The Valle

Driving southeast along California’s State Route 94 toward the Mexican border is a trip back in time. Less than 30 minutes from San Diego the fast-moving freeway turns into a rural two-lane feeder that sweeps past scattered developments – including Jamul’s incongruous Hollywood Casino – and into the rolling back country along the old Campo Road, a former stagecoach route from the Pacific to Yuma, Arizona. Soon there are only plein-air landscapes of grass-covered meadows with stands of eucalyptus and grazing cattle, sycamore-lined riverbeds, and boulder-strewn ridges. The road slows through sleepy settlements like Dulzura and Barrett Junction, then pitches into a deep canyon before making its final corkscrewing climb into the mountains above Tecate.

An abrupt turnoff for State Route 188, marked only by a small white sign, is all that is left for the straight, southerly two-mile dash to the border at Tecate. The crossing into Mexico is speedy and almost surreal; blink and there is a peaceful town seemingly out of another era with restaurants, storefronts, banks, and bars (proudly serving the city’s eponymous cerveza) lining both sides of the street. Cars move slowly in light traffic, citizens quietly go about their daily business or stop to chat on the sidewalks.

Once past Parque Miguel Hidalgo (nicknamed for Don Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo-Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseñor, a Roman Catholic priest and leader of the Mexican War of Independence), Mexico’s Federal highway No. 3, also know as the Carretera Libre Ensenada-Tecate, starts its 70-mile-long traverse to the sea. It begins as a double boulevard stuttering through a handful of city stop signs, then quickly transforms into a well-maintained, lightly traveled two-lane breeze through mountains, high desert, fertile agricultural areas, and on to the wine country about 40 miles away.

At the end of a long descent a massive green and white sign over the roadway (underscored by a recent brush with a tractor trailer) announces the beginning of the Ruta del Vino, the 14-mile route through Baja’s Guadalupe Valley – known to locals as the Valle – and home to more than 125 artisan, boutique, and commercial wineries.

The Guadalupe Valley today is not just about a wine country coming of age. It is about a dynamic, unheralded desert region of industrious entrepreneurs and farmers, precarious water supplies, unexpected, dramatic modern architecture, and natural beauty to rival Napa or Sonoma. There is also a burgeoning, exciting culinary scene, with world-class chefs like Michelin-starred Drew Deckman putting down roots among the vineyards after years of cooking in Europe and the United States and taking full advantage of local sources; farm-raised meats and poultry, organic produce, but especially the superb seafood half an hour away in the coastal city of Ensenada.

Although two Valle tables rank among the top 50 in Latin America, there are plenty of fine establishments well out of the limelight, most of them at the end of bumpy dirt roads off the Ruta del Vino, or the nameless secondary route that branches off through the village of Francisco Zarco on the north side of the river and runs parallel to the wine route for most of the way to the coast. There are rustic campestre-style outdoor wood-fired eateries with endless views down the valley, charming cafés set among the vines, even gourmet food trucks offering up savory bites to accompany wine tastings.

Several one-day trips to the Guadalupe Valley in late summer, early fall, and spring – with overnights at superb bed & breakfasts – have provided a wonderful introduction to this marvelous destination.

Wine has been produced in Baja since its introduction by the conquistadors in the 16th century. Today, Vinos L.A. Cetto, founded in 1928, is the oldest (and largest) modern winery in the country, producing 1.2 million cases a year. Its extensive vineyards are visible off the left-hand side of Route 3 at the entrance to the Valle. The turnoff is well marked as are signs to the facility and tasting rooms. The long, washboard dirt track leads past chef Miguel Angel Guerrero’s La Esperanza restaurant (closed, like most places, on Mondays and Tuesdays) and the gated entrance to Bruma, a 9,600-acre vineyard property and home to Casa Ocho, its tiny, boutique bed & breakfast and nearby restaurant, Fauna.

