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About Carla White

Carla White is a freelance writer, public relations/marketing consultant and event organizer based in Ensenada, Baja, California. Carla and her husband Jim moved to Baja in 2003 from the Los Angeles area believing that, thanks to the internet and satellite communications, they could continue working from home while enjoying a richer, more affordable lifestyle. So far, they’ve been right. Connect with Carla Google+

Breakfast with Chef Flor Franco at Encuentro Guadalupe Antiresort™

encuentro3

 

Gazing out from the airy glass-walled dining room at hotel and winery Encuentro Guadalupe, it is difficult to believe that winter has ever arrived in Baja.  Sunshine is draped over Ensenada’s Valle de Guadalupe like a layer of chiffon, lending a soft golden cast to the wine country’s craggy hills and rambling vineyards.  The only tell-tale signs that this normally verdant valley is dormant are the vines, themselves: gnarly and naked, and waiting for spring.  In the meantime, all kinds of other things are blossoming and sprouting and they are all being harvested right now, for breakfast.  Today, the morning meal is being prepared by a host of great cooks led by the renowned Chef Flor Franco, owner of Indulge Contemporary Catering based in San Diego, California, and special events chef for Encuentro Guadalupe.

Chef Flor Franco (n green) teamed with Tina Luu (left), Kelly Funes, Marisela Magoni and Becky Kastelz.

From left to right: Tina Luu, Flor Franco, Kelly Funes, Marisela Magoni and Becky Kastelz.

Chef Franco is doing what she does best…using fresh, natural and regional ingredients to create deceptively simple and delicious plates.  From Mexican papaya to locally harvested seaweed, to home-made granola and even rich tamales, today’s breakfast offers a palate of flavors assembled with artisanal sensibility and served in an eco-friendly environment that encourages sustainability at all levels.

 

With its own organic garden, Encuentro Guadalupe has fresh ingredients, even in winter.

With its own organic garden, Encuentro Guadalupe has fresh ingredients, even in winter.

 

Assistant winemaker Alejandro Ceceña pitches in, bringing Chef Franco fresh-picked broccoli.

Assistant winemaker Alejandro Ceceña pitches in, bringing Chef Franco fresh-picked broccoli.

 

Encuentro Guadalupe’s unique accommodations, winery and wines, and its organic garden and restaurant (Orígen), are all part of a whole concept that blends function and aesthetics into an appealingly ‘eco-friendly’ package — a place where nature and culture merge.

 

Accommodations at Encuentro Guadalupe are called 'eco-lofts'.

Accommodations at Encuentro Guadalupe are called ‘eco-lofts’.

 

Chef Franco’s focus on ‘slow food’ is a natural fit with the Encuentro vision; as she creates her breakfast dishes, it is clear that she is preserving and highlighting the character of the region through her specific choices for menu items. Along with farm-fresh scrambled eggs, unique salsas, and a melon platter, here are just a few dishes that highlighted this special breakfast feast!

 

breakfast with flor5 granola

Home-made granola

Seaweed salad (perhaps the most popular dish of the morning!)

Seaweed salad (perhaps the most popular dish of the morning!)

 

Hand-made tamales, authentically smooth and rich.

Hand-made tamales came out of the pot steaming hot, and authentically smooth and rich.

 

Piquent pico de gallo gives a pop to scrambled eggs and toasted baguettes.

Piquant pico de gallo gives a pop to scrambled eggs and toasted baguettes.

truffles and cookies

Oaxacan chocolate, Meyer lemons, coconut…the perfect culimination to breakfast.

 

Encuentro Guadalupe is located at kilometer 75 on Highway 3, Tecate-Ensenada.  It is a remarkable place to stay, to dine, or simply to enjoy a glass of Encuentro wine and the spectacular view from the patio.  Dinner reservations and information:  +52 (646) 155-2775, or toll-free from the US, (800) 450-8701.

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula. We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotelsvacation rentals and activities, as well as guides, maps, complete event calendars and great stories about incredible travel destinations, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.  We also provide free personal travel consulting, planning and booking services in Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz, with prices that match or are below best advertised price. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.

 

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Perfect Pairings: Baja Wines and Your Holiday Meal

istock photo wine

Today, Baja wines come in all varietals and prices, making it easy to pair a special meal with the perfect vinos. Mexico’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe, has more than 70 wineries producing everything from sparkling wine to moscato. Here are just a few ideas for food and wine pairings to help make sure you have a vintage holiday feast. Buen provecho y salud!

Appetizers, anyone? 

Espuma de Piedra (sparkling wine) & Smoked Salmon Toast

casadepiedra2

 

 

 

Renowned winemaker Hugo D’Acosta, trained in Bordeaux, began Casa de Piedra winery some 16 years ago with an innovative vision for the future of Baja wines. Today, one of Casa de Piedra’s signature wines is Espuma de Piedra, according to Swiss enologist and head winemaker Thomas Egli. This sparkling Blanc de Blanc (the label of the bottle reads EP=bb) wine is composed of white grape varieties.

“The base wine was filled into the sparkling bottles where it underwent the classic second fermentation, traditional champagne method, including typical riddling by hand to get rid of the sediments, that are called ‘lees’,” said Egli. The wine remained in contact with the lees for 18 months.

According to Egli, the Espuma de Piedra features fine perlage (bubbles), fresh citrus flavors in the nose, with notes of baked bread (resulting from the contact with the lees), and is refreshing to the palate. Perfect for pairing with a smoked salmon toast appetizer.

smoked salmon toast 1

Smoked Salmon on Toast

Mix ½ teaspoon of creamed horseradish in with half of a small container of crème fraiche. Add a pinch of sea salt, fresh ground black pepper and some lemon juice. Using torta or ciabatta bread, cut into easily eatable slices and toast them, brushing first with olive oil to add moisture and softness. Top with smoked salmon, then the crème fraiche mixture, and then snip watercress, clover sprouts or a little basil on top.

Where to find Espuma de Piedra? La Contra Vinos stores (info@lacontravinos.com), Liverpool and La Europea stores. 

 

Salad:  An Easy Twist on Holiday Greens

Kuiiy Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay & Apple-Brie Spinach Salad

las nubes

 

 

From a distance, the windswept Las Nubes winery (winery of ‘the clouds’) looks like an exotic fortress clinging to a rocky hillside. Upon approach, the handcrafted stonework of this modern edifice is impressive, as is the expansive terrace that fronts the building and offers a magnificent vista of the Valle de Guadalupe. Adjacent to the winery is a man-made reservoir that was developed to provide sustainable water by catching rain run-off and moisture condensation – indeed, a green wine for a green salad!

Here at Las Nubes, winemaker and co-owner Victor Segura crafts his wines, including the popular Kuiiy (Kiliwa language, meaning ‘clouds’), 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Chardonnay. In the past, few white wines were produced in Mexico’s wine country, in part because the high salt and mineral content in the soil. However, in recent years, winemakers have been able to achieve successful results with Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes, among others. Segura’s Kuiiy is a great example of this, and with its dry, floral characteristics, it makes a good accompaniment to a holiday meal starting course.

