Wine-loving folk in Baja, Mexico, speak with pride about the Valle de Guadalupe, a surprisingly lush, wide cut of land just off the coast from Ensenada. One of the more popular tales comes from the age of the Spanish occupation of Mexico itself, when it's believed that conquering Spaniards took such a shine to the intense grapes being grown in the Valle that they stopped importing bottles from Europe nearly altogether. To save face and keep a sense of national pride about their own wines, the Spanish government had the vineyards destroyed, throwing the Valle out of the wine game altogether for a few hundred years.
Today the grapes are back. Many vines are still young, and growers in the Valle continue to experiment with varieties as they work to develop a local signature, but there's no denying the sense of exploration and innovation happening a mere 90 minutes south of San Diego. Along with the dozens and dozens of above-board wineries, garagiste-style winemakers proliferate the Valle, turning a small crop of grapes into individual hand-labeled bottles that have intrigued many a wine-lover. And the region has become something of a travel destination in its own right; not just for wine, but food as well.
Rated as one of 2014's wine travel destinations of the year by Wine Magazine (this after many pleasing focus pieces in such upstart publications as the New York Times), the Valle is drawing wine and food lovers from farther afield. And an in-person visit is still the best way to try the region's wines, as you likely won't find any in your local wine shop.
American import laws are notoriously finicky when it comes to Mexico and often vary state by state (in adjacent California, non-commercial vehicles and pedestrians are limited to one liter for personal consumption every 31 days). Coupled with expensive export fees from the Mexican government, many small-batch producers never even consider expanding their labels internationally, instead selling to Mexico City and other wine-hungry regions right at home.
By car, Valle de Guadalupe is only a short drive from San Diego, through Tijuana and along the coast towards Ensenada. And better still, fledgling hyper-local tourism companies like Club Tengo Hambre* run frequent trips across the border in small groups, working with local producers, winemakers, and restaurants in the area to curate high-end wine tasting experiences at a fraction of the cost of similar trips in places like Sonoma County.
* Full disclosure: I palled around with CTH co-owner Antonio Diaz de Sandi when researching this piece, but paid for my own food (and my photographer's).
Whatever your mode of access, plan at least a day in the Valle. There's a lot to eat, drink and experience, and many of the roads don't exactly lend themselves to highway speeds, so getting around requires a bit more time.
If you're only going to hit the Valle de Guadalupe for a day or two, here are the five best places to explore.
Winery + Market: El Mogor
One of the Valle's old guard ranches, El Mogor is much more than just a winery. It's a meeting place for locals, a point of reference against the hillside that's been standing for decades. Past the acres of vines the line the edge of the dusty path to the main house, it's easy to spot the expansive organic garden and live animals. There's a hand-built underground wine cellar and an acclaimed restaurant on site, Deckman's at El Mogor (more on that in a minute).
On weekends, El Mogor comes alive as a hub for many of the area restaurants, thanks to a local farmers market on property where chefs get their kitchen provisions. Jars of pickled vegetables and handmade salsas sit on long planks of wood, alongside locally made olive oil and baskets brimming with seasonal squashes, onions, tomatoes and various greens. This stretch of northern Baja is undeniably wine country, but there's an agricultural backbone to the area as well. Most of what's cooked in the Valle de Guadalupe is grown or raised within 30 minutes of the stove, and whatever isn't consumed locally is shipped to kitchens in Mexico City, Los Cabos, and beyond.
The most spectacular experience at El Mogor, however, is Deckman's. Run by globetrotting chef Drew Deckman, Deckman's is a purist's dream for both cook and customer alike. The restaurant, as it were, is little more than an outdoor stone hearth with an inlayed grill and flattop, which run solely on wood. Seats surround the staging area and string lights run through the trees, illuminating the edges of the adjacent vineyard and offering a peek of the valley beyond.
Using classic restaurant techniques while relying on Pacific coast seafood is Deckman's signature, letting ingredients do the talking with simple preparations plus typical Mexican citrus and chile flavors. There may be no more unique dinner destination in all of the suddenly-hot Valle de Guadalupe than Deckman's at El Mogor, even if the valley's more recent tourism explosion is encroaching on some of the precious natural resources and real estate available. "We all want an economically viable valley, but we also want to keep what makes the valley special. As for me, I've worked all over the world, and I've never been happier or more fulfilled than I am in the Valle de Guadalupe."
Deckman's love for sustainable Baja seafood originally drove him down to the Valle, and that same passion is on display in his dishes, which are often off-the-cuff renditions of whatever comes from Ensenada that day. Thin slices of well-salted percebes (goose barnacles) may be plated up in a wash of citrus one day, freshly shucked oysters and scallops land the next. And as the seasons turn, so to does the menu—warming dishes like grilled quail with arugula salad make for a heavier nighttime meal.
Across the wide valley from El Mogor is Las Nubes, which represents an entirely different side of the Valle's wine culture. Forget low-hung farmhouses and a small barrel room—Las Nubes is built for size. The nearly decade-old winery is built directly into the hillside overlooked the Valle using the same stone that was blasted away from the earth where the wine bar now sits. As a result, Las Nubes' colors blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape, minus its bright red roof.
