A Few Days In

Hold the Tequila! In Valle de Guadalupe, It’s All About the Vino

by Carrie Molay
Vena It's a different wine scene in Valle de Guadalupe, as seen at Vena Cava winery. Photo courtesy of Vena Cava.

If you don't think of Mexico as a wine country, think again. In Valle de Guadalupe, one of the world's emerging wine districts, they're producing delicious and exotic varietals. The new Sonoma? It just might be.

VALLE DE GUADALUPE, Mexico – It's never too late to do your study abroad. I finally did mine — in my 40s — when I left my home in New York City for Mexico City two days before the new year to immerse myself in Spanish language study, museums, and Mexican cuisine for a few months.

Wherever I am, I like to eat and drink local. Regrettably, in Mexico I had to turn down many generous offerings of tequila and mezcal. (I never recovered from a bad experience with José Cuervo when I was 23.) I was, however, very happily surprised to taste so much delicious Mexican wine, mostly from Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California. So much so that I was determined to visit the area before I returned home.

Plants
The rugged and beautiful landscape. All photos by Carrie Molay.

The Scene

Mexico has been making wine in Valle de Guadalupe for hundreds of years. (I've read accounts that say since the 1500s and others since the 1700s.) There was a major resurgence in the early 1900s, and the region has developed considerably since, attracting world-class chefs and tourism.

If you've visited Napa and Sonoma in the past decade, you've noticed the increase in prices and crowds. It's an altogether different scene to the south. Want to try excellent wine that you'll rarely find in the United States? Drive two hours south of San Diego and you'll discover one of the world's most interesting and up-and-coming wine regions. Valle de Guadalupe is special and limited — most wineries do limited production runs and have very little distribution outside Mexico. The views are gorgeous, and the food, while not Michelin-level — yet — is as good as any I've eaten anywhere.

Lay of the Land

It's easy to drive across the U.S. border; nothing at all scary about it. Just be sure to have your passport. (I was told that a birth certificate and driver's license or other form of valid picture ID will work, too.) And be prepared to wait. I drove south on I-5 from San Diego and crossed the border at Tijuana, but I learned about a better and more scenic route: I-5S to CA-905 E to Tecate. We did it on our return trip north and had a quick and easy crossing.

If You Only Do One Thing

Drink three kinds of Mexican bubbly and eat everything at Conchas de Piedra. If you're driving a Tesla, they have a charging station.

Conchas de piedra
The author with a server at Conchas de Piedra.
Food and wine
Tostada

What to Do: Visit the Wineries

Valle de Guadalupe is beautiful: all rock and mountains, with gorgeous flowers and the vibe of the nearby Pacific Ocean. There are some 100 wineries in the Valle, many of which are only a few years old, with one our two harvests to date. It's nice to visit a mix of old and new. The loop that covers most of the valley can be driven in about an hour. But because many wineries are off the main road on bumpy, dirt drives, it's smart to plan for each visit to last between 45 minutes and an hour, and to plan no more than three to five wineries per day. There are companies that arrange tours if you prefer to go in a group. I don't. These are the ones I liked best.

Monte Xanic
One of the older and larger wineries in the Valle. A great orientation to the area and the scene.

Vena Cava
My first taste of Vena Cava was at Merotoro in Mexico City, where the wonderful Lalo poured me a glass of Naranja. Just a little skin contact, not too funky — I was hooked. I made a reservation for the last tasting on a Saturday afternoon. But it was a long drive from the main road and difficult to find, and I was more than half an hour late. In general in Mexico, people try to be helpful, and it was no different here: Despite being crowded and about to close, Alex welcomed and accommodated us. We tasted a flight of reds, and when I asked for Naranja, Alex broke my heart by telling me that their small production is only sold to restaurants. I pretended to sob, and he went searching for a bottle — to no avail, though I appreciated the effort. I bought their sparkling rose (excellent, dry, and delicious) and bottles of 100 percent tempranillo and 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. Blends are common in the Valle, so I was glad to find rare single varietals.

There are other charming touches at the winery. On weekends, Adobe Food Truck serves casual food at the center of an outdoor seating area near the parking lot. And the tasting room itself is special: Recycled materials and upside-down boats line the ceiling. At the end of the tasting when the room had emptied, Alex walked us to the door, asked us to turn around, and turned out the lights. We saw a constellation of starry lights overhead. Alex told us that the architects wanted to give visitors the feeling of being inside a boat, looking up at the night sky. They succeeded.

Tres Mujeres
At this collective of three female wine producers, you're likely to meet one of the owners as she pours your tasting. When I visited, I found two mezclas (blends) for sale and bought one of each. I'm only sorry that I couldn't eat at their restaurant El Pinar, led by another woman, chef Ismene Venegas. The restaurant gives the impression of arriving in someone's beautiful garden, a casual setting among flowers and trees.

Casa de Piedra
When I was in Mexico City, this was the producer that the Mexicans I knew pointed to as their favorite. They've been making elegant and delicious wine in the Valle since the 1990s at their reservation-only winery. When you go, continue up the hill for an incredible dining experience at Conchas de Piedra, where they pair everything with Casa de Piedra's espumosos. Plan accordingly: You'll want to eat more than one meal here.

Piojan
Pau Piojan himself poured our tasting and told us about the women — his wife, daughters, and sister — who inspired the wines named for them. I bought a bottle of 100 percent carignan and honey that was harvested on the property.

In addition to grapes, many of the wineries also raise bees and grow rosemary, lilac, olives, and produce, so look out for backyard local body products, olive oil, soap, honey, and jam.

The Other Sites

Ensenada, the Port Town
If you're tempted to visit the city of Ensenada, be prepared for a major atmospheric shift. The port city is super seedy, though less so as you travel away from the water. You'll see cruise ship travelers wandering the streets with their straw hats and branded shopping bags. You've been warned.