Photo by Taste of Home

Photo by Taste of Home

Apple-Brie Spinach Salad

Cut four apples into wedges and place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush the apples with approximately 2 tablespoons of maple syrup. Broil for 3 minutes, watching to make sure they don’t burn, and then turn them. Brush with 2 more tablespoons of maple syrup. Broil 3-5 minutes more until the apple wedges are tender. Put 7-8 cups of baby spinach into the salad bowl, adding 8 ounces of cubed brie cheese (a firmer brie is preferred) and a half-cup of toasted pecan halves. For the dressing, bring to a boil the following mixture:  a minced garlic clove, ½ cup of apple juice, ¼ cup of canola oil, 2-4 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Pour this directly over the salad. (Recipe based on Taste of Home).

Where to find Kuiiy wine? At Las Nubes winery, located between the Bibayoff winery and El Porvenir in the Valle de Guadalupe. Also , at La Contra Vinos stores (info@lacontravinos.com), Ensenada Vinos, and 101 Bistro Bar. 

 

Entrée Extraordinaire #1

The Big Blend & Herb-Crusted Prime Rib of Beef

vena cava logo1

 

 

 

 

 

In the heart of Ensenada’s Valle de Guadalupe, on a lavender-laden knoll, is La Villa del Valle country retreat, owned by Eileen and Phil Gregory. Flanking this casually elegant inn is the Corazon de Tierra restaurant and its famous executive chef Diego Hernandez Boquedano. And just down the hill is Vena Cava winery – remarkable both for its beverages and for the fact that it is actually tucked under a fishing boat — where Gregory handcrafts his 10,000 bottles of wine each year.

In 2004, Gregory studied wine-making at La Escuelita, the ‘little school’ created by Mexico’s wine pioneer Hugo d’Acosta. The goal of the school is to help aspiring winemakers realize their dreams of hand-crafting some of Mexico’s finest wines and Gregory has taken his training and his passion to heart, surpassing even his own aspirations and expectations.

He originally planted 6.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier, followed by plantings of Tempranillo, along with Cinsault and Mourvèdre for blending. In his second year as a winemaker, he decided to experiment: a Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc were the popular results of his efforts.

Today, with about 7.5 acres planted, he produces Cabernet Sauvignon (100%), Tempranillo (100%), Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Reserva (Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah),  an outstanding sparkling wine, and the Big Blend. This last, composed of Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petit Syrah, and Grenache, features lots of layering and a big taste…a taste big enough to stand up to and even enhance the sensory strength of roast beef. In the world of food and wine pairings, this combination of beef and a big red wine is unbeatable.

 prime rib

Herb-crusted Prime Rib Roast

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. To properly prepare a 10-12 lb. rib roast, remove the excess fat (and save it). In a bowl, mix about a ½ cup of chopped Italian parsley leaves, ½ cup of chopped fresh rosemary, ¼ cup of chopped fresh thyme leaves, and ½ cup of chopped fresh tarragon. Blot the herbs first, to remove any excess dampness. Once mixed, add 2 tablespoons of salt (if you can find it, artisan basil salt is a good add) and 1 ½-2 tablespoons of fresh ground pepper. To this, add ¼ cup of vegetable oil and whisk. Once everything is integrated, apply the coating to all sides of the rib roast. Place the rib roast on its natural rack, and then apply the reserved fat on top. Roast until the internal temperature is 120 degrees Fahrenheit (for medium rare), about 2.5 hours. Let the meat rest for 15 minutes.

Where to find Vena Cava wines? At Vena Cava winery in the Valle de Guadalupe (info@venacavawine.com), Ensenada Vinos or through La Mision Associates. 

 

Entrée Extraordinaire #2

Julio 14 & Holiday Cornish Game Hens

 logo mina penelope

 

 

 

 

Veronica Santiago received her Master’s degree at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, after which she worked at a winery in the famous Australian Barossa wine valley and then the boutique Joseph Phelps winery in Napa Valley. Today, she is owner and winemaker at Viñedos Mina Penélope, working with viticulturist and enologist Nathan Malagon to create some of the best Baja wines. What a coincidence that both of these wine lovers were both born on July 14!

So was born the delicious Julio 14 blend, originally produced in the 2011 harvest.

“It is a blend of grapes — basically Syrah — from our vineyards and a small proportion of grapes from Ejido Uruapan. We do the harvest by hand, ferment the must (fresh pressed juice containing skin, seeds and stems) around 12 days with temperature control,” explained Santiago. “We check the wines every 5 hours during primary fermentation in order to check temperature, brix and to taste the wines.” She added that the must is pressed in a traditional basket press and the malolactic fermentation in French and American oak barrels.

“For all the winemaking, we only use organic wine products in order to make natural wine. We do light to medium extractions during primary fermentation in order to make elegant and balanced wines. The aging is in American and French barrels for 10 months.”

Julio 14 is a versatile wine, but with soft tannins, medium body and a nose that is redolent of cherries and raspberries, along with hints of mint and vanilla. It offers a brilliant complement to poultry. Perhaps some holiday Cornish game hens?

julio 14

Holiday Cornish Game Hens

For 6 Cornish game hens, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Chop roughly:  a fennel bulb, 3 carrots, 3 large onions, 3 stalks of celery and a root vegetable of your choice, and put them evenly on the bottom of the roasting pan(s). Also, cut two oranges into wedges, and place them in the pans. Use a dry rub or make your own – approximately 2 tablespoons of salt, 2 tablespoons of chili powder, a teaspoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of garam masala (or a teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of cloves and cumin). Rub the Cornish game hens with olive oil and then sprinkle the dry rub on them, also rubbing it into the cavity. Put a bit of onion and orange in the cavity, as well. Then place the hens on top of the vegetables (do not crowd the hens or they won’t cook correctly). The game hens cook about 45 minutes or until they are nicely browned. They should sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Where to find Julio 14 and Veronica Santiago’s wines? Viñedos Mina Penélope is located on the western edge of San Antonio de las Minas on Highway 3 Ensenada-Tecate. You can visit them on Facebook or  go to G. Salinas wine shop in Tijuana.

 

Dessert:  Sweet Endings

adobe guadalupe logo

 

 

 

Serafiel & Belgian Chocolate Souffle

The elegant Adobe Guadalupe is a working winery and bed-and-breakfast inn founded by Tru and the late Don Miller. With 60 acres of vineyards, Adobe Guadalupe has hosted some of the wine valley’s most elegant dinners and tastings, always featuring the winery’s outstanding vintages that are produced under the auspices of winemaker Daniel Lonnberg.

Serafiel is one of these, a blend of 78% Cabernet and 22% Syrah. With 12 months in French oak barrels, this wine has a dark ruby color and aromas of violet, black cherry and blackberry, with notes of spicy cinnamon, snuff and white chocolate, and hints of sweet oak and vanilla. It remains in the mouth offering a long aftertaste, making it a delightful partner for chocolate soufflé – but not just any chocolate!

C

Belgian Chocolate Soufflé

Using Belgian chocolate is essential. To make the soufflés for six, melt ¾ cup of butter and 8 ounces of Belgian chocolate in a double boiler. Mix 1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar and 3 tablespoons of cornstarch together, and whisk in with the melted chocolate mixture. Whisk in 4 whole eggs, until smooth. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Cook for 20 minutes in individual ramekins, coated with butter, then sugar, at 400 degrees.

