The Mexican Wine Revolution
Cross the border from San Diego and you’re in Baja California, Mexico, home to a historic wine region that’s reinventing itself via boutique wines, top-flight restaurants and attractive lodging options.
One hundred years ago, Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata led the Mexican Revolution. Today, Mexico is going through a different sort of upheaval, a wine revolution in which small producers largely concentrated in Baja California’s Guadalupe Valley are charging ahead with the declaration, “Viva El Vino!”
The major force in this movement, the most significant evolution in Mexican wine since Spaniards first planted vineyards at the Santo Tomás Mission in 1791, has been Hugo D’Acosta. An internationally trained winemaker who came to Baja from mainland Mexico in the late 1980s to work at the large Santo Tomás winery, D’Acosta soon began to explore side projects in the Guadalupe Valley, including his family’s winery, Casa de Piedra.
Convinced that this rural valley was similar enough to California in terroir to produce excellent wines, D’Acosta started a wine school and custom crush facility in 2004 called La Escuelita, the “little school.” Since then, individuals who either trained at La Escuelita or worked with D’Acosta at Santo Tomás have started more than a dozen small wineries.
During my first visit to Baja wine country in March 2012, I came away impressed with the Guadalupe Valley’s look, vibe and spirit.
The valley, which starts about 12 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and runs in a northeast direction toward Tecate, features granite boulders covering much of the valley floor, a reminder that this land was once covered by the sea.
Meanwhile, hills—green in the winter and spring, but dry and brown during Baja’s scorching summers—form the valley’s boundaries.
In almost every way, it’s a textbook West Coast wine valley, with coastal influences that ensure cool nights even during the growing season’s hottest months.
The grapes being grown by top Baja producers, including Casa de Piedra, Viñas de Garza, Vinisterra, Rincón de Guadalupe, Hacienda La Lomita, Monte Xanic and Viñas Pijoan, are a mixed bag of varieties that can handle warm conditions. The region produces mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah, Zinfandel, Grenache, Cabernet Franc and Nebbiolo among reds; Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier among whites.
Alcohol levels can run high due to Baja’s warm environment, and occasionally the wines taste of saline because of the ocean-influenced ground water used for irrigation. Overall, however, Baja is on the right track and ranks as a North American wine region worthy of being discovered.
Going to Guadalupe
The Guadalupe Valley is the jewel of Baja wine country and is easily accessed from Southern California. In less than two hours by car from San Diego, you can stand in vineyards that supply grapes to more than 50 mostly small wineries.
These producers are intent on making authentic Mexican wines of quality, often in architecturally impressive wineries that blend seamlessly into Baja’s high-desert terrain.
Two decades ago, touring Baja’s wine route would have entailed visiting a large-scale winery like L.A. Cetto or Domecq, then driving back to Ensenada to drink Tequila and beer at Hussong’s Cantina, Baja’s oldest bar.
But today’s Baja wine route, which extends to the more southerly Santo Tomás and San Vicente valleys while revolving around the Guadalupe Valley and Ensenada, offers an eclectic mix of boutique wineries, respectable restaurants and upscale lodging. A recently opened modern wine museum, El Museo de la Vid y el Vino, educates visitors about Baja’s wine history.
Visitors will also find numerous hiking trails through boulder fields, deep-sea fishing out of Ensenada and even the valley’s own miniscule cheese factory, Rancho Cortés, which makes delicious queso fresco from cow’s milk.
The following are recommendations for where to stay, eat and taste in Baja wine country. Keep in mind that winery visits are generally by appointment.
La Villa del Valle is Eileen and Phil Gregory’s pristine six-room hilltop bed-and-breakfast in the dead center of the Guadalupe Valley. Beautifully appointed, it has excellent breakfasts and boasts gorgeous grounds with a pool.
Hacienda Guadalupe features panoramic views of the valley, 12 modern rooms each with its own balcony or terrace and a pool for taking in the sun.
Adobe Guadalupe is a working vineyard with 60 acres of vines. It’s the pioneer among upscale accommodations in the valley.
Dining and Drinking
Laja is the local name for the granite bedrock found throughout the Guadalupe Valley; it’s also one of the best restaurants in the valley, headed by Executive Chef Jair Téllez, also of MeroToro in Mexico City.
Corazón de Tierra is situated adjacent to La Villa del Valle and is co-owned by the hotel and Chef Diego Hernández. Modern Baja cuisine incorporating local ingredients is the fare.
Barra Azul and Ultramarino chef/owner Alain Genchi ensures that his Ensenada sister spots serve the freshest seafood, which is accompanied by the best local beers and top Baja wines.
Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada has been pouring drinks since 1892, making it the oldest continuously operating cantina in Mexico. Crowded, rowdy and a must for anyone seeking an authentic Baja experience.
Misión 19 in Tijuana is the most progressive restaurant in Baja. Chef Javier Plascencia specializes in modern cuisine based on traditional Mexican products and preparations.
Villa Ortega’s in the fishing village of Puerto Nuevo sits at the end of the town’s main road, with a view of the raging Pacific and a kitchen that turns out incredible pan-fried lobsters.
Guadalupe Valley Wineries
Monte Xanic, founded in 1987 by CEO Hans Backhoff and others, is the largest of the new crop of Baja wineries. It’s one of the few bodegas to have a public tasting room with regular hours.
Casa de Piedra was built in the late 1990s using reclaimed woods, rustic metals and plenty of stone, hence the name. It’s the original side project of Hugo D’Acosta, the leader of Baja’s boutique wine movement.
Tres Valles boasts a treehouse-like tasting room where owner/winemaker Joaquín Prieto pours powerful reds from the Guadalupe, Santo Tomás and San Vicente valleys.
Viñas de Garza was built from the ground up by Amado Garza, a tradesman and Ensenada hardware dealer turned winemaker, and his wife, Ana.
Hacienda La Lomita is one of the valley’s prettiest properties, with wines made by Reynaldo Rodríguez, who trained at Artadi in Rioja, Spain.
Vinisterra is where you can try Swiss-born winemaker Christoph Gaertner’s excellent Pedregal blend.
Viñas Pijoan is a small step up in size from a garage winery, with a tiny tasting room. But owner Pau Pijoan makes good wine and good conversation.
Vena Cava is run by Phil Gregory, a refugee from the Los Angeles music industry and the owner of the adjacent Villa del Valle hotel. The winery’s roof is constructed from two reclaimed fishing boats.
Wineries Outside of Guadalupe Valley
Bodegas de Santo Tómas is Mexico’s oldest winery and a must-visit spot for learning the region’s history and seeing a large operation in action.
Rincón de Guadalupe is located 90 minutes south of Ensenada, but the serenity and seclusion of the Felix family’s property make it worth the trek. It boasts the oldest Tempranillo vines in Mexico.
10 Top Baja Wines
92 Viñas de Garza 2007 Amado IV (Valle de Guadalupe).
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Zinfandel blended to excellence. Baja’s top red wine. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.5% Price: $54
91 Vinisterra 2007 Pedregal Syrah-Mourvedre (San Antonio de las Minas Valley).
A Syrah and Mourvèdre blend with deep, dark flavors, strong character and structure. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.8% Price: $45
90 Paralelo 2009 Hotel 5 Estrellas (Valle de Guadalupe).
Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot, Grenache and Cinsault are the five stars of this full-bodied blend.
abv: 14.7% Price: $40
90 Tres Valles 2010 Jalá (Valle de Guadalupe).
Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, not a match you often see, show power, warmth and clean fruit flavors. A value by Baja standards. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.5% Price: $17
89 Rincón de Guadalupe 2008 Tempranillo (San Vicente).
The head of the class among Baja’s varietal Tempranillos and a prime example of the region’s ability to do well with this Spanish grape.
abv: 13.3% Price: $36
88 Viñas Pijoan 2009 Doménica (Valle de Guadalupe).
A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan with a pleasant cherry character and mild Grenache-related heat.
abv: 13.7% Price: $22
88 Hacienda La Lomita 2009 Singular (Valle de Guadalupe).
Cabernet Franc is blended with 10% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Jammy, thick, meaty and densely flavored.
abv: 13% Price: $40
87 Monte Xanic 2011 Chenin Colombard (Valle de Guadalupe).
An unoaked, clean white for salads and seafood. A good wine to go with the classic Baja fish taco. Best Buy.
abv: 13.5% Price: $12
87 Möebius 2011 Endémico (Valle de Guadalupe).
Dry, unoaked Moscatel with aromas of lychee and melon, and similar flavors.
abv: 12.8% Price: $19
87 Casa de Piedra 2011 Piedra de Sol (Valle de Guadalupe).
Unoaked Chardonnay that’s nervy and fresh, with citrus flavors. Starts with an oily popcorn scent that stirs intrigue.
abv: 13.8% Price: $23
How to Buy Baja Wines in the United States
Until recently, Baja wines had little to no commercial presence in the United States because of the small production and low importer interest. However, all wines included in this article, as well as several others not mentioned, are now available through Bajawines, LLC, founded in 2010 by Roberto Tame and Marvin Nahmias. Armed with a nationally approved California 17/20 importer’s license, Bajawines sells direct to consumers and the trade, including restaurants, retailers and wholesalers.