where To Stay:
Like with wine and food, Baja California has got you covered at both ends of the spectrum (see below to find the best rates on two of our favorite lodging options). One of the things that initially lured us to the region was having been inundated with photos of the infamous Encuentro Guadalupe hotel (formerly Hotel Endemico). It’s perfect, modern boxes perched on a rugged hillside pique the interest of any hotel nerd.
Each room “pod” is isolated, and requires using your issued walkie-talkie to summon a Jeep to take you anywhere, which was a first. We also learned that Rihanna had once rented out the entire resort for her friends (get it, Ri-Ri), and Bruce Willis has also rented out some of the larger residences. Staff will make you a fire on the tiny porch attached to your pod, and you can stroll to the pool to be serenaded by a very iffy DJ while you enjoy the view and have a drink. All in all, its steep prices and isolation made it a little difficult to get out and explore the region. It’s a better option if you’re more oriented towards not leaving the grounds as much.
A much better value for money, which was also delightful, was the night we stayed at an eco lodge run by a husband and wife, Casa Mayoral. Situated at the end of quite a few dirt road twists-and-turns, the rooms are much larger and evoke a charming, modern interpretation of a log cabin.
A spectacular region for a 3 or 4 night stay, the Valle de Guadalupe straddles an interesting territory. It feels both undiscovered, but also offers surprises along the way which shows that it has arrived, and that it has serious ambitions. Just don’t forget to bring a four wheel drive vehicle for all of those dirt roads.
How To Get There:
Approximately a 4 hour drive from Los Angeles
Traveling Back: Do not, under any circumstances, try to cross the border at Tijuana anytime after 10am on a Sunday, unless you want to spend 5 hours moving 1 mile.