2017-04-25 10:38:02
A Journey Through Baja California’s Wine Country

As we drove along the heavily pocked dirt road, bouncing our way through near-total darkness, with no signs to indicate the proximity to our destination — with no signs of any sort — the whites of my girlfriend’s eyes were plainly visible in the night as she murmured, “I’m not so sure about this.”

Perhaps, it now occurred to me, I had not thought all of this completely through. Here we were, deep in rural western Mexico, about 50 miles from the Pacific, rattling down a profoundly vacant road in an unmarked taxi bound for a restaurant recommended to me by a stranger. Kirsten’s dubiousness was understandable. But more than that, it was no trifling matter, given that I intended to propose marriage to her the following night, at a different restaurant at the end of another endless dirt road.

I sputtered out my assurances. Appearances to the contrary, I told her, tourists came here to the Guadalupe Valley all the time. The restaurant, Finca Altozano, had been given high marks on various websites. The driver, whom our innkeeper identified as Eduardo, appeared to know where he was going and seemed too courtly to have foul play on his mind. Kirsten seemed to be listening only to her heartbeat.

The restaurant’s parking lot was itself made of dirt. But it was packed with cars, and when we stepped into the buzzing and low-lit veranda perched high over the valley, I felt all residue of self-doubt transmute into shimmering bravado. Finca Altozano seemed instantly familiar only because it’s the kind of casually evocative country establishment that so many American restaurateurs spend millions on to get wrong.

Seated near the rotisserie, we ordered grilled octopus, grilled chorizo, tacos with grilled beef — grilled everything, and nothing disappointed, least of all the bottle of white blended grapes that was produced by a winemaker down the way named Amado Garza. It was apple-crisp and surging with minerality. Those flavors originated from the same brawny terrain that had delivered us here.

As a native Texan, I have visited Mexico many times, and, even more frequently, Alta California, all the way down to the border where San Diego County gives way to Tijuana. But my only excursion into Baja had been many years ago, to its baja-most tip, the uproarious beach-and-nightclub resort city Cabo San Lucas, an episode in my earlier life of Hombres Behaving Badly of which, thankfully, there is no known documentation.

The thousand-mile fishhook-shape stretch of land extending from Cabo up to Tijuana, and separating the Gulf of California from the Pacific, always struck me as a geographic anomaly of unknown utility, belonging to neither country, and in no particular way announcing itself as worthy of exploration. But then last March I happened to be on assignment in Mexico City, where I met various sources at restaurants of their choosing. It’s no surprise that there is outstanding food in Mexico’s capital city. What stunned me was the quality of the wines. White and red, across the varietal spectrum from viognier to Sangiovese — each was bristling with territorial expressiveness, and completely affordable. The best were unambiguously world-class. And all of them hailed from something called the Valle de Guadalupe, in the Free and Sovereign State of Baja California.

I had encountered other barely discovered wine sanctuaries while traveling in Croatia, Hungary, Israel, Slovenia and Turkey. Could it be that Mexico, the land of cerveza and tequila, surpassed all of them?

A week after voters in the United States elected a man who had vowed to erect a wall on America’s southern border, I drove across it with San Diego in my rearview. There are three crossings from San Diego County: Tijuana, Tecate and the one I randomly chose, Otay Mesa. It’s worth noting that the breezy, 90-mile journey from San Diego International Airport to most Valle de Guadalupe attractions along the main expressways (Routes 1 and 3) can be a great deal more plodding in the opposite direction. Driving back into the United States can, depending on day and time, involve anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours in the checkpoint line. To help with planning, a Border Wait Time app is available.

Whatever qualms you may have brought with you about driving to Mexico are likely to fall away once you take leave of the mangy border townscape of Otay Mesa and the slender, well-tended expressway plunges you into a bronze desert spiked with granite protrusions. The stern beauty of this backcountry will seem familiar to visitors of southern Arizona or the Big Bend country of southwest Texas. What it does not in any way call to mind are the Cancuns and Cozumels that constitute a vacuum-packaged offering of Mexico.

About two hours south of the San Diego airport, I arrived at the five-year-old resort known as Encuentro Guadalupe, which, from the approach, appears to be a space colony of metallic abodes jutting from a lunar mountain. A dirt road, my first of what would be many, led uphill to the reception area. From here my room was accessible farther up the mountain by means of a dusty hotel van.

I was in no hurry for this. Instead, I spent the next hour on the open-air bar terrace hanging over the valley, eating a delicious avocado and tuna ceviche while relishing the view and the keen desert air with other tourists, most of them Mexican.

Eventually I hailed the driver and we trundled up to my “king eco-loft,” which Encuentro Guadalupe in its promotional materials characterizes as “luxury camping.” The “luxury” part was right: My quarters, including breakfast, cost over $300, considerably more than I had expected to pay. The room was narrow and austere: a king-size bed with a white bedspread, white steel walls, a small bathroom and windows that faced the desert mountains. Upon closing the heavy metal door and drawing the curtains, I experienced the sensation of being in a clean, low-lit refrigerator.

