I still remember my first glimpse of the Guadalupe Valley in Baja California, years before it became well known as the Napa Valley of Mexico. I had turned off the coast highway about a mile and a half south of the last tollway, about 20 miles north of Ensenada. I’d driven east on Highway 3, past the city’s shanty outskirts and then past homey looking ranchos. After a while, the road climbed and cut through a dramatic rocky pass. The vista on the other side took my breath away; it opened to a pastoral paradise.
This was in 1988. More wine grapes were being grown in the valley at the time than anywhere else in Mexico, but they were only being used by a handful of growers. For complex historical reasons, the country had never developed much of a wine culture. But a few small newcomers had recently opened wineries, and I wound up writing a cover story about this activity for the Reader. The new growers were beginning to make decent wine, and the hope was palpable that this activity might turn into something bigger.
Somehow I didn’t return to check on the subsequent developments for more than 25 years. By then more than 50 additional wineries had joined the fiesta. Some had built chic tasting rooms reminiscent of their cousins in the Northern California wine country. Not only that: the Valle de Guadalupe by then had also attracted top-notch chefs who were cooking food of astonishing sophistication and quality. When Steve and I visited in February of 2014, we ate a couple of the best meals of our lives (and they cost a fraction of the price they would have in New York or even San Diego).
As thrilling as that idyll was, we didn’t make it back until just two weeks ago, when we spent a Saturday night in the valley to celebrate a big anniversary. Here’s a quick and dirty update on
what we found.
Getting there: We left from near UCSD a little after 10 am Saturday morning, and not long after noon, we were pulling up to our hotel. We took the coastal road south. For some reason, its toll booths seemed to be non-operational, although folks were asking for donations for something. (It was confusing.) The day was glorious; the ocean views as spectacular as ever. We turned off the coast road near La Mision and drove through a sublime, almost-empty landscape.
Getting around: When I had looked for a good map of the valley online before the weekend, I’d been disappointed by what I’d found. But Sunday morning, we obtained an excellent (free) map from the visitor’s office in front of the 7-year-old Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Museum of the Vine and Wine), located on Highway 3. Admission to the museum is just $3 a person. We hadn’t expected much but were impressed both by the architecture and the displays. We could have spent two or three times the 20 minutes we allotted.
The girl in the tourist office told us the map had recently been updated. It lists 100 wineries in and around the valley, plus three dozen hotels and more than 50 places to eat. Other folks told us there were 150 wineries; some said there were more than that. Although there’s talk about the water table dropping as a result of this explosive growth, threatening the entire industry, after this winter’s rain, the valley looks lush and verdant.
Lodging: I searched for a hotel more than a month before we planned to go, and I was taken aback both by how many places were already full and by their prices. We wound up staying at Agua de Vid. It’s nothing if not stylish.
Here’s what I wrote for TripAdvisor (where I try to review as much as I can of our travel stays):
Wine-tasting: I’m a little embarrassed to admit we only did two tastings, one at Vina de Frannes (recommended by a friend) and one at the Magoni winery (whose 2017 Sangiovese Cabernet we had enjoyed at dinner on Saturday night). We didn’t need a reservation to get into either. But when I’d tried on Friday to make a reservation at Monte Xanic (one of the oldest and best respected wineries in the valley), I received an emailed reply saying all the tasting times were fully booked for the weekend. We tried to drive in anyway to see if this was true, but a guard stopped us. Both at the wineries and the restaurants where we ate, we found all the wine to be drinkable, but in general the offerings seemed pricier than what we buy routinely at the San Diego Wine & Beer Co. (on Miramar Road).
Food: This was the highlight of the weekend. We had three terrific meals (2 lunches and a dinner), each in a beautiful and lively setting. They included:
Fauna, the restaurant at the Bruma Winery.
We dined at Finca Altozano, yet another success for legendary Baja super chef Javier Plascencia. Its giant dining room is open to the outdoors, evoking the spirit of a great jolly ranch house, and we regretted not bringing more to keep us warm. But everything tasted good, particularly the homemade churros, sauce, and ice cream…
I was charmed that the menu includes a guide to all the resident perros.Our final lunch was at Deckman’s, perhaps my favorite of all.
The nightmare: When we’d visited the valley 5 years ago, it was during the week, and we returned through the little town of Tecate. Then we breezed across the border in minutes. But trying that trick on a Sunday afternoon was imbecilic. We arrived at the line around 4 pm only to find that it was already a mile long. It took us two and a half hours to cover the distance to the checkpoint (only two lanes, neither of which expedited SENTRI pass holders.) We should have driven to Otay Mesa. Now we know better… for our next visit.