Valle de Guadalupe


As we approached the border crossing, the fear began to set in. Within a few hundred yards of crossing, we encountered a full-on cartel battle. Thinking quickly, we turned down a side street, and got out of there as fast as we could. But, where was the highway? After a few turns, we were lost. Fear was now really setting in, as the locals began to gather around our car. Kidnapping crossed my mind. Could this really be happening, or was it a dream? These are the images that most people have of entering Mexico. Nothing even remotely close to this happened. It had been at least 30 years since I last drove to Mexico, so I wasn't really sure what to expect.

Sunset at Poco Cielo
We got our Mexican auto insurance, and headed to the border. Expecting a long line to get in, there wasn't a single car in front of us, and we drove right on through. Within three hours of leaving my home, I was in Rosarito Beach, having lunch with a friend, at a tiny little taco shop that the locals refer to as "Juniors". The toll road is definitely the way to go. For only $2.40 we were able to zip past the largest city in Baja (Tijuana) and drive right on down the coast. We drove the old (free) road from Rosarito, to our hotel, so we could check out the coast, and the little communities along the way. Checking into Poco Cielo, we were greeted by the owner Cheryl, who took us to our ocean view room. This little hotel is located right on the ocean, and a number of the themed rooms have ocean views. We stayed in the new "Western" themed room. That night, we ate dinner at the hotel, with the guitar playing, and the ocean waves gently hitting the shore. (video from Poco Cielo)

The next day started with a quick breakfast, then we headed down the toll road to Valle de Guadalupe, the heart of the Mexican wine country. After another toll of $2.40. we turned inland, just before Ensanada. Hwy 3 led up the hillside of an east-west positioned valley. The dry terrain didn't change much as we gained about 1,000 feet in elevation. We entered the little town of San Antonio de las Minas, and saw our first signs of a grape growing community. The maps we had were dated back to 2003, so our first stop was at the Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Museum of Vine and Wine), to see if they had anything that was updated. The maps were free, and to enter the museum, was only 50 pesos/person. This was one of the nicest buildings we had seen in Baja, and they have done a nice job of chronicling the history of wine in the country. The only issue is that everything was in Spanish. With my limited Spanish vocabulary, I was able to figure out most of the information. (video from the back of the museum)

Entrance to L.A. Cetto
With our new map in hand, we traveled first to the northeast end of the valley, just past the little town of Francisco Zarco. We turned down the dirt road, bordered on each side by vineyards. The area is very hot and dry, and most of the vines looked very stressed. There is a riverbed that runs through the center of Valle de Guadalupe, but locals told us that it hasn't had water in for at least 10 years. We pulled up to L.A. Cetto, one of the first wineries in the area. This is a large operation, and (from what we could tell) the most commercially successful. Two tour buses were there. They had a full gift shop with shirts, wines. glassware and cheeses. The tasting fee was $5/person to try four of their reserve wines. The favorite was the Don Luis (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec). However, since we are limited to only 1 liter of alcohol, per person, to bring back across the border, we didn't purchase here. The Valle de Guadalupe is not very big, so if we didn't find something better, we could always come back. (Video from L.A. Cetto)

Next we headed back down Hwy 3, and then branched off to a parallel road  (Hwy 1 according to the maps, but I'm still not sure if that is the right information). Driving through these little towns, you see the poverty of Mexico, and then you turn down a side road, drive a ways on the dirt road, and come up to a fancy new winery (Vinicola). There is a dichotomy in the Valle de Guadalupe between the "haves" and "have nots".

Lakeside tasting at Monte Xanic
We next stopped at Monte Xanic, for an outdoor tasting alongside their "lake". No tasting fee here, but then again, you only get a taste of their "standard wine". If you want to try their reserve wines, you need to make an appointment. We found similar situations at Chateau Camou and Adobe Guadalupe (both were only open to those who had appointments). Next, upon the recommendation of a friend, we traveled up the northern side of the valley to Las Nubes. This is an ultra modern winery, overlooking the entire valley. As of this visit, they have not produced wine from their own grapes (the vines are too young). Very nice Grenache, Nebbiolo, and Carignan. we picked up a bottle of their "Cumulus". (Video from Las Nubes)

Las Nubes Winery
Baron Balche was the next stop. Outside, the temperature was getting hotter, and the humidity was picking up (tropical storm Ivo was passing through). Baron Balche has a gravity fed facility, and the lower floors are all underground. The cooler temps in the cellar room, and the tasting rooms was comfortable. Most of the people in this winery did not speak English, so we were a little challenged, but as luck would have it, there was a taxi driver, hosting some German tourists, who spoke perfect English and did some translating, which led to some long discussions, and eventually some tastes of their $120/bottle Grenache, and their Grenache based dessert wine. Yes, I did write $120/bottle. It was good, but I wasn't about to pay that price.

Pijoan Tasting room
Our last stop for the day was at Pijoan. This is a quaint little winery on a small knoll. Three dogs wandered in and out of the wine tasting room. Here we had a very nice tasting, along with some local cheeses. In addition to the regular wines, we were able to get some additional tastings including a very nice dessert "port". We would have bought a number of their wines, but we had already purchased the maximum we could bring across the border. Next time!

There was another American couple in the tasting room, and the conversation turned to restaurants in the area. They had eaten at Laja the night before. An eight course meal that they said was extraordinary. This night they had reservations at Hacienda Guadalupe. The tasting room manager also recommended his favorite seafood restaurant in Ensenada, Muelle Tres.

Valle de Guadalupe from Las Nubes Winery
Most of the wineries close between 4:00 and 5:00, so we had run out of time for this trip. We headed back down the road, and reconnected with Hwy 3. Here we noticed the fruit stands, wine & cheese shops, and local restaurants that we missed on our way into the valley. Since we were so close to Ensenada, we drove into town to see if I could find Hussong's Cantina (the home of the original Margarita). Last time I drove to Ensenada, Hussong's was on a dirt road in the outskirts of town. Now it is in the center of town, and surrounded by large, loud tourist bars. Still, I found it with no problem.

Poco Cielo
So, we didn't get kidnapped, or mugged, or caught in a cartel shootout. The biggest danger we had was finding too many good wines, and no way to get them back to the U.S.  Other than the limited amount of wine, the biggest "hassle" of the entire trip was crossing back into the U.S. The wait at the border was 90 minutes, and some serious questioning from the border patrol.

Barrel art at Baron Balche
Is Valle de Guadalupe the "Napa of Mexico"? For Mexico it probably is. For someone who has tasted wines in Napa, or even Paso Robles, there is still a long ways to go, but they are on the right track. You should visit it now, because twenty years from now, you may not recognize the place. Then again, it may stay the same, as the growth in vineyard land is limited by the lack of water. New wineries are having to import their own water. What is sure to improve is the infrastructure, the restaurants, the shops. Money is flowing to the area, and it is bound to change. I look forward to going back, soon...there are over 60 wineries to still check out, restaurants to try, and cheese shops to visit.

Hasta Luego!

5 comments:

  1. $120 was in pesos.....which at the time was probably about $10, which is what you can still buy decent wines from the Guadalupe Valley.

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    1. Actually, that was in US dollars....pretty expensive for Mexican wine.

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