We’ve been looking the wrong way.
For years, San Diegans have been told our wine country lies just north of the county line, in Temecula. But maybe we should have been focusing on a different line: the border with Mexico. Only about two hours south of San Diego, the Valle de Guadalupe is one of the world’s hottest up-and-coming wine regions.
Like much of Mexico, it was the Spanish missionaries who introduced wine to Baja California and to the Valle de Guadalupe. The first Baja winery, Bodegas de Santo Tomás, was established south of Ensenada in the late 1800s. A few decades later, the Mexican government granted political asylum to a group of immigrants fleeing the Russian Revolution; when they established a colony in the Valle de Guadalupe, the seeds of the wine industry were planted. Much of this history is preserved in the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Guadalupe and the Museum of Vine and Wine.
It would not be until the 1980s that the Valle really started to blossom. First, Hans Backhoff began making high-quality wines at Monte Xanic Bodega Vinícola. Then, Hugo d’Acosta -- having trained in France and made wine for Santo Tomás -- kickstarted the industry’s development by spreading his winemaking knowledge. Today, almost 70% of the wine produced in Mexico is done so in Baja California, with the overwhelming majority of it in the Valle de Guadalupe. There are well over 100 wineries in the region, and the number seemingly grows every time you check. It ranges from the industrial-scale producers, like L.A. Cetto, Santo Tomás, and Casa Pedro Domecq, to high-end boutique wineries -- all of them quality.
Where to sip
It would be hard to argue that the best bottle of wine produced in the Valle de Guadalupe is not the Torres Alegre y Familia “Cru Garage” nebbiolo. It is a deeply concentrated wine with pronounced fruity flavors, especially red berries, and an earthiness and terroir that suggests the grapes are grown precisely where they should be. Frankly, all of the wines in Torres Alegre’s “Cru Garage” series are excellent, and the winery’s less expensive lines are good value for the quality.
There may be no more spectacular view of the Valle de Guadalupe than from the deck of the majestic winery and tasting room at Monte Xanic in the town of Francisco Zarco toward the Valle’s eastern end. The winery’s premium bottle, the Gran Ricardo (a blend of cabernet sauvingon, merlot, and petit verdot), is as excellent as the view is beautiful -- an endless expanse of grape vines surrounded by dusty rolling mountains. Monte Xanic focuses, unlike many Valle wineries, on Bordeaux varietals, though its syrah excels as well.
Villa Montefiori, toward the northwestern end of the Valle, specializes in Italian varietals and blends. While the winery’s brunello and nebbiolo get a lot of the attention, the most significant offering is the nerone, made from the rare aglianico varietal native to Southern Italy. This produces a full-bodied wine with structure and aging potential that begs the question: why hasn’t it found a famed region to call its own? Could the Valle de Guadalupe be it?
One of the most pleasant tasting experiences in the Valle is at Lomita winery. Its pagano (grenache) and sacro (50/50 cabernet/merlot) bottlings are among the best food-pairing wines in the Valle. But the cursi is, hands down, one of the best rose wines anywhere: boasting caramel and red berry fruit flavors without being cloying, it is a remarkable wine.
Lechuza Vineyard, east of San Antonio de las Minas at the Valle’s southwestern end, recently received one of the ultimate American seals of approval: a place on the wine list of Thomas Keller’s incomparable restaurant, The French Laundry in Napa Valley. There’s a reason: its chardonnay is not just the best in the Valle, it’s one of the best chardonnays in the world. No tricks, no wood, no deception. It is a pure expression of the earth and the grape.
Where to eat
As much as the Valle de Guadalupe has developed into a notable wine region, it has become an equally great culinary destination. It all started with Laja, currently rated as No. 46 on the list of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. Chef Jair Téllez opened his remote, seasonal operation in 1999 as a "destination restaurant in the middle of nowhere" -- thus beginning the chef movement in the Valle.
The most noted restaurant, however, is probably Corazón de Tierra, No. 30 on the same top 50 list. Chef Diego Hernandez’s food is unremittingly modern but grounded in the gardens that surround the restaurant, Mexican tradition, Old-World technique, and Mexican soul. There’s no harder reservation to get in the Valle than here.