Where to find Serafiel and Adobe Guadalupe’s wines? You can email them at info@adobeguadalupe.com. Also, at La Contra Vinos stores (info@lacontravinos.com) and Ensenada Vinos.

 

Savory Endings

Vintango or Madera 5 Nebbiolo & Gorgonzola, Honey & Walnut Crostini

Choices, choices! The Nebbiolo grape is originally from Italy, and it is considered one of the more finicky sorts, not adapting well to many environment. It is typically late-ripening but early flowering, prefers alkaline soil and needs plenty of love and attention. Fortunately for Mexico and the world of Baja wines, the grape vines have taken root in the Valle de Guadalupe, and the resulting wines have been true:  intensely aromatic, dark and rich in color, with haunting bouquets that can resonate with wood-smoke, violet and even roses. Two wineries producing notable Nebbiolo (100%) in Ensenada’s wine country are Vintango and Madera 5.

vintango logo

Vintango’s owner and winemaker is Jo Ann Knox Martino, whose wine cave opened in the early fall of 2013 in the El Porvenir area of the Valle de Guadalupe. Martino is a graduate of the afore-mentioned La Escuelita. Her first vintages focused on Zinfandel grapes, and just recently, she introduced a Chardonnay to her line of wines. However, it is the Nebbiolo that is, perhaps, the closest to her heart and Italian heritage.

madera 5 logoish

Madera 5, established by five friends in 2007, is located on Highway 3, Ensenada-Tecate, just about a mile from the intersection with Highway 1. The Madera 5 wines gained rapid popularity, starting with their 300 case production of a Merlot (20%) and Cabernet (80%) blend. Today, the winery features a Cabernet-Sangiovese, Tempranillo-Cabernet, a Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay, and Nebbiolo.

Gorgonzola, Honey & Walnut Crostini

Easy, fast and flavorful! Slice a baguette into pieces about ¼”, brush each piece with olive oil and grill each side for about 30 seconds. Top each piece with Gorgonzola cheese (an Italian blue cheese), small walnut pieces, and drizzle with honey. If desired, garnish with a sprig of oregano. Accompany with a cluster of Nebbiolo grapes!

Where to find Vintango? Visit Cava Vintango on Facebook, or email cavavintango@gmail.com. 

Where to find Madera 5? Email ventas@cavaaragon126.com.mx, or visit Wines from Baja.

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula. We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotelsvacation rentals and activities, as well as guides, maps, complete event calendars and great stories about incredible travel destinations, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.  We also provide free personal travel consulting, planning and booking services in Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz, with prices that match or are below best advertised price. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.

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Friends Visit Ensenada for the Weekend: What to do?!

Friends Visit Ensenada for the Weekend: What to do?!

Finally, friends and family are coming to Baja California. True, there’s still that pesky cross-back into the United States at the end of an idyllic weekend, but at least other worries seem to have evaporated as quickly as a margarita on a hot day. In our excitement to welcome pals who have chosen to visit Ensenada for the weekend, we painstakingly put together a plan of attack, and attack we did! Check it out.

Welcome to Ensenada!

Welcome to Ensenada!

Friday afternoon and evening:  They arrived at San Diego international airport at around noon. We decided to give them a full loop tour of our northwestern part of Baja – entering the state through Tecate (‘gateway to Mexico’s Wine Country’), which offers a more scenic drive, and returning them to the U.S. on Monday, through Tijuana.

We drove east on Interstate 8 and eventually cut down to state route 94 that travels through Dulzura and some beautiful hill scenery, crossing the border into Tecate (a very fast process). Tecate, founded in 1892, is one of the pueblos magicos (magical towns) of Mexico thanks to its history, culture and charm, much of which is found on the main zocalo. This is a great spot to sit at a sidewalk café, beer in hand (guess which one), watching ice-cream vendors, shoe-shine people and domino players, before scouting out the town.

Visiting Ensenada for the weekend can mean a trip to beautiful Tecate.

Weekend visits to Ensenada can also involve side-trips to beautiful Tecate.

Continuing on Highway 3, Tecate-Ensenada, we headed south on the snaky but scenic road that brought us to the famous wine region, Valle de Guadalupe, where 90% of the nation’s wines are produced. It took us about 75 minutes to make this part of the trek.

Coming from this direction, Encuentro Guadalupe (and its hotel Endemico) is one of the first stops, on the right hand side of the road. With a panoramic vista of the valley, this is an ideal stopping spot for a copa de vino. 

Coming from Tecate, Encuentro is a great place to get a view of the wine valley.

Coming from Tecate, Encuentro is a great place to get a view of the wine valley.

A bit further on at kilometer 85.5 is Mogor Badan winery and Deckman’s El Mogor. There are many really good choices these days for eating in the Ensenada area, but we knew that Deckman’s, with its al fresco kitchen and dining, is unique and consistently good. It impressed our friends hugely and set the tone for a weekend to remember.

We headed home on Highway 3 west to Highway 1 towards Tijuana. Our goal was to stun our buddies with the dramatic rocky Ensenada coastline at sunset. It worked. They were also curious about the strange rings floating far below in the Pacific Ocean which are actually holding pens for tuna that are caught further out and brought to protected coves until they are harvested. But that was explained later as we sat on our back porch in the oceanfront community of Bajamar, listening to the distant sound of sea lions barking, and sipping a local wine.

Bajamar golf course is dramatic, on a peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean.

Bajamar golf course enjoys a dramatic setting overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Saturday morning: First, an early morning walk around Bajamar’s 27-hole golf course. One never knows what one will see in the a.m., with everything from bobcats to mountain lions to skunks traversing the open fairways. The stroll to the ocean bluffs allowed us to show off the recent archeological dig that has uncovered remnants of a prehistoric fishing camp. There have been several such digs on the huge peninsula that comprises Bajamar, one of which unearthed skeletal remains of indigenous people and an ancient whale skeleton.

Over-extending my plans, as usual, I had promised my friend Jo Ann Knox Martino that we would come out for a quick late morning trip to her brand new winery, Vintago, located against the hills of the Valle de Guadalupe near Baron Balche winery. We got there just as she unloaded a number of cases of her newest vintage, a Chardonnay. We didn’t get to taste that one, but a glass of Zinfandel-Nebbiolo was good consolation – and everyone forgave me for cramming so much into so little time!

Shopping for Day of the Dead art?  Ensenada's Lopez Mateos Blvd. is the place.

Shopping for Day of the Dead art? Ensenada’s Lopez Mateos Blvd. is the place.

Saturday afternoon: No trip to Ensenada is complete without a jaunt into town to walk along Lopez Mateos. This is the main shopping district and the diversity of goodies to be acquired in the little shops and tiendas lining the street is amazing: silver, purses, cotton clothing, Day of the Dead mementos, Talavera-style ceramic-ware, leather jackets and belts, and much more. Favorite stores include Bazaar Casa Ramirez, Los Castillos, Mario’s, Mexican Arts and Fausto Polanco. Of course, there are always detours…and Hussong’s Cantina is a must-do.

Speaking of must-do’s – we needed lunch. Our favorite on-the-dock spot in Ensenada is Muelle Tres restaurant. To me, going to this little eatery is like being in Marseilles, France. It is unpretentious, bright and clean.  The view out over the harbor is like an ever-changing diorama of little kids and grandparents, burly fishermen with bass and lingcod thrown over their shoulders, squawking seagulls, and colorful fishing boats. Over mussels and French fries, and giant bowls of house ceviche, we plotted our next move.

