Escape to Baja’s Wine Country, Valle de Guadalupe
by W. Scott Koenig
Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe, just outside of Ensenada and 90 minutes from the border, has a history of farming and viticulture that dates back to the early 20th century. Then, Russian immigrants fleeing religious persecution from czarist Russia were granted farmland by the Mexican government. Wines from Baja now grace the menus of restaurants all over Mexico (we had our first bottle in Cuernavaca) and are becoming more available in the U.S.
Recently, the region has garnered accolades for its wine, food and natural beauty from national publications The Wine Enthusiast and Conde Nast Traveler. To tour “The Valle”, one steps into a time machine and is transported back to regional and cultural traditions, and then fast forwarded to new restaurants and vineyards that are working to propel and assure the region’s future.
El Gringo has rolled through Valle de Guadalupe several times now, with each trip providing a different set of wineries, cuisine, people and experiences. The very first time was on an organized tour provided by the Los Rocas resort in Rosarito Beach. My señorita and I found this to be a great introduction to the region, as well as a lot of fun experiencing it with others who were also new to the scene (in our case, a family of friendly visitors from Mexico City). Additionally, many of the Valle’s smaller boutique wineries require appointments for tastings. And a well-connected tour operator is key to getting past those large, beautiful and ornate wrought iron gates.
We’d been talking about conducting similar tours ourselves, and with friends in town from Colorado wanting to visit Baja, we seized the opportunity to arrange our inaugural “Escape to Baja Wine Country” outing. Putting out a last minute invitation to a handful of other friends, we quickly filled the 10 passenger van that would be provided by our guide and driver, Alain Pressier. We met Alain in Tijuana after a quick foot crossing over the border (parking our cars in an inexpensive lot on the U.S. side in San Ysidro). On the itinerary: breakfast on the coast, followed by tours and tastings at three wineries (Tres Valles, Adobe Guadalupe and Vinos Malagon) and concluding with dinner at Javier Plascencia’s Valle de Guadalupe farm-to-table restaurant, Finca Altozano.
Our first stop was just south of Rosarito Beach in La Mision for a “full breakfast” at Poco Cielo (Little Heaven). Poco Cielo is right next door to the famous La Fonda Hotel & Restaurant, and affords the same cliff top view of the majestic and blue Pacific Ocean. A “Little Heaven” indeed!. We enjoyed our coffees, drinks and breakfasts (El Gringo had a queso and chorizo omelet…delicioso!). In addition to the restaurant, Poco Cielo is also a hotel and offers affordable ocean view rooms (El Gringo will have to stay sometime and I’ll let you know how it is!).
After about 40 additional minutes on the road (90 minutes driving time total from the border at San Diego), we came over the mountains and dropped into Valle de Guadalupe. After recent rains, the typically semi arid region was beautifully painted with smatterings of light moss green across the valley and on the hillsides. Our first stop was at Tres Valles, one of the few wineries owned and operated by natives in nearby Ensenada. Established in 1999, the winery has several tasty reds and whites, most named in the indigenous Kiliwa language (i.e. KOJAA, which means “wine”). Additionally, the vineyards labels bear images of native animals, such as the lizard, spider and snake. Cool rebar and wine barrel animal sculptures are placed around the property as well, in an excellent display of rustic artistry. Edmundo poured our tastings and provided an excellent commentary on the various blends we were trying.
Next up was Adobe Guadalupe, owned by Americans Don and Tru Miller. The couple built Adobe Guadalupe (a vineyard and six room B&B) after a vision Tru experienced in Notre Dame Cathedral after the passing of their son (who had an interest in Mexican viticulture). Today, the vineyard produces a number of excellent wines, all named after archangels in their son’s spirit. The Middle Eastern, open architecture of the vineyard buildings and the hotel take advantage of the open spaces and frame the valley’s landscape. The wines were hearty and inspired, and we enjoyed the grounds as well as the vineyard’s five amicable and very relaxed dogs. El Gringo’s señorita made a note to book us a room here sometime in the not too distant future.
Our final tasting of the day was at Vinos Malagon, a VERY early vineyard established in the early 1900s by expatriated Russians. When they say that one of their vines is considered an “old vine”, we believe it! In 2000, Jose Luis Malagon purchased the ranch and structured the current wine operations. The gloriously beaming and super friendly Anna Rosa poured our tastings and had arranged a platter of amazing cheeses and crackers for us to enjoy with their wines. Both wine and food were great, and we were treated to an unexpected surprise for a wine tasting…a sampling of their reposado tequila, Whistling Donkey (smooth, spicy and with a hint of vanilla. El Gringo brought one back for his 1 liter border allotment).
Our final stop was at Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozano, a farm-to-table restaurant with comfortable outdoor seating atop a hill with a vast view of the Valle as your dining companion. It was a good thing that Alain had kept the restaurant current on our timing as we were running just a touch late (El Gringo was on Mexican Time). The restaurant was bustling and full of happy customers enjoying the food, wine, views and large wine barrels on the edge of the restaurant’s periphery. These barrels have steps to the top and seats for friends to gather and enjoy the Valle views.
We were seated at a very cool, long, rustic table with an excellent view of the valley. We ordered beers and wines and contemplated the myriad food choices. Ultimately, Ursula and I ordered a surf and turf feast: Ahi Tostadas and Grilled Pulpo (octopus) representing the surf, and Borrego (Lamb) de Rancho Cortes and Birria de Borrega fronting for turf. There was no contest…it was ALL perfectly prepared, presented and enjoyed. El Gringo washed his food down with a Fune’s Blanco, the Tijuana-based craft brewer’s take on a Belgian Ale (very good, BTW).
Satiated, satisfied and sun-kissed, we loaded up and pointed the van north back to the border. Overall, the day was a GREAT success, and we were happy to introduce a great group of friends to the Baja Wine Country. (El Gringo and his colleagues are excited at the opportunity to provide monthly tours to Valle de Guadalupe to friends, family and others coming this spring! Look here and on his Facebook and Twitter pages for more information).
W. Scott Koenig (El Gringo) has travelled extensively throughout Mexico since the mid-1990s — from the streets of Tijuana to the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula to the country’s Spanish Colonial heartland. His blog, www.AGringoInMexico.com, reports on Mexican travel, destinations, culture, events and cuisine. He also blogs extensively for Baja.com and has been published in the Baja Times (Baja’s largest English language newspaper) and Destino magazine in Los Cabos. Additionally, he is the founder and creative director of Koenig Creative LLC in San Diego, a full service design and marketing agency.
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