Owner Victor Segura spent years in Ensenada's bustling seafood export business before landing on wine as a dedicated hobby. After pulling some investors together, Segura began planting vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Tempranillo in 2008, before expanding the property to include the large tasting room, complete with a sweeping patio that offers one of the area's best valley views. Downstairs—visible through glass viewing windows in the floor of the tasting room (or if you ask Segura nicely for a tour)—is the barrel room, which houses enough wine for nearly 4,000 cases. Of course, almost none of Las Nubes' wine makes it beyond the front door; the tasting room is among the most popular in the entire Valle thanks to its modern aesthetic, wide view of the landscape below, and Segura himself, a character in the local winemaking scene.
Taco Truck Time: Troika
Troika offers a nod to the Valle de Guadalupe's surprising Russian heritage, if in name only. In the early 1900s, a group of Russian families emigrated together to the valley, growing crops and living in relative isolation for decades. Today the area is decidedly Mexican, but as with many other examples in the Valle, a bit of history remains in the local nomenclature.
Troika is a permanent food truck set on a hillside in the heart of the valley near the restaurant Corazon de Tierra; it's popular with winery-hoppers grabbing a bite before their next glass of red.*
* Though Troika's craft beer selection shouldn't be overlooked. Baja as a whole (and in particular nearby Tijuana) is undergoing the same local beer renaissance as the United States, meaning quality brews can be enjoyed alongside wines made from any of the adjacent wineries.
Troika uses its limited truck kitchen to its advantage, serving simple mixed tostadas that arrive as sturdy tortilla disks heaped with fresh octopus, scallops, and shrimp. "Sliders" arrive as dense, crispy-edged packages of fresh pork, marinated in a light chili sauce, cooked over an open flame, and sandwiched between buns. They're a great sidecar to an afternoon spent spent cruising through the Baja-focused craft beer options. Ingredients arrive daily from well within a 100-mile radius, and whole lamb or grilled pig is common on the weekends. Arrive early enough and you can watch the action unfold like an old Brazilian asadero operation, where split and skewered animals are roasted whole over open fire, held in place by simple iron crosses.
And don't forget to check out Vena Cava Winery, found on the same property. Their tasting room is carved into a small hillside, making it nearly invisible at first blush and keeping wines cool all day long. But the best part? The 'ceiling' of the tasting room is composed of upside-down fishing boats (another cultural nod, this time to the seagoing people of nearby Ensenada), with a few holes drilled in for light. The result is a spectacular dappling of muted light as you sip away at a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. In a valley filled with arid beauty, Vena Cava's tasting room wins for the most inventive use of the landscape.
Your Blowout Meal: Corazon de Tierra
Just a two minute walk through the vineyards, Corazon de Tierra is one of the Valle de Guadalupe's shining stars, where about $60 lands you a five-course tasting menu loaded with ingredients from local farms. Corazon's own dining room, a long wooden box capped with a wall of glass at one end, overlooks their simple but impressive garden, with rows of greens ready to be used on the evening's menu.
Like many other destinations in the Valle (see Las Nubes above), Corazon de Tierra is committed to working within the landscape, rather than fighting against the sun and sand. The entire building is done with an eco-modern sensibility, with a commitment to local food that extends from the garden to the walls to chef/co-owner Diego Hernandez's own cooking. His is what passes for tweezer food in the Valle, cheffy bites that change frequently but never lose focus or quality.
Hernandez and his team make their own olive oil and buy ingredients from within miles of the restaurant, plating up five-course tasting menus that could move effortlessly from a single grilled oyster to start through to a wide plate of marinated kampachi, before finishing with a perfect dollop of herbaceous handspun ice cream that finishes with a wafer-thin slip of crusted pastry dough.
Almost no conversation about Baja cuisine would be possible without the area's prodigal culinary son, Javier Plascencia. The Tijuana-based chef has long pushed the local fare to exciting new highs, drawing in curious diners to his many south of the border restaurants, including Misión 19 and Hotel Caesar's, where the Caesar salad is said to have originated.
Down in the Valle, Plascencia has put his stamp on the area's recent growth with Finca Altozana. Like many restaurants here, including Deckman's at El Mogor, the kitchen and dining areas are kept almost entirely outdoors, under a thin metal roof. Finca doesn't suffer for lack of seating, but reservations are hard to come b—Plascencia's asador campestre concept is among the most popular restaurants in the area.
All that closeness gives Finca a sense of fun. Chefs work the line in open view of the dining area, from prep stations to a large Santa Maria-style grill that smokes with endless meat options all night long. There's a raw bar to one side lit by a neon light, and empty wine bottles lined up side by side become makeshift pathways across the property. There are even a few intimate tables situated out under the stars, atop specially built barrels that provide a bit of elevation and offer unrivaled views down the barrel of the valley.
Plascencia's menu here bounces from traditional Mexican dishes like Birria de Chivo to thick New York steaks and even spaghetti, with plenty of ceviches and tostadas to show off Ensenada's seafood prowess. The most craveable dishes are the snackiest, little bites meant to be shared across the table. Order the thinly fried tacos de borrego, a Northern Mexico iteration of slow-cooked barbacoa wrapped in a bit of crunch. Or opt for the pulpo a la brasa, marinated chunks of octopus cooked over coal and delivered in a wash of its own marinade with a few roasted peanuts for texture.