When visiting Ensenada, check out classical guitarist (here accompanied by fiddler Alex DePue).

When visiting Ensenada, check out classical guitarist Miguel de Hoyos (here accompanied by fiddler Alex DePue).

Saturday evening: Heading north back up the coast, at kilometer 58 we stopped at La Mision Hotel. On many Friday and Saturday nights, this is the place to hear some of the best music in all of Baja. The draw is not the hotel but Miguel de Hoyos, whose legendary classical guitar renditions of everything from rock to flamenco routinely bring patrons to their feet. After a few margaritas there, we drove the 10 minutes back south to our house; our friends were firmly ensnared in Baja’s web of magic and anticipating another day of their adventure.

Sunday morning: A favorite past-time is ‘the art walk’. We call it this, but it is really a leisurely amble up the coast towards Rosarito, pausing at galleries and curio stores on the way. Sometimes, we stop at Puerto Nuevo for early lunch – after all, it is the famous lobster village. But this day, we just went on to Popotla, a neighborhood and also a boulevard that runs from Calafia all the way up to Rosarito.

Popotla Blvd. is the 'art walk' and here at Polo Valencia's gallery is the place to find fine art.

Popotla Blvd. is the ‘art walk’ and here at Polo Valencia’s gallery is the place to find fine art.

An interior designer’s dream, Popotla Boulevard is lined with shops and even small factories creating everything to bring beauty to a home. There are several granite/travertine/marble outlets where slabs of materials and gorgeous bathroom and kitchen pieces are on display. Fine art galleries abound, including Galeria Klein and the Polo Valencia gallery. (Next door to Polo’s is the workshop of a man who makes spectacular mirrors and crucifixes). Iron work can be seen everywhere – even some sculptures that rise high into the air – and pieces can be commissioned. There are numerous woodworking shops, including that of David Martinez and the famous Casa de Carretera. And of course, ceramics. A favorite outlet for plates, glassware, candles and other items is Alex Curios.

In Rosarito, at Baja Gallery, work by artist Esau Andrade can be discovered.

In Rosarito, at Baja Gallery, work by artist Esau Andrade can be discovered.

At the Rosarito Beach Hotel, there are a number of small stores selling mementos and art, including the Baja Gallery run by Benito Aguilar. It is an eclectic collection, including everything from pieces by Robert Pace Kidd, an artist with a Western flair, to fantastical works by Esau Andrade.

Sunday afternoon and evening:  Tooling back south on Popotla Blvd. with goodies in hand, we opted for a stop at Ollie’s Pizza, kilometer 40.5. Ollie is actually a Belgian waterdog who greets customers upon their arrival. His owner, Richard Cargill, is the bloke who has cleverly created gourmet wood-fired pizzas and tasty little caprese and radish salads that attract a steady clientele even in off months. So does the “chocolate pizza,” so save room!

Ollie's Pizza, named after its host (a Belgian waterdog) offers gourmet fare.

Ollie’s Pizza is named after its host, a Belgian waterdog.

We made it to Splash! just in time to see the sun dip below the horizon (no ‘green flash’ that night, but we have seen it there before) and have an end-of-the-day Cadillac margarita (the only way to go). Splash! has become the expats ‘go-to’ spot, with evening music and unbeatable views—sort of the iconic Baja taco restaurant, where everyone knows your name.

Packed with food and drink,  we chilled out at home and planned our morning escape.

Monday morning:  Yes, crossing back into the US can be a challenge for those who visit Ensenada or anywhere in Baja Norte. For those of us with SENTRI cards (approved by the Department of Homeland Security), it’s usually quick and easy.  Travelers who have a radio frequency identification or RFID- enabled travel document can use the Ready Lane to expedite the inspection process while crossing the border. But, there is also the old-fashioned way. Sitting in line, passport in hand, and waiting. We usually recommend that our friends plan on crossing the border at around 9:30-10 a.m., but there are no guarantees. Any time of the day or night can be problematic.

Waiting in line at the border offers lots of opps for shopping!

Waiting in line at the border offers lots of opps for shopping!

We decided to go with tradition, waiting in the main line, and doing a little in-car shopping from the vendors who hawk their goods to people waiting in ‘la linea’ — everything from coffee drinks, to piñatas, Virgins of Guadalupe and even bobble-heads.  True, it was a 90 minute wait…but then we just spent more than 48 hours having a blast.

That’s what we did when friends visited Ensenada for the weekend…boring, huh?

 

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula. We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotelsvacation rentals and activities, as well as guides, maps, complete event calendars and great stories about incredible travel destinations, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.  We also provide free personal travel consulting, planning and booking services in Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz, with prices that match or are below best advertised price. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.

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A Tour of Mexico’s Wine Country: Baja Wineries are Worth the Visit

Mexico’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, is little more than an hour south of the US border and slightly northeast of the city of Ensenada.  It is a great day-trip.  Even better, it is a wonderful getaway for several days – and each of those days will be chock-full of wine valley adventures, gourmet food, award-winning wines and unforgettable memories.

Mexico's wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe.

Mexico’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe.

The Valle de Guadalupe has a rich history (and what many believe will be an even richer future), as chronicled by author David Kier.  Change, though, has been a hallmark of the region – of Baja, itself – and it is embraced whole-heartedly by the locals.  ‘Why not?’, say many, as they smile in acknowledgement of the prosperity that change is bringing to the Valle.

The region is rapidly becoming world-famous for its gastronomy:  Wines that run the gamut from Tempranillo to Colombard at wineries ranging from charming-rustic to sophisticated-sleek, and restaurants that bring new meaning to the words ‘from farm to table’, with everything from food trucks to Provencal simplicity to high-powered eateries run by famous chefs.

Ten years ago, there were fewer than 10 wineries in this coastal valley, where warm days and cool nights are reminiscent of the Napa region.  Today, estimates vary; but the Provino organization that represents many of the area’s wineries (and that sponsors the internationally renowned Fiestas de la Vendimia wine harvest festival in August of each year) notes that there are at least 80 wineries and cavas producing everything from rich Tempranillos to crisp Sauvignon Blancs (and there is at least one world-class sparkling wine to be had and Baja.com knows where!).

wine and bottle

Looking for information and recommendations? Your first stop might be scheduling a fantastic wine tour with Baja.com and its Provecho wine tours.   Whether you are going to the wine country for a night or two, or a week, your Baja.com travel concierge can make your journey easy and fun and can arrange for safe transportation with a knowledgeable and English-speaking tour guide (seriously, why drive when you are wine tasting?)

Following are just a few of the notable wineries in Mexico’s wine country.  Starting from the western end of the Valle de Guadalupe, on Highway 3 Ensenada-Tecate, the first town you will come to is called San Antonio de las Minas.  Let the fun – and the wine-tasting – begin here!

