What’s that, they make wine in Mexico? Indeed, they do—have for centuries—and not just sacramental wine and plonk. In the northern reaches of Baja California, along Route 3 in the Guadalupe Valley, the quality of wine has risen over the past two decades. Wineries here have teamed up with chefs and hoteliers to create Baja’s very own Ruta del Vino (wine route). Less than two hours from San Diego, the Valle de Guadalupe, anchored by the city of Ensenada, has moved past its Tequila-and-Tecate roots to ones based on the grape. Head south of the border for a wine-and-travel experience you won’t forget.
Where to Dine
At Corazón de Tierra, chef Diego Hernández’s cooking centers around myriad herbs, flowers, chilies and spices adorning Pacific Ocean seafood and meat dishes. Deckman’s en El Mogor is American chef Drew Deckman’s al fresco restaurant at Mogor-Badan winery, open June through October. Mexican-influenced haute cuisine, often paired with locally brewed Agua Mala beers, is Deckman’s specialty. At Laja, a pioneering restaurant open since 2001, executive chef Jair Téllez emphasizes Baja products, including borrego (lamb) and epazote (a fragrant herb).
Where to Stay
La Villa del Valle is a modern Tuscan-style B&B with six rooms, a nicely appointed public sitting space and yummy Mexican breakfasts. Endémico is an eco-hotel with 20 smartly designed, box-like rooms scattered across a hillside in the middle of the valley. It’s not posh, but it’s unique. Hotel Boutique, with 20 rooms, gardens and vineyard views, is a new entry to the valley’s burgeoning lodging scene, as is El Cielo, which seeks luxury status.
The Museum of Viticulture and Wine (El Museo de la Vid y el Vino) opened last year. It provides a historical look at winemaking in Baja, from 16th-century Spanish missionaries, the birth of commercial production in the 19th century and the movement sweeping the region today. The Rancho Cortes cheese factory is a tiny operation located near El Porvenir—the specialty is cow’s milk queso fresco.
La Guerrerense, in Ensenada, ranks as the Everest of seafood street carts. Wash down tostadas smothered in urchin, ceviches and fish tacos with a spiced beer cocktail known as a Michelada.
When to Go
Baja wine country is welcoming year-around, although Pacific storms can hit during winter. July and August are hot, with average highs above 100˚F.
Local in the Know
Roberto Tame, co-founder of wine importer Wines From Baja, says the fishing village of Puerto Nuevo (about 45 minutes up the coast from Ensenada) offers the best Pacific lobsters you’ll ever taste. “There are probably 30 restaurants in Puerto Nuevo, but I always go to Villa Ortega’s. The lobsters are pan-fried in lard, so the meat stays tender. They’re served with melted butter and come with beans, rice, chips, salsa and homemade flour tortillas.”
Where to Taste
The Guadalupe Valley’s wineries are mostly boutique operations with unreliable hours, so call ahead for appointments. Alximia just finished a four-year construction of its winery, which looks a lot like Eero Saarinen’s famous TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York. Top wines include Gaia (Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Syrah), Alma (Tempranillo and Zinfandel) and Helios (Grenache blanc de noirs). Hacienda La Lomita’s tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4 pm.
Come to taste an array of wines with the most creative labels in Baja. Viñas de Garza is one of the valley’s prettiest wineries, built from the ground up by owner Amado Garza. The plant life here is as impressive as blended wines like Colina Norte (Tempranillo, Carignan and Grenache) and Amado IV (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Zinfandel).
Irrigation is the lifeblood of the vines here, a basic tenet of desert agriculture. Just about all the world’s warm-climate grape varieties are grown, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec, Carignan and Grenache among red grapes. The wines tend to be full-bodied and high in alcohol, with lusty black-fruit flavors and an occasional blast of heat and/or saltiness derived from saline-rich water used for irrigation. Among white wines, look to early harvested, oak-free Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Viognier as best bets.