The Valle’s only Michelin-starred chef, at least so far, is Drew Deckman of Deckman’s en el Mogor. Mogor Badán winery, the property on which the restaurant is situated, plays a major role in the experience. The outdoor setting is idyllic, and all of the vegetables and fuel for the wood-fired grill and oven (Deckman’s “anti-kitchen”) come from the property. And despite -- or maybe because of -- this glorified campsite (and the creativity it both inspires and forces), the food that emerges really is worthy of its star.
One of the Valle’s fastest-rising chef stars is Roberto Alcocer of Malva. In Alcocer’s hands, even the humble garden salad becomes an evolving exploration of contrasting flavors, textures, and temperatures. With jewel-like presentations and unusual ingredient combinations, everything surprises. The signature dish is lamb -- slowly roasted in a wood-fired oven for 14 hours, then pressed into a perfect cube -- sitting atop a creamy cauliflower pureé bathed in a reduction sauce from the same meat. Deep, rich, round, and profound, it’s a triumph. Did we mention the view from the dining room under the palapa overlooking the Valle from its southeast corner?
In most of Mexico, like most of the world, some of the best food is to be found on the streets rather than in high-end restaurants. The Valle de Guadalupe is no different. Take, for example, Las Gueritas: no address, no website, no bricks, and no mortar. Lucia Villaseno Padilla, assisted by her husband and two light-skinned daughters for whom the place is named, just grill fresh codorniz (quail) and conejo (rabbit) to order over a wood fire in a setting that’s partly idyllic with a bit of roadside grit. Consider it flavor.
There may be no more surprising restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe than Sanvil halfway down a dirt road in the town of San Antonio de las Minas at the west end of the Valle. Where many Northern Baja chefs are fusing the ingredients of Baja’s bounty with European techniques, chef Surinder Veer Singh explores the parallels and contrasts between Mexican and Indian cuisines. The results are thrilling: this marlin ceviche has been marinated in coconut milk, cardamom, and ginger.
But if Valle dining were to be reduced to a single restaurant, it would have to be chef Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozano. Perhaps that’s why the restaurant won “Best Concept” in Travel + Leisure México’s 2016 Gourmet Awards. Set outdoors within a vineyard at the heart of the Valle, Finca Altozano is all about the natural beauty of the place and the big, honest flavors that translate that setting onto the plate.
Where to stay
The Valle de Guadalupe is not exactly awash in hotels. There are, however, a number of good boutique places and B&Bs. Adobe Guadalupe houses a wonderful winery, amenities such as horseback riding and a great swimming pool, multiple dining options, and a B&B in the heart of the Valle with a vineyard setting and a touch of Old World charm. Plascencia’s Finca La Divina is a more intimate take on the theme with an emphasis on the culinary.
Bruma, on the other hand, is as much a vision as it is a hotel. When completed, it will be a 200-acre eco-luxury resort encompassing a working winery, 15 private ranch-style villas, and a 40-room hotel complete with stunning Valle views. All that’s finished so far are five B&B suites, but with backers like the Harmons (of Auberge resort fame), winemaker d’Acosta and his brilliant architect brother, Alejandro d’Acosta, as well as Chef Deckman, Bruma is definitely one to watch.
Arguably the most architecturally striking boutique hotel in the Valle is Encuentro Guadalupe. It’s back-to-nature in a futuristic setting, with 20 modernist eco-pads dotting the hillside and crawling up from the valley’s floor. It’s not a cheap stay, and it may not be your idea of luxury, but it is remarkable, and it is different.
The Valle de Guadalupe is far from a finished product. It evolves from year to year and season to season, and that is part of the pleasure of it. The wineries, restaurants, and hotels recommended here are exceptional and are likely to be so for the foreseeable future. But tomorrow, there’ll be another good winery, and Tuesday, a great restaurant’s sous chef will announce he’s opening a good winery’s new restaurant. And the owner of that winery? She could well be opening a B&B next week.
In the meantime, and as it is today, it would be hard to say there’s anywhere better for a weekend wine getaway. It isn’t exactly inexpensive -- defying Mexico’s somewhat backhanded compliment of a reputation as bargain basement -- in part because of nearly punitive federal taxation of wine. But it’s good -- surprisingly good. Temecula’s fine and Temecula’s in America. But the Valle is at another level.
So it seems we’ve been looking the wrong direction all along.
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