 “Wine is sunlightheld together by water.” – Galileo Galilei, 1564-1642

Vinisterra winery in San Antonio de las Minas

Vinisterra winery in San Antonio de las Minas

Vinisterra Winery

Owner:  Guillermo Rodriguez Macouzet

Winemaker:  Cristoph Gaertner

Winery established:  2002

Vinisterra is in the little burg of San Antonio de las Minas, over a little bridge and up a small hill (passing the turn-off for La Hacienda restaurant, that is actually both a nursery and a fun weekend dining spot).  The winery is modern and beautiful and there is plenty of parking.  The building itself is constructed of thermal insulating materials, and is semi-buried in order to maintain temperature control.  The warm-looking brick that has been used in the creation of the tasting area was actually produced in San Antonio de las Minas.  The award-winning wines of Vinisterra have been nurtured by well-known winemaker Cristoph, who strives to achieve a full expression of the grape’s origin by intervening with the natural processes as little as possible.  The resulting wines are redolent and rich reminders of Baja and its natural bounties!

Paella-1-Liceaga-barrel

Liceaga (Viñas de Liceaga)

Founder:  Eduardo Liceaga

Owner:  Myrna Liceaga

Winery Established:  1993

Just a few years ago, you could visit Liceaga – then a small room with barely a table to taste upon – and you were almost always served wine by Senor Eduardo Liceaga, himself.  What an affable man, and his passing was a sad loss to the wine country and to the Liceaga family. But, carrying his legacy forward, his wife Myrna has taken what Senor Liceaga began and has created a spectacular tasting room where visitors can sample the reds, and even an Aqua de Vid, produced by this outstanding winery.  In August during the harvest festival, Liceaga is noted for its family style event hosted under the huge oak trees that flank the winery and in 2012 and 2013 played host the famous paella festival.

Phil Gregory and his signature Vena Cava blend.

Phil Gregory and his signature Vena Cava blend.

Vena Cava

Owner/winemaker:  Phil Gregory

Winery Established:  2012

Vena Cava is Phil Gregory’s proprietary label and also the name of his avant-garde wine cave that is located on the grounds of the La Villa del Valle country retreat that Gregory and his wife Eileen started in 2005.    The inn is perched on a hill in the heart of the wine valley, with 360 degree views of hills and vineyards.  It’s flanked by its own vines, as well as organic vegetable and herb gardens that support Corazon de Tierra restaurant (a 2011 addition to the La Villa del Valle compound). And now, there is another feature to the retreat’s landscape:  As one drives up the long road towards the hotel, it takes a second to absorb the fact that there are upturned fishing boats partially submerged in earth among the grapevines, fronted by a man-made ‘lake’. Who would guess that these land-bound vessels would harbor 3,200 square feet, most of it subterranean, of a sophisticated facility for making, aging, storing and –most important – tasting wine?  Gregory’s wines have received international acclaim and, in fact, were featured at the 2012 G20 global summit in Cabo San Lucas.

Las Nubes winery has a spectacular view of the wine country.

Las Nubes winery has a spectacular view of the wine country.

Las Nubes Winery

Co-owner/winemaker:  Victor Segura

Winery established:  2008

Perched on a hill on the north side of the Valle de Guadalupe is the ethereal and airy Las Nubes winery.  The name means ‘the clouds’ and the beautiful modern building does, indeed, have a rather lofty view of the amazing wine valley below. Currently, Las Nubes — which encompasses 30 hectares of land devoted to the production of grapes and Manzanilla olives — produces seven varietals, including what Victor Segura calls the ‘happy girl’ wine Cumulus (Grenache, Carignan and Tempranillo), Nimbus (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and just a bit of Tempranillo),  Nebbiolo (all Nebbiolo), and the reserves — Selección de Barricas (Carignan, Grenache, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon) and Coleccion de Parcelas (Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo).  Says Victor, “Everything about Las Nubes is about respecting the land, respecting the view and respecting the foods.”

Adobe Guadalupe wines

Adobe Guadalupe wines

Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards & Inn

Owners:  Don and Tru Miller

Winemaker:  Daniel Lonneberg

Winery established:  1998

A working winery, bed and breakfast, and restaurant, Adobe Guadalupe is recognized as one of the original players in what is seen as the ‘new age’ of Mexican wines.  With approximately 60 acres of vineyards where Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Shiraz and some Viognier are grown, the vinicola (winery) has garnered numerous awards and helped heighten the overall stature of Mexico’s wine industry.  In fact, Adobe Guadalupe and its owners have been instrumental in propelling the Valle de Guadalupe into the international spotlight as a region of high gastronomy, gracious hostelry and as a destination for visitors from throughout the world. Mexico’s wine country is trending, in a very big way.

This is one of the wine country’s premier wineries, and spending time here is a treat.  Stay if you can, or at least come for a delicious, farm-fresh meal and wine-tasting!

Barrel tasting Jo Ann Knox Martino's wine.

Barrel tasting Jo Ann Knox Martino’s wine.

A few more notable wineries to visit and enjoy:  Vintango, Jo Ann Knox Martino’s new wine cave that features her rich Nebbiolos, Zins and a Chardonnay; Mogor Badan, that is also home to chef Drew Deckman’s El Mogor restaurant under the pine trees;  Hugo D’Acosta’s Casa de Piedra that is visited by appointment only;  Villa Montefiori owned by Paolo Paoloni, with an array of Italian varietals;  Madera 5, the first winery you will come to on Highway 3 Ensenada-Tecate off the toll road; Dona Lupe near the LA Cetto winery, where you will enjoy homemade olives and salsas; Torres Alegre with its forward-thinking winemaking techniques, and, for a special treat, visit La Escuelita (the little wine school), where many of the valley’s winemakers got their starts.

Other wineries to visit include Madera 5.

Other wineries to visit include Madera 5.

With more than 80 wineries and now more than 20 eateries in the Valle de Guadalupe, the best way to get around Mexico’s Wine Country is under the wing of a knowledgeable tour guide.  The Provecho tour provides turn-key coordination of accommodations, tours and even dining.  Contact us

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula. We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotelsvacation rentals and activities, as well as guides, maps, complete event calendars and great stories about incredible travel destinations, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.  We also provide free personal travel consulting, planning and booking services in Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz, with prices that match or are below best advertised price. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.

 

 

 

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Everyone Wins at Provino’s Wine Country Paella Festival

As writer Tom Gatch notes in his recent Baja.com story, the annual Paella Festival — August’s most popular event in the wine country near Ensenada — is a perfect cap to the Vendimia that celebrates the grape harvest.  This year’s event, organized by Provino, was arguably the best planned and most well-attended ever, with more than 5,000 people coming to Viñas de Liceaga to enjoy wines, paellas and an afternoon and evening of musical entertainment provided by  Ruta 69, La Choya and Orquesta La Farándula.

Provino organized the 2013 paella festival in Baja's wine region.

Provino organized the 2013 paella festival in Baja’s wine region.

As writer Tom Gatch notes in his recent Baja.com story, the annual Paella Festival — August’s most popular event in the wine country near Ensenada — is a perfect cap to the Vendimia that celebrates the grape harvest.  This year’s event, organized by Provino, was arguably the best planned and most well-attended ever, with more than 5,000 people coming to Viñas de Liceaga to enjoy wines, paellas and an afternoon and evening of musical entertainment provided by  Ruta 69, La Choya and Orquesta La Farándula.