As soon as I could, I retreated to the resort’s infinity pool, with its spectacular view of the desert crags. The Jacuzzi was occupied by several hairy-chested Sinaloans who beckoned me to share their bottle of mezcal. I did so, and after clinking glasses and exchanging a few guarded speculations on United States-Mexico relations in the Trump era, I left them to stew in the frothing water and commenced what would become a multiday driving meander down the Guadalupe Valley’s Ruta de Vino.

It’s a wine country unlike any I’ve come across. Start with the fact that in these parched environs, only splashes of vines are visible from the highway. Nowadays grapes grow in all sorts of places, but how they came to the valley is a peculiar tale. An obscure Russian sect of agrarian Christians known as the Molokans immigrated to Mexico around 1905 and put their farming talents to the test of the desert. The Molokans didn’t drink alcohol, but they sold their grapes to those who did.

In 1988, a scientist of German ancestry named Hans Backoff Senior founded Monte Xanic and thereupon became the first maker of high-quality wines in the Valley. Others followed, and the oenologists they hired from France, Italy and Spain brought their native varietals with them. You would think the resulting wine would be a hopeless multicultural jumble, everywhere-tasting wine in the middle of nowhere.

But then you would start drinking and stop quibbling. As one of the region’s pre-eminent winemakers, José Luis Durand, told me: “That eclecticism is part of our wine’s character. It expresses the freedom that our culture affords us.”

I dined with Mr. Durand, a native Chilean, one evening in the unprepossessing oceanside city of Ensenada, a half-hour from the valley, at an Italian restaurant called Da Toni. My brilliant if endearingly attention-disordered companion makes deeply personal valley wines featuring far-flung grapes like nebbiolo and tannat.

Elsewhere in Ensenada, at Sano’s, a dignified steakhouse, I washed down my filet mignon with a silky tempranillo-syrah blend from Norte 32, whose owner, a retired pilot named Oscar Obregón, beamed modestly as I stammered out praise.

And one afternoon in the city I found, alongside a clutter of docked fishing boats, a sunny seafood shack named Muelle 3. The yellowfin tuna sashimi and shrimp puff pastry might have been flawless by themselves — but, leaving nothing to chance, I ordered a needle-sharp sauvignon blanc made by Wenceslao Martinez Santos of Relieve Winery, and perfection was assured.

In the preceding paragraph I unintentionally made the case for simply staying in the poor man’s Cabo San Lucas of Ensenada where, in addition to the excellent restaurants, the usual beach hotels and tequila bars abound and the roads are paved. I won’t stop you, though you are especially likely to regret your choice should you linger in Ensenada in the middle of November, when the so-called Baja Mil procession of Americans in off-road vehicles makes its bellowing way down the thousand-mile coastline from Tijuana to Cabo. The serene rusticity of the valley has the feeling of a place rather than a playground.

“If you come here directly from Napa, you’ll feel like you’re on a safari,” the winemaker Fernando Perez Castro said as we enjoyed a grand lunch of pig’s feet taquitos, tomato salad, radishes with black mole sauce and cabrito tortas (a sandwich of grilled baby goat) on the shady patio of TrasLomita, the restaurant on the premises of his family’s winery, Hacienda La Lomita. “But you see that this isn’t a place where big corporations have imposed a narrative. This is all about small families who actually live on the property. And along with making a tiny amount of high-quality wine, we’ve now brought tourism to the table. We’re giving our clients a full experience.”

At certain sites like La Lomita, that experience — superb wine and food in a picturesque setting presided over by a charming host — feels unassailably complete. Or it would, if there were rooms. Once Kirsten arrived three days into my weeklong trip, we stayed two nights in the area’s oldest hotel, Adobe Guadalupe, an elegant inn built in 1999 by an American businessman and his Dutch wife, who came to the valley to make wine and raise horses. Today, according to its website, the hotel is the most prolific breeder of Azteca Sporthorses in the world, and guests may ride them through Adobe Guadalupe’s vineyards.

As I prefer horses from a distance, we largely contented ourselves with the view from the hotel’s lovely pool, the armada of mountains providing a backdrop of surly majesty. Adobe Guadalupe’s conceit is that of a self-contained refuge. Its gracious courtyard and high-ceiling public rooms stocked with well-traveled books invite the visitor to proceed slowly, if at all.

Just by the entrance, a gift shop of local crafts is also well stocked with early vintages of Adobe Guadalupe’s excellent wine at startlingly low prices. More recent versions of the same wine are available by the glass at the adjacent charming food truck, which sells flavorful if strangely non-Mexican snacks. The greater disappointment comes with Adobe Guadalupe’s dinners, which feature the banal sort of beef-and-asparagus fare one encounters at Middle American country clubs.

