Do you remember that feeling in grade-school when cutting things out of construction paper simply got to be too much and you thought to yourself – “will summer ever get here?” That’s exactly how I’ve felt these past few weeks waiting for summer to finally get here. Oh, I’ve done my best to concentrate on the so-called construction paper projects in front of me. I’ve even tried to hurry things along by featuring summer foods like pickled mussels and grilled maitake mushrooms on this blog. We even had a freakish, early-season heat wave. But for me, summer doesn’t really get going until I’ve had a road trip.
Valle de Guadalupe Road Trip
Summer should be an adventure and a road trip is an adventure. The whole point is to seek out the unexpected. The Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, Mexico is the definition of the unexpected. No matter how many times I’ve been there I still get a sense of awe from the sheer originality of the place. From the Mediterranean climate to the creativity of the food and wine. A Valle de Guadalupe road trip will redefine everything you think you know about Mexico.
Mexico’s Wine Country
Valle de Guadalupe is Mexico’s wine country. This statement might cause you to raise your eyebrows, but the area has been generating an increasingly louder buzz of late. This picturesque swath of Baja is fairly close to the California border and is being compared to “the Napa Valley of sixty years ago.” Like many of the world’s great wine regions, Valle de Guadalupe melds the experience of food and wine with local terroir to offer you a truly unique Mexican adventure.
Everyone familiar with the area will tell you that there’s a renaissance of food and wine going on in Valle de Guadalupe. Sixty plus wineries are now producing wine in the valley. Farm-to-Table restaurants on par with the great eateries of Napa or Sonoma are giving Mexico’s best chefs access to impeccable local products. Even the architecture is notable (much of it by Alejandro D’Acosta, the brother of local wine pioneer Hugo D’Acosta). There’s creativity in the air, all you have to do is get down here and breathe it in.
Ruta 3 is the main highway you’ll use during your Valle De Guadalupe road trip. It’s a modern, well-travelled, smooth as silk straight shot from the border crossing at Tecate. It’s known as the Ruta del Vino and it ends at the Pacific coast just north of Ensenada. The drive takes you past many of the Valle’s more accessible spots: wineries such as the large production L.A. Cetto and the boutique-style Vinícola Retorno. The views along the Ruta are enough to justify the Valle de Guadalupe as a destination-worthy road trip. It’s an exhilarating drive – arching along the graceful curves, dipping and rising just above and below the fog. The famous fog that makes Baja’s ferociously arid climate work so well for growing grapes. Along the way, you’ll see several of the well-known hotels and restaurants like Hacienda Guadalupe looming over or nestled among the vines. Highlights include Mogor Badan, a winery, farm and vineyard that’s home to famed chef Drew Deckman’s outdoor eatery and the super-sized, open-air bistro and nightlife extravaganza Bodegas del Valle.
Thanks to the Ruta’s straight shot through the valley several of the lesser known but highly regarded wineries are also quite accessible. We were particularly impressed with Clos de Tres Cantos, another masterpiece by architect Alejandro D’Acosta. Imagine a cluster of Mayan pyramids with walls of used wine bottles unpredictably furnished with concrete easy chairs. Over 90% of the materials used to build the winery are reclaimed from the region. The interiors are lit by sunlight passing through recycled wine bottles filled with water and alcohol to amplify the sunshine. Clos de Tres Cantos is easy to see from Ruta 3. While heading south on the left-hand side you will spot a cluster of stone buildings on the hill near kilometer 81.
A Valle de Guadalupe road trip holds many more surprises. Adventurous types will be rewarded with more mind-bending architecture as well as food and wine that is not only 100% local but 110% creative. This is where Mexican superstar chefs like Javier Plascencia (Finca Altozano) and Diego Hernandez (Corazon de Tierra at La Villa del Valle) have set up out of the way campestre (campfire) style restaurants that are destinations unto themselves. This is also where a Valle de Guadalupe road trip starts to get good. Or should I say off-road trip?