Fifty of the region’s wineries had booths there, and tastings of more than 100 wines were offered.  But the stars of the day were definitely the paellas:  Eighty-seven teams were entered in the paella contest and the enticing aromas of saffron, sausage and roasting langostas scented the fresh country air for hours on end.  It is hard to decide who the real winners were (because, of course, the attendees and tasters were the real winners); but at the end of the day, the winners of the competition were declared and the grand prize (which is really all about the glory and bragging rights for the whole next year) was awareded.

 QUALITY CATEGORY

First Place:  Team “Este arroz ya se coció” (roughly translates to ‘this rice is already cooked’).  The prize was a box with 6 bottles of wine from the Provino members, commemorative aprons for every member of the paella team and a certificate for 16 tickets for the 2014 Paella Contest.

Second Place:  Team “Un Delicioso Algoritmo” (A Delicious Algorithm)

Third Place:  Los Venancios

Fourth Place: Samurai

Fifth Place:  La Alahambra

 

BEST PRESENTATION

First Place:  Santa Eugenia de Riveira

Second Place:  Amigos de Asao

Third Place:  Los Constructores (The Builders)

Fourth Place:  Casa España Olè

Fifth Place: Los Caprichos de Olivarera

Best booth decoration:  Los Amigos de Don Alex

This year, Baja.com was extremely proud to work with Provino on Fiestas de la Vendimia, and congratulates the organization on another successful month leading into the harvesting of the grape bounty that is so apparent in Mexico’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe.  Start planning now for August 2014 — there is no better time than Vendimia to plan a visit to Baja California!

 

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula. We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotelsvacation rentals and activities, as well as guides, maps, complete event calendars and great stories about incredible travel destinations, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.  We also provide free personal travel consulting, planning and booking services in Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz, with prices that match or are below best advertised price. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.

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Tre Galline Brings Authentic Northern Italian Cuisine to Baja’s Wine Country

Tre Galline Brings Authentic Northern Italian Cuisine to Baja’s Wine Country

To me, memories of Italy include hot summer breezes tinged with the herbal scents of rosemary and basil; the savory aroma of fresh-baked pizza and pasta, and afternoon hours enjoyed over crisp white or fruity red wines.  I relived these memories with my friend Jo Ann Knox just the other day at Angelo Dal Bon’s Tre Galline restaurant in Baja California’s wine country, near Ensenada, feeling for all the world like I was on a hillside in Italy, enjoying the delicious bounties of a rich and wondrous land.

Tre Galline (Three Chickens) restaurant in Mexico's wine country

Tre Galline (Three Chickens) restaurant in Mexico’s wine country

Tre Galline, which will be open until early fall, shares a vineyard-blanketed hillside with Villa Montefiori, one of Baja’s famed wineries that produces an array of Italian varietal wines — perfect for pairing with the fine northern Italian cuisine of restaurant/owner/executive chef Angelo Dal Bon.

Paolo Paoloni, owner of Villa Montefiori winery, and  Angelo Dal Bon, Tre Galline's owner and executive chef.

Paolo Paoloni, owner of Villa Montefiori winery, and Angelo Dal Bon, Tre Galline’s owner and executive chef.

And pair, we did.  We began our feast with foccacio dipped in Montefiori olive oil and a velvety balsamic vinegar.   As we munched, we had the pleasure of chatting with Chef Angelo and his wife and restaurant co-owner Magda Valpiana, and meeting Villa Montefiori’s owner, Paolo Paoloni.  All are from Italy, and Chef Angelo is delighted to bring his northern Italian heritage — the Lake Garda district, between Venice and Milan — to work in concert with the Paolini family wines.

A variety of focaccia breads began our Tre Galline feast.

A variety of focaccia breads began our Tre Galline feast.

Soon, we progressed to an herb-fresh salad with off-the-vine cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced cucumber.  It was the perfect way to cleanse our palates and prep for the awesome tempura-fried squash blossoms stuffed with delicate cheese that came next.

tre galline salad

squash blossoms at tre galline

Tempura squash blossoms

By now, the late afternoon breezes in the Valle de Guadalupe were making the painted chicken whirlygigs spin like mad, and the valley was beginning to take on a golden glow.  As were we, thanks to the generous pours of wine we had enjoyed.  I do not believe it was this sense of satisfied well-being nor the vigorous wind that sent me head-over-heels in  love with the next dish:  Chef Angelo’s signature tortellinis.  Now, I confess, I was so teary-eyed-in-love with these little gems that I didn’t quite catch everything involved in their creation, but what I can tell you is that the pasta was so light and delicate, and the cheese fillings so pleasantly savory, that I think it would be fair to say it is the best pasta dish I have ever tasted!

Tre Galline offers a tortellini to die for...

Tre Galline offers a tortellini to die for…

Wish it were that I could say we stopped eating…and drinking.  But our taste buds were pretty much doing the ‘Mambo Italiano’ at this point, and it was not until much later, after the succulent seared sea bass — that we toasted our last toast, drank a strong coffee and ate our final flan — well, panna cotta, to be exact.  And, most likely to the staff’s great relief, we were able to stand up and make our ways home.

Panna Cotta at Tre Galline

Panna Cotta at Tre Galline

The good news is that it doesn’t matter if you are visiting northern or southern Baja:  Tre Galline is in the Valle de Guadalupe — on the north side (the free road), west of Las Nubes, at Villa Montefiori winery — for the rest of this summer and into fall seven days-a-week (noon until 9 p.m.), and it is always in Todos Santos, in Baja Sur.  And the really good news is that Angelo and Magda are, in the hospitable Italian way, ready to welcome you with open arms.  Best to make reservations, by emailing angelodalbon@gmail.com or by contacting them at (612) 119-9718 or (612) 145-0274.

 tre galline at monte fiore

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula. We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotelsvacation rentals and activities, as well as guides, maps, complete event calendars and great stories about incredible travel destinations, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.  We also provide free personal travel consulting, planning and booking services in Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz, with prices that match or are below best advertised price. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.

 

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The Return of Drew Deckman Brings Summer Pleasure at El Mogor

The Return of Drew Deckman Brings Summer Pleasure at El Mogor

Drew Deckman's El Mogor takes al fresco dining to the vineyards.

Drew Deckman’s El Mogor takes al fresco dining to the vineyards.

In summer, 2012, I visited Chef Drew Deckman’s wine country restaurant, Deckman’s en El Mogor, for my birthday.  I just did again…this time, to celebrate (a few days in advance) a REALLY BIG birthday.  The pain of that was diminished by the idyllic afternoon I, my husband and a friend spent under the rustling pine trees at winery and organic ranch Mogor Badan, home to El Mogor.  Here, under the attentive eyes of the chef, himself, and waiter Emiliano, we all agreed:  The return of Drew Deckman to the Valle de Guadalupe is truly one of the pleasures of summer in Baja.

Chef Drew Deckman in his outdoor kitchen in the Valle de Guadalupe.

Chef Drew Deckman in his outdoor kitchen in the Valle de Guadalupe.

The al fresco experience at El Mogor begins the moment you enter the stone gates at kilometer 85.5 on the Ensenada-Tecate Highway 3.  With blond cattle on the left – calves suckling at their tranquil moms’ underbellies – and emerald green vines on the right, the stage is set for a one-on-one experience with nature. After parking and ambling past lush bougainvillea and oleander up to the pine-shaded restaurant area, you are seated at a table fresh with white linen, sparkling wine glasses and bright flowers.  Soon, you sip jamaica (hibiscus) water with a little strawberry slice, and watching as a cool, white Chasselas wine – in my case, the first of several — is poured into your glass.