Pours of L.A. Cetto’s five, “reserve” wines make for a cheerful and educational 30-minute tasting and introduction to the valley before driving a couple of miles down the road to investigate Encuentro Guadalupe, a minimalist resort with rooms perched like space-age outcroppings on both sides of a boulder-strewn hill rearing above the valley. The complex comprises 22 modern steel, glass, and wood eco-lofts, as well as a restaurant, swimming pool, bar, vineyard, and young winery (so far, Encuentro’s architects and designers have better taste than the wine).

Lunch, back up the road at Fauna, is an eye-opener. The elegant, modernist building of wood and glass is carved into a hillside beneath a circular reflecting pool and bar/tasting room with stunning views of vineyards and distant mountains. Fauna’s amicable young chef, David Castro Hussong, is a returned local son having honed his culinary skills at New York’s Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. His menu is both inventive, modern, and traditional at the same time, and he eagerly guides first-time visitors to the minced red clams and avocado served in their shells; tostadas with nopales (cactus) or yellowtail aguachile; grilled cabbage and housemade tortillas; a braised pork cheek borrego with Japanese cucumbers and tomatillos; and crispy, shredded lamb cooked overnight in Castro’s wood oven and served with a basket of fresh tortillas. Fauna has a full bar and wine list but a good choice for lunch is the Saison de la Casa, a hoppy, low-alcohol ale produced locally by one of Chef Castro’s friends. Lunch for three comes to US$100.

Fauna is just one element of Vinicola Bruma, a hospitality group with grand plans for the vineyard property including an espumoso (sparkling) wine facility and tasting room, artisanal craft shop, and 40-room hotel on the mountain ridge above Fauna. Guests can stay at Bruma’s two-bedroom villas next to Fauna or at Casa Ocho, their small, stylish, eight-room bed & breakfast in the middle of the vineyards. Designed two years ago by architect Alejandro D’Acosta López, Casa Ocho blends beautifully into the landscape with its clever use of reclaimed wood, tree branches, poured concrete, boulders (for the bedroom walls) and large glass sliding doors that lead to sitting areas under massive live oak trees as well as an infinity pool and spa. A centrally located kitchen turns out a delicious Mexican breakfast served al fresco under the spreading canopy of a centuries-old live oak or in a small dining area. Late lunch at Fauna followed by check-in and a quiet nap at Casa Ocho is a perfect start for first-time visitors to The Valle.

Another option, midway down the valley is the Villa del Valle and on a hot, dry afternoon, nothing could be better than arriving in a swirl of dust and within minutes diving into the Villa’s refreshing pool. The Villa is a six-room, boutique bed and breakfast created a dozen years ago by British ex-pats, Eileen and Phil Gregory. The elegantly-decorated Tuscan-style villa is set on 70 hilltop acres of desert scrub in the middle of the valley, surrounded by lavender and flower gardens, olive trees, chickens, and their own vineyards and winery. The villa also boasts chef Diego Hernandez-Baquedano’s highly rated Corazón de Tierra, (also sadly closed on Mondays and Tuesdays) and a fine reason to return some day. A short nap in a shaded chaise lounge by the pool is followed by a late afternoon offering of Phil Gregory’s ice-cold Sauvignon Blanc and assorted canapés.

Their Vena Cava winery, a short walk and/or drive below the villa, is a humorous construction of upended, recycled wooden fishing boats and pangas also designed by the husband-wife team of Alejandro D’Acosta and Claudia Turrent. And after much experimenting and guidance from D’Acosta’s brother, Hugo, a Bordeaux-trained enologist who some call the “Mexican Mondavi,” the Gregorys now produce about 36,000 bottles a year, a few even finding their way onto the wine list at Cosme in New York.

No one has been more successful at marketing the romance and flavor of outdoor cooking over wood fire here in the Valle than Tijuana chef, Javier Plascencia, whose Finca Altozano has become the touchstone for campestre-style cuisine. Food and travel writers extolling the virtues of the Valle swoon over Altozano and inspire countless pilgrimages (like ours) to this rustic, rural, foodie destination. The anticipation for dinner at Altozano is matched only by the spectacular setting, especially as the late afternoon sun suffuses the mountains and vineyards to the east with an orange glow and the fragrance of wood smoke wafts through the air… but that’s where the romance ends. From the bored host, to delinquent waiters, and soulless food, every indication is that no one is in charge and the magic has worn off, just like Bracero, the chef’s ground-breaking San Diego restaurant that was eventually shuttered in Placencia’s frequent absentia.

