Photograph by Stephen Kepple
The overnight boom in Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe was more than 200 years in the making. First came the Spanish, who planted the inaugural vineyards. They were followed at the beginning of the 20th century by the Molokans of Russia, who revived the practice of winemaking. Almost a century after that, visionary winemakers like Hugo D’Acosta established the valley as a place to pair tasty varietals with exquisite local cuisine. Ninety minutes from the San Ysidro border crossing, pleasant little B&Bs have popped up among the grapevines, little old ladies sell olive oil by the road, and travelers sip nebbiolo while banda music blasts. This is a wine region like no other.
Surrounded by desert landscaping, with boulders around the pool and grapevines in the field, Phil and Eileen Gregory’s La Villa del Valle (52-646-156-8007; $175-$295) is an ideal excuse to tune out for a weekend. The six rooms walk the line between stylish and traditional. If you can’t score one, you’ll be well attended to at the new Hacienda Guadalupe (52-646-155-2859; $150-$199), where each room—spare but comfortable with saltillo-tile floors—looks onto the valley. Before reaching either, you’ll pass through San Antonio de las Minas, the gateway to Valle de Guadalupe. Located on the Tecate-Ensenada Highway, it’s also the biggest town around. There are about 50 wineries in the region, many of them sprinkled along the road. To sample the quintessential huevos rancheros, make tracks for El Correcaminos (52-646-155-3101), a kitschy truck stop with a children’s play area and a pigeon coop out back. For something heartier head to the rustic hideaway La Casa de Ladrillo (52-646-947-3976) to eat pit-roasted lamb, abalone chorizo, or stewed sweet crab burritos in a quiet garden. Nearby, the little brick Cremería los Globos (52-646-120-5092) stocks outstanding local cheeses, olive oils, and artisanal bread. As you drive to the heart of the valley through the town of El Porvenir, visit the Museo Ruso (52-646-155-2030 or [email protected]) on the grounds of the Familia Samarin Restaurant, where the airy Russian bread, a tasting of preserves, and a stroll through a traditional dwelling of the Molokans—sectarian Christians who fled the czar—are essential. Down the road you’ll meet J.C. Bravo, the cowboy-farmer and middle school P.E. teacher who has produced one of Baja’s most respected wines, a fruity and well-balanced carignan that will have you coaxing a repeat pour at his saloonlike tasting room (52-646-155-2068). From there it’s a short trip to Emevé (52-646-156-8019), a newer winery with a serene panorama of the valley. Roughly 40 wineries dot the landscape, so pace yourself.
Some people go all out and explore on horseback with Rancho Ecuestre El Carruaje (52-646-161-2230). The outfitter can take you to wineries and restaurants or on a picnic. Or make your own picnic. This is one of the only places in Mexico that produces aged cheeses. For about $3 you can try them at Rancho Cortes (52-619-241-4986), a working ranch. Grab some añejo, a noshworthy queso fresco with basil, and the Real del Castillo before skipping over to the San Antonio Necua campgrounds, which sit in a tree-shaded patch of land beyond the L.A. Cetto winery. This is the community of the indigenous Kumiai, who charge a small fee to use the facilities. There’s a traditional hamlet with a museum, and guide services are occasionally available. Even if you forgo the picnic, it’s worth the trip to eat the remarkable grilled quail at Las Gueritas, a stand located at Km 77. Not far away along a dirt road, in a new country-style grill set amid an olive grove, you’ll find chef Miguel Angel Guerrero’s El Almazara (52-664-648-1267). Order the beet carpaccio, expertly grilled octopus, or juicy lamb tacos (ask Guerrero to crisp the lamb fritura style).
Once the wineries close, life retreats to a whisper in Valle de Guadalupe. For years an evening meal here meant dining at chef Jair Téllez’s Laja restaurant (52-646-155-2556). The food still soars (case in point: the pan-roasted rock cod plucked from nearby waters), but now there are other options to spice up your stay, like chef Diego Hernandez’s Corazón de Tierra (52-646-156-8030 or [email protected]), situated next door to La Villa del Valle. Inspired tasting menus feature herbs and produce from the garden, and maybe some pork the chef knew personally only hours before. Fetch a bottle of the house tempranillo or sauvignon blanc from Phil Gregory’s wine cave to cap the night snuggled beside your balcony’s fireplace. Or put your bottle in a brown bag and run back to San Antonio de las Minas for legit carne asada tacos roasted over mesquite at the Tacos El Poblano stand. After all, you are in Mexico.
Getting there: Valle de Guadalupe, which sits 14 miles north of Ensenada, is roughly a four-hour drive from Los Angeles.
Peak time: Crowds can get thick during holidays and the Vendimias wine, food, and music festivals that take place in August.
Weather report: The temperature averages in the 70s and 80s throughout the year but climbs highest in April, May, and June.
The coastal town of Ensenada is just south of Valle de Guadalupe. Another 26 miles beyond Ensenada, in the Real del Castillo region, lies the cheese-producing town of Ojos Negros. La Cava de Marcelo (52-646-175-7073), home of the Ramonetti brand, houses Latin America’s first cheese cave. Tour the ranch, sample the wares with a smidgen of house wine, and hang around for lunch.