A glass of Chasselas wine from Mogor Badan, and local cheeses.

A glass of Chasselas wine from Mogor Badan, and local cheeses.

Drew Deckman, an accomplished Michelin Star-awarded chef originally from Peachtree, Georgia, and chef/owner of Deckman’s San Jose in Baja Sur, is definitely no slouch as a host.  He welcomes every guest personally…and then, as the main guru of the wood-fire grills that are constantly performing in his open-air kitchen, he returns to begin his culinary wizardry.  He quite literally uses farm-fresh ingredients, many from the now-famous Mogor Badan organic farm run by Natalia Badan, as well as from local purveyors.

Our dining program began with a platter featuring cheeses from Rancho Cortes and Ramonetti – two producers part of Baja’s ‘Cheese Route’ and whose production facilities I highly recommend you visit.  After an Ensalada de Pescado (fish salad) presented on a banana leaf, my taste buds were absolutely tantalized by Chef Drew’s Oysters Mignonette.  Served on the half-shell, these bivalves from the Guerrero Negro region of Baja achieved flavors that I, for one, have never tasted before through the use of pink peppercorns, shallot and apple vinegar.

Oysters Mignonette are piquant with pink peppercorns.

Oysters Mignonette are piquant with pink peppercorns.

Marinated Callos (scallops) with cherry tomatoes and herbs were followed by a refreshing Gazpacho shooter with tomato, mint and basil…a good entre to another seafood plate, Grilled Octopus, that was as visually delightful as it was delicious.

Grilled Pulpo (octopus) salad at El Mogor.

Grilled Pulpo (octopus) salad at El Mogor.

A table favorite was the grilled Cordoniz (quail), with black beans.  And then, believe it or not, the main courses.  Each of us tried a different grilled dish – lamb, beef, and tuna — testing Chef Drew’s multi-tasking grilling abilities on the red oak wood fire.   It was somewhere during this period, as we purred over our food, that my husband enthused, “He is pretty amazing with the grill…everything has a perfect grilled flavor and the process itself seems to actually enhance the flavor profiles of each item.”

Tuna and organic vegetables grilled by Chef Drew Deckman.

Tuna and organic vegetables grilled by Chef Drew Deckman.

I was pretty full by then…so, not to appear to be piggish, I elected to forego the dessert.  FOOL.  My husband and friend each partook of what I can honestly say is possibly my most favorite dessert that I never ordered (luckily, I poached my husband’s).  Apple and bread pudding simply redolent with rosemary and cinnamon, with a lemon crème fraiche, and a Meyer lemon ice-cream and stout (ale) reduction.

The best dessert I had to steal of my husband''s plate...apple bread pudding with lemon creme fraiche.

The best dessert I had to steal of my husband”s plate…apple bread pudding with lemon creme fraiche.

Even as I describe it, I am checking my Google calendar to see when I can go back to El Mogor…

…maybe I can pre-celebrate my birthday again before I transition from summer into fall.  I guess what I am saying is that I – and dining at El Mogor – never seem to get old!

How to get to Deckman’s:  From Ensenada, take Highway 3, Ensenada-Tecate, to kilometer 86.5.  You will see a discreet stone entry gate on the right hand side of the road.  About a quarter-mile up the road, on your left, is a parking area.  Deckman’s is on the right hand side of the road, amongst the vineyards.

Opening Hours:  Monday- Sunday. 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula. We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotelsvacation rentals and activities, as well as guides, maps, complete event calendars and great stories about incredible travel destinations, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.  We also provide free personal travel consulting, planning and booking services in Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz, with prices that match or are below best advertised price. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.
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Finca Altozano: A New Best Favorite Eatery (BFE) in Baja’s Wine Country

Finca Altozano: A New Best Favorite Eatery (BFE) in Baja’s Wine Country

Ensenada’s array of fantastic culinary destinations seems endless…and then one more comes along, and it becomes your new Best Favorite Eatery (BFE).  That is the relationship I currently have with the amazing Finca Altozano, by famed Chef Javier Plascencia, that is located plunk in the middle of Ensenada’s Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine country.

Finca Altozano in Baja's wine country with sweeping vistas of vineyards.

Finca Altozano in Baja’s wine country with sweeping vistas of vineyards.

 

Since I first was taken to this outdoor restaurant in May, I have revisited three more times and it is always fresh and new to me.  That is in part because Finca Altozano is basically an outdoor venue with a raised partially covered terrace that is open on two full sides to the vast vistas of vineyards and hillsides that surround it.  With each month, each day, the scene evolves from verdant vines sprouting tiny buds to mature vineyards heavy with hanging grape clusters.  Even as you sit in this casual airy bistro being fanned by warm breezes, tinged ever so faintly with the smell of the Pacific Ocean, the clouds and sky are constantly changing and you are merely observing nature as you wine, dine and savor.

 

Small plates, like Serrano ham, at Finca Altozano

Small plates, like Serrano ham, at Finca Altozano

And savor, you do.  What separates Finca Altozano from many of the more traditional Ensenada restaurants is its ‘small plate’ approach – a tapas-style of dining that allows for bountiful discoveries and is also easy on the pocketbook.  From a simple (but succulent) plate of Serrano ham  (90 pesos, approx. $7), to mini tostadas of octopus ceviche (75 pesos, approx.. $5.75), to a fantastic spaghetti dish with basil, crushed chile and olive oil (75 pesos, approx.. $5.75), there are many choices to start the comestible festival.

My favorite?  Without a doubt, the wood-grilled tacos (los tacos asados en leña).  There are five different types of tacos offered, and all of the plates, which include two tacos, range from 50 pesos (less than $4) and less.  Personally, the lamb taco is my choice.  There are also ‘big’ plates at Finca Altozano – grilled quail (a regional specialty), polenta which is the erstwhile favorite of locals, beef ribs, New York steak and more.

 

Chef Javier Plascencia and Anthony Bourdain

Chef Javier Plascencia and Anthony Bourdain

And everything is prepared using farm-fresh locally sourced ingredients, as is the wont of Chef Plascencia, whose Misión 19 restaurant in Tijuana has achieved international acclaim.

Being in the heart of Baja’s wine country means that every single plate could be (and in my opinion should be) paired with the Valle de Guadalupe’s ever-growing varieties of wines.  For me, the starting wine is often a La Lomita Chenin Blanc/Sauvignon Blanc, followed by a Merlot/Cabernet/Tempranillo by Las Nubes.  But most of the top wineries in Baja are represented at Finca Altozano, so the wine selection is truly rich.

altozano

The Finca Altozano team hamming it up.

If you get tired of the sweeping views (impossible), you can wander over to the open kitchen area that boasts a big Serrano ham just begging to be sliced.  Here, the waiters and kitchen staff are friendly and welcoming, and are happy to try and tell you about what they are creating and how.  For me, the Altozano family is a huge reason to return – they chuckle with you, when you cannot quite figure out what you have ordered, and they offer their own advice and tips on what you might like.  Invaluable service and style, indeed!

