Visiting Mexico — to drink wine? That’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of our neighbor to the south, but if you appreciate good food and wine, consider a visit to Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe.
This scenic agricultural valley, just inland from the city of Ensenada, is known for innovative wines, local seafood, and farm fresh ingredients. Some of the world’s most exciting new chefs and winemakers are working in the region, and American celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Rick Bayless are helping to share the love.
The best part is that because the region is just about a two-hour drive south of San Diego, it makes an easy weekend getaway for West Coast travelers.
If you are used to wine tasting in Napa, getting to the Valle de Guadalupe from Ensenada is a piece of cake. The roads are recently paved, with lots of signs pointing to the “Ruta Vinícola” (Wine Route). There is very little traffic and it only takes about 15 minutes to get to the region from Ensenada.
There are more than 50 wineries to choose from, so it’s worth it to ask around for a recommendation. Here are a few that I enjoyed.
For a luxe and modern tasting room with a great view of the Valley, check out Hacienda la Lomita, in the village of San Antonio de las Minas. Like most winemakers in the valley, Hacienda La Lomita make mostly red wines due to the hot, dry climate of the valley, though they had one white wine they made from grapes sourced from closer to the coast. The winery is best known for a duo of opposing wines they call Sacro and Pagano (“sacred” and “pagan”); Sacro is a fruity cabernet-merlot blend, and Pagano (my favorite) is a fiery grenache.
For a cultural look at the valley, check out Vinos Tres Valles (“Wines of the Three Valleys”), named after the three distinct valleys where they source their grapes. Each of the wines are named using words from the language of the indigenous people who first settled northern Baja. Kojaá means “wine,” Maat means “terroir,” Kuwal means “red,” and Jalá is the name of the Kiliwa ethnic group.
Farm Fresh Food
The Valle de Guadalupe is a melting pot of ethnic foods; many of the residents have moved from other parts of Mexico, bringing their local cultures and traditions with them. In recent years, the cuisine of the Valley has taken on a style of its own called “BajaMed,” an ode to the blending of Baja local seafood and ranch-grown local foods with Mediterranean-inspired flavors.
One of the highlights of our weekend was lunch at Malva Cocina de Baja California on the grounds of the Mina Penélope winery. Ensenada-born Chef Roberto Alcocer and winemaker Veronica Santiago have been instrumental in encouraging the thriving food scene of the Valle de Guadalupe. Malva features locally-sourced ingredients; most of the produce, cheeses, and Mina Penélope wines were actually made on-site. Each plate was beautiful, simple, and delicious.
Inspired by the offerings at Malva, you might wish to find more farm-fresh local foods. If so, check out the artisan food shops Los Globos Cremaria and Sol de Medianoche. Both shops feature a vast selection of cheeses alongside local food products like mole sauces, fruit jams, guava paste, baked goods, and local wines. Pick up some foodie souvenirs: Both cheeses and jarred food products are allowed back in the United States.
Where to Stay
While you can easily do a wine-tasting day trip, I recommend staying the weekend to take in more of Baja’s great eats.
There are a few small hotels and B&Bs in the Valle de Guadalupe; they fill up quickly for weekend stays, so make your reservation early. There are many more options in and around Ensenada.
One great choice is the Hotel Coral and Marina. This hotel and marina offers just about everything you need for a relaxing weekend getaway: BC Bistro & Cava Restaurant (an excellent BajaMed restaurant with one of Baja’s best local wine selections), three pools indoor and out, and a spa featuring “vinotherapy” — wine-grape infused body treatments. The location is perfect: it’s only about a five minute drive north of Ensenada, and 15-20 minutes from the Valle de Guadalupe wine route.
For the most flexibility on your trip, rent a car at San Diego International Airport (be sure the rental company allows you to take the car to Mexico — some don’t) and drive over the border. Allow yourself time on the way south and on the way back to pass through border control, especially if you are heading across the border at rush hour. Take your passport!
If you don’t want to drive, most Baja hotels can arrange a shuttle to pick you in San Diego and take you across the border. If you do that, then you can rent a car in Ensenada or arrange a winery tour through your hotel.
Travel to Northern Baja California is no riskier than visiting other big cities around the world. Most of the crime that gets US media attention is gang-related and happens in areas where tourists rarely go. Do monitor your country’s travel advisories for Mexico (here is the US Government’s listing), but do be aware that these are written to err on the side of extreme caution. Travel smart, but understand that hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens cross the border safely each day.
All photos are courtesy of the author except the last photo from Hotel Coral and Marina.