Mercado Negro
is a small fish market on a pier where you can eat fish tacos, cocktails, and other seafood specialties. My favorite place was a street-corner ceviche stand called La Guerrerense where I ate two delicious ceviche tostadas with the choice of about 20 salsas, from mild to super spicy, for a mere 20 pesos.

The outdoor kitchen at Deckman's.
The outdoor kitchen at Deckman's.
Tortillas flats cafe

Where to Eat

The food here is as good as any that I've eaten. Michelin will be knocking soon.

Deckman's
Everything is cooked outdoors at the elaborate wood-fired kitchen. You'll leave with a lingering aroma of hearth on your clothes. There are great options for all eaters. I'm pescatarian and had many choices: My favorite dish was ranch vegetables, while my dining companion enjoyed bone marrow.

Laha
Chef Jair Tellez, who was featured on Eater, has two restaurants in Mexico City and seems to be leading the natural wine entrance to the Mexican repertoire with his Bichi label.

Corazón de Tierra
An accommodating tasting menu that uses local and in-season ingredients and features wine from Vena Cava.

Conchas de Piedra
As mentioned above, the outdoor, daylight-only restaurant overlooking Casa de Piedra winery overseen by the Deckman's crew, serves elegantly prepared raw and fire-cooked, super-fresh seafood that's perfectly seasoned and sauced. Another charming touch: Everything is prepared in the outdoor kitchen. There are three choices of bubbly from Casa de Piedra — my favorite was blanc de blancs. You'll sit at one of a half a dozen raised, communal picnic tables and admire the view. And you'll definitely order more.

Tre Galline
When you crave something other than locavore or Mexican, their pastas are a good alternative — framed by one of the more beautiful and far-reaching views of the valley.

Tortilla Flats Café
Along Rte. 3 is a barrel-shaped spot recently opened by a husband-and-wife team who served me the best cup of stove-top espresso I have ever had, scrambled eggs, and fresh tortilla. A good place for a snack.

La Cocina de Doña Esthela
When we asked our waiter at Conchas de Piedra where to go for breakfast, he directed us to the locals' favorite spot. We drove up a long dirt road and kept going, even though we were pretty sure there could not possibly be a restaurant along the road. Eventually, we found it. Esthela proudly hung a sign boasting that she serves the "best breakfast in the world." I'm not so sure, but it was really tasty, especially the made-to-order tortillas and corn pancakes.

A Note about Reservations

Make dinner reservations in advance. Most restaurants close their kitchens by 10 p.m., even on Saturdays. That said, because Mexicans are very accommodating, they will always try to make room for you, so you can always take the chance of showing up. But they will appreciate the advance notice.

And About the Coffee...

My only food wish was for a really good coffee spot: I longed for a latte throughout my visit. So much so that one morning, we drove to Ensenada in search of Café Toya. It was an improvement, but not enough to make us want to go so far out of the way again the next morning. Calling all entrepreneurs ready to head south: Someone could make a great little weekend business out of a roadside espresso shop.

Where to Stay

There are no chain hotels in the Valle de Guadalupe. (Yet.) Of the luxurious, modern boutique hotels, Encuentro Guadaloupe has stunning views and individual, modern cabins hanging off the cliffs. La Villa del Valle is a pretty Tuscan-style country retreat by the Vena Cava group. Finca la Divina is a four-bedroom inn run by beloved local chef Javier Plascencia near his restaurant, Finca Altozano. Villas El Cielo is a lovely and modern option on the El Cielo winery. Hacienda Guadalupe is a nice midrange option.

Airbnb
We stayed at a modest, no-frills Airbnb in a vineyard that was quiet and inexpensive, but I don't recommend it. It was like being in a converted shed. Comings and goings were accompanied by several friendly, barking dogs. There are more expensive options, so book early for deals. And unless you search specifically for "Valle de Guadalupe, B.C. Mexico," you'll get listings for the Caribbean island Guadalupe. Many listings will be in the city of Ensenada, which is a 25+ minute drive from the wine loop and, as I mentioned, has a very different feel.


PLAN YOUR TRIP

How to Get Here
You can fly to San Diego (SAN) and rent a car and drive about two to two-and-a-half hours, depending on the border crossing. To skip the border crossing, fly to Tijuana (TIJ) and rent a car for the hour and a half drive.

Driving
You need a car. If you rent a car, you will need to add insurance, specific to driving to Mexico. Through Hertz, we paid an extra $38/day. You'll want to be in an SUV or a 4-wheel drive to have an easier passage into the vineyards. The main road is a two-lane paved highway, but the roads leading to most of the wineries are unpaved and bumpy.

Money Matters
Valle de Guadalupe is in Mexico, but many places accept dollars as well as pesos. Visa/Mastercard is accepted nearly everywhere, American Express less so.

Tipping in Mexico is personal and not required. That said, 15% is standard.

Essential Insider Intel
Many of the wineries are by appointment only, so do research ahead of time and write to the wineries. Thursday-Sunday visits are best as many restaurants and wineries are closed in the early part of the week.

La Ruta CC+ provides a great map of the area, plus a free app, and social media platforms to follow. All would have been helpful for pre-planning.

Cross the border in Tecate, not Tijuana.

Internet only works on one side of the highway, though the 3G and 4G were strong and my T-mobile global service worked well.

What to Pack
Walking shoes, a hat, and layers. Generally speaking, the Valle is pretty casual, even at the nicer restaurants at dinner.

When to Go
I visited in late March, when the nights were cold (40s) and the days beautiful and sunny (60s and 70s). A search of the annual weather in the neighborhood tells me that there's no really bad time to go. Autumn harvest would be especially nice.

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