Each day, I hear of some fabulous bistro to try in Ensenada…and, in fact, this very weekend, Drew Deckman’s El Mogor reopened in the Valle de Guadalupe (I wrote about it last summer), so I will need to get there soon.  But for now, my BFE is Finca Altozano, which quite simply leaves a very great taste in my mouth.

How do you get to Finca Altozano, you ask?  Easy.  Take Highway 3 from Ensenada towards Tecate.  You will pass through San Antonio de las Minas, and continue on quite a way, until you come to Laja restaurant (another one of the wine country’s most spectacular dining establishments) at kilometer 83.  Turn left at the road here.  Follow the dirt road, watching for signs.  A couple of miles down the road, you will find Finca Altozano, on your right.  I advise a reservation, by calling 646-156-8045.   The restaurant is open Tue.-Sun., 1-9 p.m.

There are great places to stay in Ensenada!  Let us know which is your favorite. 

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year.

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Traveling with Alain Pressier and Baja Wine & Sun Tours

From wine tasting to whale watching, Baja Wine & Sun Tours offer personal attention and affordable excursions!

Not for me, the giant buses that traverse the Baja Peninsula carting passengers from one tourist stop to the next.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of travel, but my idea of a great trip is to have a more personal experience and find places and adventures that are off the beaten path. That’s what I did in autumn of 2012 when I and some friends traveled to Rancho Meling south of Ensenada, on the road to the famous San Pedro Martir national park.  It was my first – and certainly won’t be my last — excursion with Baja Wine & Sun Tours and its knowledgeable owner Alain Pressier.

Baja Wine & Sun

Alain Pressier, owner of Baja Wine & Sun Tours.

How did we come to pick Baja Wine & Sun Tours?  I had met Alain and instantly enjoyed him – especially the fact that although he was willing to put up with my hackneyed Spanish, he happily switched the conversation to English.  His tours are small – 10 people or fewer fit comfortably in his van – which is a big plus.  He explains that he prefers smaller groups so that he can easily share information with passengers about sights and landmarks along the way.  For him, part of the pleasure of his work is offering personalized attention to clients – which he has been doing for 22 years in the touring industry, originally working for Bajarama, a transportation/tourism company.

“When I was with Bajarama, one of our stops was the Domecq winery.  They didn’t have the staff to be able to offer tours, so we were trained to be able to do it.  Thanks to them, I learned a lot about wines and the wine industry, and about guest services,” says Alain.

Baja Wine & Sun Tours stopped at Phil Gregory's Vena Cava winery for a tasting.

Baja Wine & Sun Tours stopped at Phil Gregory’s Vena Cava winery for a tasting.

He started Baja Wine & Sun Tours in 2010 and is seeing a steady increase in bookings for his tours to the Valle de Guadalupe (Mexico’s wine country), Ojos Negros (famed for its cheese caves), San Pedro Martir and even as far south as Guerrero Negro, about 8 hours south, for whale watching.

From whale watching trips to winery visits, Baja Wine & Sun Tours offers personalized attention.

From whale watching trips to winery visits, Baja Wine & Sun Tours offers personalized attention.

He customizes trips, as well.  In fact, although it wasn’t part of the original plan, at the request of some passengers Alain stopped at the Rincón de Guadalupe winery in San Vincente on our return to Ensenada from Meling Ranch.

Another important factor to me and my friends in selecting Alain’s tour was, quite simply, the price.  I queried him recently about doing a tour of the wine country (how much more fun would it be to do wine tastings knowing that none of our group had to drive the windy road home, afterwards!).  He charges $60 per person for a ‘basic’ five-hour tour that includes three wineries and wine tastings, bread and cheese and himself as a guide.  Of course, if patrons want to visit more wineries and/or have lunch or dinner, prices will vary.

Safety was another key concern for me.  Our trip to Rancho Meling involved some mountain driving.  As my husband will affirm, I am a nervous passenger at best, which is why it was so amazing that I did not even once slam on my imaginary brake pedal or try to grab the wheel out of Alain’s hands.  He errs on the side of caution and safety…and he is a really good driver.  All of which allows passengers to relax and take in Baja’s spectacular scenery.

It is important to book as far in advance as possible, not only to ensure the dates you require, but to allow Alain time to plan out a good tour.   He can advise you as to when to go to specific areas – for example, whale watching is at its peak from January through March, so it is not too early to think about planning that tour.  For wine tours, April through October are optimum months, with the entire month of August dedicated to the Fiestas de la Vendimia, Ensenada’s grape harvest festival.  Alain suggests that, post-festival, September is a terrific time to tour the wine valley with fewer tourists, very warm days and cool nights.

baja wine & sun tours

Baja Wine & Sun Tours is not fancy which, for my money, makes it more fun and certainly more affordable.  It is a great way to discover Baja with friends and family, and to have the kinds of unique experiences you simply can’t get as part of a large package tour.  To find out more about touring with Alain Pressier, contact Baja Wine & Sun Tours.

Traveling to Ensenada? Talk to a travel agent at Baja.com.

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurants, hotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA or email us at info@baja.com.

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Viñedos en Flor 2013 — the Flowering of the Vines (a Prelude to Vendimia)

Viñedos en Flor 2013 — the Flowering of the Vines (a Prelude to Vendimia)

Fiestas de la Vendimia and the Provino Committee welcomed families, wine and food lovers, and visitors from throughout the world to Las Nubes Winery and the 2013 Viñedos en Flor, which begins the nearly four-month-long celebration of the grape harvest in Baja California.  The valley floor of Mexico’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe near Ensenada, is now lushly canopied with bright green grape leaves and tiny buds will soon become juicy globes of fruit. To herald this period, the Flowering of the Vines is held annually as a prelude to Vendimia and features scores of wineries offering tastings, as well as music and fun for all.

This year, the event was especially geared to the idea of  ‘earth and people’ and the need for a sustainable cycle:  Nature provides the resources for life and living things; humans utilize and nurture the resources to ensure sustainability. The goal of Viñedos en Flor is to celebrate that continuity, a cycle of productivity that is at the very root of a thriving society.  No surprise then that the fiesta saw children frolicking and creating artwork under the direction of Marco Miranda and Angel Delgado; farmers and winemakers enjoying the fruits of their labor; musicians and dancers expressing their joy, and everyone  savoring edible evidence of this successful concept! Food was bountiful, prepared in the ‘campestre’ regional style by Agnes Cameleyre and her team, and it provided the perfect pairing to a day of fun and appreciation.

As the harvest season blossoms, visit Baja.com events or find Fiestas de la Vendimia on Facebook.

 Slideshow

Photos by Barbara Rubio, Adriana Martinez and Provino.

For more information:  Go to www.provinoac.org or visit the Provino offices in Ensenada, Av. 20 de Noviembre 1138-2, Zona Centro.  Phone: Provino at +52 (646) 178-3038 or 178-2949. Email:  info@fiestasdelavendimia.com.

Ensenada is on the Pacific Ocean, and only 20 minutes from Mexico’s wine country.  Find out where to stay, when you visit the Valle de Guadalupe! And be sure to try some of the region’s best restaurants, including Corazon de Tierra, the seasonal Deckman’s en el Mogor, El Rey Sol and others.  

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurants, hotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA or email us at info@baja.com.

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