The spectacular setting at Altozano

The previous evening’s disappointment is quickly erased by a leisurely morning at the Villa, including a splendid Mexican breakfast of fresh coffee, mango juice, homemade granola, yoghurt, honey, melon, house-cured bacon, eggs, tortillas, and refried beans, leaving time only for a chat with Phil Gregory at Vena Cava, and a late-morning tour and tasting at Monte Xanic – perhaps Mexico’s best-known winery – before lunch and the drive home.

Monte Xanic (pronounced “sha-nik”) is housed in a sleek, multilevel concrete and glass architectural statement set into the side of a mountain and draped with hemp rope. The building, constructed in 2014, has 180-degree views over a small lake, vineyards, and mountains, and comprises an elegant tasting room and balcony, private dining room, corporate offices, winery, bottling plant, and cavernous cask cellar. Monte Xanic’s wines helped put the region on the map and today are a testament of just how far the craft has come in the 30 years since Hans Backhoff, a French-trained biochemist, and a group of investors sought to make quality artisanal wines; his influence has been felt throughout the Valle and beyond though the mood at Monte Xanic on our visit is somber as Backhoff passed away the previous day.

A friendly conversation with a young couple from Mexico City steers us to Deckman’s en el Mogor for a late lunch instead of heading back via the coast at Ensenada and taking the toll road north to Tijuana. Once again, kilometer markers – in this case, No. 85.5 – dictate when to leave the Ruta del Vino and jounce along in clouds of dust and mixed expectations toward Deckman’s, a campestre-style restaurant adjacent to Mogor-Badán’s winery and organic farm. (The winery is open only on weekends).

A series of stepping stones leads through a low canopy of red oleander blossoms, past stacked hay bales and a large woodpile of oak and carob, and into what can only be described as a fairy-tale-like setting; an open-air kitchen and dining area shaded by three towering pine and eucalyptus trees, anchored by a briskly burning, rustic brick hearth, several grills, thick wood work stations, and a central beehive oven. Simple wooden tables and chairs – set over a carpet of pine needles and gravel under low-hanging pine boughs and festive string lights – are arranged to catch the prevailing breeze and drink in views of Mogor-Badán’s vibrant green vineyard, as does a separate, tin-covered enclosure made of hay bales, chicken wire, adobe, and wood planks.

Within seconds of sitting and taking in the magical surroundings, a smiling waiter appears tableside to take drink orders and deliver a basket of piping hot, whole wheat rolls (slightly charred from the wood oven) and a plate of sensational, house-made olive oil – eliciting the afternoon’s first “who knew?” of many to follow.

Deckman’s offers a five-course Bounty of the Baja tasting menu or superb à la carte offerings such as succulent Kumiai oysters with a tiny dollop of mignonette (such a wow factor that one order was not enough); chilled cucumber, fennel, and white bean soup with fried chicken skin and mint; Sonora sirloin crudo with smoked oysters; grilled quail with chorizo powder and black beans; octopus with pork belly, cauliflower, and chile guajillo; farm-raised abalone with beets, sea urchin, and pork jowl; a simple roasted organic chicken, or marinated spider crab with gooseneck barnacles, huitlacoche, and tomato water. There is a fine selection of Valle wines including Mogor-Badán’s red blends and Chasselas Blanc as well as delicious craft beers from Agua Mala, an Ensenada brewery.

The al fresco lunch for three – hand’s down, one of the finest meals ever experienced anywhere – with drinks, desserts, and coffee comes to US$132.00 which, with a final, incredulous “who knew?” sends us happily on our way back toward Tecate, the border, and home.