Thus come evening we would find ourselves bumping down the unlit desert roads. One particular three-mile divot-riddled byway connecting two paved thoroughfares is the address for some of the valley’s best-regarded restaurants. These include the aforementioned veranda grill Finca Altozano; across the street, Brasa del Valle, another Campeche-style restaurant emphasizing fresh ingredients; and a quarter-mile down the road, Laja, the valley’s venerated ranch-house establishment with a prix fixe menu that leans more to the Mediterranean than to down-home Mexican. From Adobe Guadalupe, the drive to each of these is a mere 10 minutes, though getting there is not half the fun.

We were glad, then, to procure a room for our final night in the valley at Bruma Valle de Guadalupe, a first-class resort-in-the-making owned by Juan Pablo Arroyuelo, a restless Mexico City developer. When we visited, Bruma’s rambling complex consisted of six sleek guest rooms, a pool, dirt-biking trails, a vineyard, a kitchen for daytime meals and an architecturally stunning winery built out of recycled optical glass and discarded wooden beams from a San Francisco bridge.

As of this writing, two suites with private pools have been added, along with two residential villas. And this month, the resort opened Fauna, an upscale restaurant whose chef, David Castro, has spent the last several years in the kitchens of Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Though we didn’t have benefit of the on-site restaurant during our stay, just outside of Bruma’s entrance lies La Esperanza BajaMed — a restaurant situated on one of the valley’s largest vineyards and which, in addition to delicious inland Mexican fare, serves outstanding plump oysters from the Pacific. I told Mr. Arroyuelo that after days of jostling from winery to hotel to restaurant, it was a relief to find a single area that encompassed pretty much everything we craved, requiring no nocturnal voyages.

The valley’s most ambitious developer considered this. Then he said gravely: “We shouldn’t turn this into a tourist zone. It needs to stay rough.”

So there will probably be more vineyards and delicacies and luxuries, but the same steadfast absence of polish when the time comes for us to revisit the Guadalupe Valley. And a return visit is pretty much guaranteed, not least because of an occurrence one evening at a long dirt road that dead-ended at La Villa del Valle, a splendid six-room inn cradled by the desert mountains where we stayed two pleasantly drowsy days.

On one of those, after a day of poolside massages, we settled in for dinner at the hotel’s well-regarded restaurant Corazón de Tierra. There, at a table for two beside the kitchen where the servers rolled out bite after magnificently garden-fresh bite to accompany the fine local wine, I seized the moment, fell to one knee, held out the ring and asked my girlfriend to marry me.

I’m afraid I don’t recall what dishes came after “yes.” But La Villa’s owner materialized with congratulatory champagne, roses appeared in our bedroom, and from our terrace a necklace of stars sparkled over the mountains — a desert evening of the unforgettable kind.

La Villa del Valle, Rancho San Marcos Toros Pintos s/n km 88 +300, Francisco Zarco, lavilladelvalle.com. This six-room desert inn has an outdoor pool and yoga studio, excellent Mexican breakfasts, a winery made from recycled boats, and an acclaimed restaurant, Corazón de Tierra. Rooms for two start at $225.

Adobe Guadalupe, Parcela A-1 s/n, Rusa de Guadalupe, adobeguadalupe.com. Classic old Mexico: grand architecture, six guest rooms, daytime meals, an outdoor pool, a winery and equestrian activities. Rooms for two, $275.

Bruma Valle de Guadalupe, Tecate km 75, bruma.mx. Still a work in progress, this desert complex has five modern rooms, a pool, a winery built around a dead tree, dirt-biking trails and hot springs. Soon to come: more rooms and free-standing villas. Rooms for two, $295.

Finca Altozano, Carretera Tecate-Ensenada km 83, Ejido Francisco Zarco, fincaaltozano.com. A covered-outdoor country grill with delicious Baja cuisine and wines. Dinner for two without wine, about $30.

La Esperanza BajaMed, Carretera Ensenada-Tecate km 73.5 #3, 52-664-143-0999. A reliable Campeche-style Mexican grill with excellent oysters. Dinner for two without wine, about $30.

Sano’s Steak House, Carretera Tijuana-Ensenada km 108.5, Zona Playitas, Ensenada, 52-646- 174-5145. Excellent regional wine list. Dinner for two without wine, about $60.

Muelle 3, Avenue Teniente José Azueta 187, Ignacio Altamirano, Ensenada, 52-646-174-0318. A thimble-size, bare-bones port haven for seafood and an astute selection of local white wines. Lunch for two without wine, about $20.

(Note: California law allows for up to five cases of wine to be driven across the border into the United States)

Hacienda La Lomita, Fracc. 3 Lote 13, Camino vecinal Parcela 71, San Marcos, lomita.mx. An impeccable winery run by Fernando Perez Castro, who is also the proprietor of Mexico’s first biodynamic winery, Finca la Carrodilla. Have lunch or dinner on the patio of TrasLomita.

Monte Xanic, Francisco Zarco s/n Valle de Guadalupe, montexanic.com.mx. The valley’s first maker of high-quality wines.

Viñas de Garza, Rancho Mogorcito, Carretera Tecate-Ensenada km 87, vinosdegarza.com. The tasting room patio is well suited for sampling some of the valley’s best red and white wines.