Traveling to Mexico for many people means booking a flight to Los Cabos or Todos Santos. But the most intriguing and stunning destination in Mexico right now is the Valle de Guadalupe wine country in Baja California Norte.
On our first trip there nearly 20 years ago, there were just a handful of wineries, no hotels and only a couple of places to find food. But have things ever changed: the Valle de Guadalupe now has more than 60 wineries working with French and Mediterranean varietals, a handful of eco-chic boutique hotels and an abundance of restaurants that take finca a mesa (farm-to-table) cooking to a level that few places in the world can match.
From San Diego, driving down to Ensenada and then east into the Valle takes a little more than two hours. The discouraging part of the trek used to be the border wait on the return trip. But as of two weeks ago, all the gates at the San Ysidro crossing were open, almost assuring that you get through in under an hour. Once you get through — don’t forget your passport for getting back into the U.S. — here’s where you’ll want to go:
Where To Stay
One of the first all-inclusive inns and wineries in the Valle was Adobe Guadalupe, a sprawling, classically beautiful property with extensive stables, a spa and restaurant. Brick archways, quatrefoil fountains and French doors mingle in the property designed by Persian architect Nassir Haghighat. The six guest rooms are named after Gabriel, Miguel and other archangels, much like the well-balanced red wines.
Driving up to La Villa del Valle is like discovering a colorful Italian villa ringed by organic olive groves and vineyards. Owners Phil and Eileen Gregory are equally colorful. British expats from the movie and music business, the dynamic duo has a resort that’s full of vibrant surprises found in Tuscan-influenced décor and bohemian furnishings throughout the inn, spa and restaurant, Corazón de Tierra.
The newest place to stay is the stylishly sustainable Encuentro, which bills itself as an “antiresort.” You won’t find pretension or stuffiness anywhere in the 20 ecolofts staggered amongst the hills; what you will see, however, is a rustic property with a lobby bar, pool and restaurants meant to capture the rugged beauty of the place.
Where To Eat
While there are almost too many amazing restaurants in the Valle to count, one of the first serious restaurants to open was Laja, founded by Jair Téllez (of Mexico City’s MeroToro), who was trained at the French Culinary Institute (now called the International Culinary Center). In a simple stone and adobe building with exposed beams, Laja offers seasonal tasting menus paired with local wines that change daily. There’s nothing like ceviche made from fish just a couple hours out of the water or lamb paired with syrah from the same land. Silvestre is a casual seasonal restaurant in the hills across from Vinos L.A. Cetto; it’s run by star chef Benito Molina and his wife, Solange Muris (Manzanilla). The restaurant features creative hyper local dishes such as grilled seafood and tortas (baked bread) with black bean and tongue. Finca Altozano is overseen by Javier Plascencia, a man who created events such as the Latin Food Fest to raise the profile of the region’s cuisine. Finca Altozano specializes in meats and seafood cooked over mesquite and served family style at a table in the middle of a field. Even if you’re not staying at the aforementioned Encuentro, it’s still worth it to visit Convivia, Flor Franco’s inventive restaurant overlooking the valley. Nearly everything served there either originates from the property (see: bread and cheese) or comes from just a few miles away. Recent dishes have included a quail in a tangy chile morita sauce, torta with locally raised French lamb and basil ice cream.
Where To Taste
Some of the early wineries are still offering some of the best tasting experiences. Don’t miss the Monte Xanic, which just had a multimillion-dollar facelift, French-inspired Château Camou or the unassuming Casa de Piedra. It’s run by Hugo D’Acosta, the visionary winemaker who gained international notice for the Valle with his terroir-driven cabernet sauvignon and unoaked chardonnay. His newer winery is Paralelo, where he explores the flavor and textural differences that occur when you plant the same blend of grapes in two very different soils. Other hot new wineries include Torres Alegre, Vena Cava and Alximia. Be sure to taste the latter’s highly rated Aqua, a delicious blend of petit verdot, zinfandel and grenache.