“When I was a kid there was nothing here,” Enrique, my 28-year-old guide, mentioned offhandedly as we stirred up dust along a gravel road on my first afternoon in the Valle de Guadalupe, a Mexican wine region in Baja California, a couple of hours south of the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing. “My parents used to make us come out here on weekends. I hated it.”
“If there was nothing here, what did you do?” I asked.
“We used to go eat pancakes and tortillas with scrambled eggs.” He shrugged. “It was very rustic then.”
His words come back to me the next morning as we step into La Cocina de Dona Esthela – “the kitchen of Mrs. Esthela” – an old-timey wooden restaurant with terracotta-tiled floors, plain wooden tables and a random collection of chairs, folding, plastic and wooden.
In one corner, two women in matching red T-shirts mould and grill fresh corn tortillas, loading them into straw baskets. Within minutes, the table in front of us is loaded with food: fresh chips, salsa, and cubes of feta-like queso fresco – which owner Esthela makes fresh every morning after she’s done milking the cows. Next is a plate heaped with borrego tatemado, lamb roasted for hours and shredded, served with a bowl of rich, meaty gravy, and machaca, a dish made of dried beef and scrambled egg, jazzed up with serrano chilies and peppers and garlic. Enrique tells us to scoop the meat dishes into the tortillas, dress them with salsa and onions and cilantro, fold the tortilla and devour it all taco-style – and another plate of fluffy cornmeal pancakes.
“Pancakes like these?” I ask Enrique of his childhood memory.
“Yes!” he said. “Except this place wasn’t here yet.”
You’d think Esthela’s been here forever, but she only arrived in the Valle a decade ago, and several years later opened a small cantina to feed hungry vineyard workers from La Lomita Winery, just up the road. In a way, her rise (the morning of my visit, Esthela is being trailed by a TV crew down from the United States) parallels the winemaking industry here, which, despite a level of quality and sophistication that should indicate years of maturity, started to take off right around the same time as Esthela opened her doors (her reputation began to spread in 2010 after workers at La Lomita let the cast of a Mexican telenovela that was filming there in on the local secret. Since then, she’s earned accolades such as the world’s best breakfast from the international culinary guide FoodieHub).
I didn’t know Mexico even made wine until a visit to Cabo San Lucas, 1,500 kilometres to the south, several years ago. When the sommelier at a high-end hotel recommended a chardonnay from the region, I was skeptical but willing to try; before I’d finished my glass, the Valle, as it’s casually referred to down here, was on my must-visit list. It was a while before that trip came to fruition, during which time the number of wineries swelled to more than 150 (10 per cent more than a year ago, Enrique says), and I increasingly heard mentions of day and weekend wine-tasting trips from friends who live in Southern California.
It’s no surprise I’d never heard of Mexican wines before, I soon learned. While winemaking isn’t actually a new thing in this arid, rocky valley – the first commercial wines date back to the 1940s, made by an Italian immigrant named Angelo Chetto – as Enrique remarked at the outset, none of the stylish, confident wineries we would visit existed 20 years ago. Today, the roughly 7,000 acres of vines planted here make up virtually all of Mexico’s wine production, and even the larger producers tend to make only several thousand cases of each of their wines annually.
At just a little over 50 square kilometres, with just three tarred highways and dozens of criss-crossing dirt roads, it’s easy to make good work of the Valle’s many wineries in very little time. In matter of two days, I visited Finca La Carrodilla, where I tasted crisp, lemony Chenin blanc and a lively, fruit-forward red blend of tempranillo, syrah and Cabernet sauvignon (that one came home with me), and Torres Alegre, whose winemaker and owner was only one of three in the area when he planted his vines in 1998, where I tried grenache and another cabernet sauvignon.
At a determined pace, we sip and snack on the gorgeous wrap-around patio at Decantos Vinicola. Alonso Granados, the winemaker, went to law school and then spent eight years learning how to produce wine in Italy, France and other European wine destinations before returning home to open his own winery in 2015. We’re blown away yet again at Dona Esthela’s neighbour, La Lomita, where whimsical, highly-Instagrammable murals by Mexico City artist Jorge Tellaeche almost betray the seriousness of wines made by Gustavo Gonzalez, who moonlights up in Napa and worked for Mondavi for years. At Vena Cava, a seven-year-old operation founded by a music exec from England, I taste an amber, 100-per-cent chardonnay that had a satisfyingly apricoty, tea-like tannic character; it’s one of the few natural wines I’ve ever tasted that didn’t take any getting used to – love at first sip.
Given what I’d heard about the wines in the Valle before my visit, none of this surprised me. What I wasn’t expecting was the food. Though traditional taco shacks line the roads and Dona Esthela is as old-school as it gets, wine tourism in the region has opened up an impressively innovative culinary scene. After one long day of tastings, we pull into the dirt parking lot near Animalon, a seasonal outdoor restaurant run out of an Airstream kitchen that was meant to be a three-month pop-up but is now headed into its second year. As we relax in the shade of an oak tree that is likely 200 plus years old, chef Oscar Torres whips up an eight-course tasting menu of beautifully plated and executed dishes, such as a kanpachi crudo served with fermented chili adobo, sea bass with bay-leaf foam, beurre blanc and bright chucks of pomelo, and lamb barbacoa, which the chef cracks out of its clay shell tableside. In L.A., where Torres grew up, the meal would cost far more than its local US$95 price tag – likely with a months-long wait for reservations too.
No less impressive is dinner at Fauna, a year-old restaurant attached to Bruma, yet another destination winery. It’s helmed by David Castro Hussong, 28, who has experience working at Noma, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Blue Hill in Manhattan, Eleven Madison Park in New York, and Cala in San Francisco. He was lured back to his native Ensenada region for a one-off dinner at the winery, which turned out to be an audition for the role of head chef and partner. With communal tables made of reclaimed wood that run the length of the room and family-style portions of updated regional dishes, Hussong says he wanted to open a place that was “loud, fun, has amazing food and an amazing party in one place. Everyone makes friends here.” As if on cue, a woman in the group dining next to us cuts into the conversation. “Will you marry me?” she asks Hussong.
I could easily go on. Though Enrique says the Valle is packed on weekends with young Ensenadans and daytrippers from the U.S., on our weekday sojourn the place feels, largely, like ours alone. But with chic boutique accommodations and hipstery new lifestyle projects such as Agua de Vid, a complex featuring a hotel, multilevel restaurant (its roof is where you’ll want to be come sunset) and shipping-container art gallery, you get the sense that it won’t be long before tourism goes the way of the wines. My advice: Don’t wait until that happens.
How to get there: The Valle de Guadalupe is around a two-hour, 120-km drive from the San Diego-Tijuana border; some U.S. car rental companies allow drivers to cross into Mexico or you can walk across the border and rent a car in Tijuana (government-mandated insurance is not generally included in posted rates). If you don’t want to drive, Uber is available from Tijuana to the Valle (from about US$60) and your hotel can arrange a private driver for wine touring (about US$120 a day).
Where to stay: Finca La Divina, owned by prominent Baja Norte chef Javier Plascencia (Animalon is part of his portfolio), this hacienda-style property is an intimate accommodation. Set just off the main wine route, the three-bedroom villa has an expansive living and dining area (local cooks come in each morning to prepare breakfast, included in the rate), private pool deck and hot tub. From US$250 for one bedroom or $900 for the whole villa; fincaladivina.com.
The writer was hosted by Baja California Tourism. It did not review or approve this article.