Turn off at any of the dusty side streets and a rustic magic awaits. Like many of the best things in life, your Ruta del Vino experience has to be earned. That’s because the major travel guides to the area can hardly be called comprehensive and addresses are unheard of. Once you leave the paved highways that ring the valley you’ll find nothing but tangles of interconnected dust. These rutted roads may seem intimidating, but nearly all (eventually) take you back to the highway and can be navigated by reading the handmade signs dotted along the way.
One dirt road we chose to explore led up to the top of the northern foothills ending at Las Nubes, a locally favored 7-year-old winery surrounded by young vines of tempranillo, nebbiolo, and grenache. The grapes and wine may need a bit more time to establish themselves, but the exhilarating views from the enormous patio are well-worth drinking in.
Also worth every twist and turn is the time you spend at Vena Cava at La Villa del Valle. Nuanced single varietals and blends are served beneath an inverted fishing boat creating a cavelike ambiance that gives the winery its name. Of all the Alejandro D’Acosta designed sites we visited this is an easy favorite – both for the high-quality wine and the romantic atmosphere of the cool and cavernous underground tasting room. The above ground spaces are designed for the large crowds that come on the weekends, as is the casual fare served at Troika, the food truck that makes its permanent home at Vena Cava.
There are many choices for accommodations on a Valle de Guadalupe road trip. We’d previously stayed at the hotel Encuentro Guadalupe. The hillside cabins are sleek and minimal, but there’s a casual bohemianism about the place too. A sort of unpolished glamor that’s hard to describe. Modern in concept, each of the avant-garde “eco-pods” that serves as the guest rooms sit on steel stilts jutting out from the hillside; making a dramatic platform to enjoy long views across vineyards and mist-shrouded hills. This kind of unique luxury comes at a price as steep as the hill Encuentro sits upon. Still, I highly recommend them for a special occasion.
B&B Quinta Maria en la Ruta del Vino
This trip, however, we opted for a family-owned posada (bed and breakfast) that is down (way down) one of those bumpy dusty roads I’ve come to love. It might seem hard to find at first, but the road to Quinta Maria has a very distinctive landmark that helps locate the place. Just turn as soon as you see the giant brick wine barrel. In return, you’ll find plenty of privacy at Quinta Maria. It sits on a seasonal arroyo and the property is large enough to leisurely explore on foot. There are birds and butterflies as well as lizards of all stripes chasing each other across the sunny boulders. You’ll probably spend a lot of time on one of the many patios taking in the views at Quinta Maria – the garden is pretty during the day and the stars come out for nightly campfires. There are only 3 or 4 private rooms (depending on the owners mood) so the feeling is more familial than you’ll find at most hotels. But it’s also a very quiet place. I’m sure you’ll find yourself sleeping in. No worries there will be a delicious breakfast and a lazy hammock waiting for you when you finally decide to roll out of bed.
A Valle de Guadalupe road trip is the perfect opportunity to slow down and indulge your spontaneity. Because just when you think you’ve become impossibly muddled up on a purposeless dirt path you’ll suddenly discover an unexpected experience. We stumbled upon an architecturally compelling winery that had not been on our radar. Vinícola Torres Alegre y Familia is hidden away on a back road that connects the wineries Barón Balché and Château Camou. We hadn’t been looking for the place but we were convinced to stop by the beauty of the property. Sadly nobody was home so to speak, but we did peek around and discovered a back tasting patio that (sometimes) offers small plates of interesting tidbits like grilled pulpo and local cheese to anyone crazy enough to find themselves so far afield. The dust on your windshield will be as thick as construction paper, but these side roads just might reward you with experimental wines, modern cooking and cutting-edge architecture overlooking non-stop views. After all, that’s the point of summer road trip. GREG
PS If you are planning a Valle de Guadalupe road trip please note that many of the best restaurants and wineries have erratic hours. Some close unexpectedly, others are only open Thursday thru Sunday. So call ahead or let your luck persevere. There’s much to see and do on a Valle de Guadalupe road trip if you let adventure be your guide.