Baja Wine Crushing It

Bajadock: Another glowing article on Valle de Guadalupe.  One small correction is on the article’s “1 bottle” note at the end. Per my Nov 15 2014 Post and my personal experience explained in that post, the 1 liter limit is for a California driver’s license visitor.

UT San Diego

— Who does that? That question kept popping in my head during a recent stay in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe. Who opens an upscale restaurant that’s all outdoors? Who builds hotel rooms that look like storage containers planted into a rocky mountainside? Who constructs a winery out of salvaged boats? And who (wine purists, avert your eyes!) blends nebbiolo with cabernet sauvignon?

Forward-thinking risk takers in the Guadalupe Valley, that’s who.

Travel and wine writers may have crowned this burgeoning wine region “The Next Napa,” but that title is too easy and too wrong.

After three days in the Valle, I may have never gotten an answer to my rhetorical question, but I did determine that Mexico’s most dynamic wine region isn’t like Napa Valley — or like anywhere else I’ve been.

In the Valle — as with my other wine travels, to Italy’s Tuscany, Spain’s Rioja, Argentina’s Mendoza, France’s Rhône Valley and, yes, Napa, — I saw stunning architecture, ate world-class cuisine and drank soul-soothing wines. But in Baja, I felt a singular spirit of adventure and nonconformity that you simply can’t bottle.

It’s sophisticated yet genuinely rustic, traditional but wildly hip and innovative, welcoming and wary all at the same time. These contrasts are not only part of its charm, they’re part of its identity.

And now they’re part of mine, because since I’ve been back in San Diego, I haven’t been able to get some of the sights, smells and tastes of the Valle out of my mind.

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Adobe Guadalupe is a picture-perfect whitewashed hotel that features critically acclaimed El Jardin de Abode restaurant.

NO RULES

One of the first things you’ll see is the dust; it’s a desert, after all, and except for a few key paved roads, you travel about mostly in a swirl of dust, bouncing along on uneven dirt.

Pristine Napa it’s not. Which suits most locals fine.

The pioneering, French-trained winemaker Hugo D’Acosta is attributed with saying, “Bad roads make good tourists; good roads make bad tourists.” But that brown dirt isn’t only a deterrent to limos crammed with drunken bridal parties. It’s essential to making this such fertile wine country. Drainage-friendly, porous soil, coupled with warm, sunny days and coastal-cooled nights, gives the Valle ideal grape-growing conditions.

Yet unlike nearly every major wine region in the world, the Valle has no signature grape. There’s chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and carignan, grenache and nebbiolo, syrah and tempranillo. Head-spinning blends work more often than not, though even the failures are embraced.

“We grow about 50 grapes in the Valle,” said Erick Plata, who poured me D’Acosta’s nuanced Vino de Piedra tempranillo-cabernet blend at the marquee winery Casa de Piedra. “There are no rules. Here, the only rule is if it’s good, do it again. If it’s not, don’t do it again.”

Among the seven wineries I visited — from the corporate, longtime player L.A. Cetto to the brand-new, organically and biodynamically farmed La Carrodilla — Casa de Piedra, Mogor Badan and Adobe Guadalupe were standouts.

Mogor Badan, founded by a European couple (he was Swiss, she French), looks like it’s out of the Provençal countryside, its stone wine cave the stuff of eno-fairy tales. Fittingly, the wines were a dream, balanced Bordeaux blends. A large organic farm and one of the most noted restaurants, Drew Deckman’s Deckman’s en el Mogor, are also on the property.

When I checked into the Adobe Guadalupe, a gorgeous, stately Mexican hacienda, I was poured a welcome glass of Uriel rosé, a crazy blend of seven normally mismatched grapes. Delicious and juicy, I knew I was at the right place. A tasting of six reds is included with your stay (as is breakfast in the sprawling Mexican-tiled kitchen) but if you want more, there’s a tasting room outside the hotel’s gate. Or have some with dinner in the hotel’s dining room, where Adobe wines are paired with chef Marta Manriquez’s vibrant multicourse meals.

With the Adobe’s picture-perfect whitewashed hotel, chef Ryan Steyn’s critically acclaimed El Jardin de Adobe restaurant, owner Tru Miller’s world-renowned Azteca horses and even its funky new food truck, the wine can be overlooked. But it shouldn’t be. The robust blends, all named after archangels, are textbook examples of what happens when you are reckless with tradition but precise in execution. There’s that contrast again.

BEST LISTS

Two giant boulders sit inside chef Flor Franco’s recently opened chic cantina, Convivia.

“They were really heavy to get up here,” she joked during my visit. Franco, who also just opened Zarco in Chula Vista, is part of a wave of talented chefs who are fueling the Valle de Guadalupe’s status as a critical darling among culinary tourists from Mexico City to New York.

Along with Franco, the roster of chefs who’ve opened restaurants in the past few years includes Javier Plascencia (Finca Altozano, a hyper-rustic campestre), Miguel Ángel Guerrero (La Esperanza, at L.A. Cetto), Roberto Alcocer (Malva, the aforementioned all-outdoor eatery). They’re all strong proponents of modern Baja cuisine, cooking with only with the region’s bounty of local ingredients — produce, seafood, meats, artisan cheeses, Valle olive oil.

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A cheese plate from Convivia, which is located at Encuentro Guadalupe. Photo by Michele Parente

Franco’s bold flavors match the setting of Convivia, which is atEncuentro Guadalupe, the eco-friendly luxury resort with the most improbable of accommodations. The design of the Encuentro’s 20 minimalist cabins, on stilts on a mountainside among mammoth rock formations, has drawn global attention. In 2012, it was named Best Small Hotel on Travel + Leisure’s Design Awards list.

That same year, T+L named Corazón de Tierra, at the six-room La Villa del Valle, Best Hotel Restaurant.

Owned by British expats Eileen and Phil Gregory, La Villa del Valle is like a refined country estate whose winery, Vena Cava, looks like it was built by your salty, sea-loving loopy uncle. The winery’s unconventional style, made from recycled boats, and placement in the middle of a field of dirt and vines, led NPR to call it “The Hippest Winery in Mexico.”

And under chef Diego Hernandez, Corazón de Tierra is consistently named one of the best restaurants in Latin America. Why limit it to Latin America? My six-course lunch was a masterful progression of flavor, texture and technique, from the delectable charred octopus with burnt eggplant purée to the beet-four-ways dessert.

You could taste how much thought went into that meal. But — contrast again! — this is a kitchen that loves an on-the-fly challenge. When I first sat down, my waiter explained how my meal would go (there is no menu).

“If you’re full after the fourth course, we’ll skip to dessert,” he said. “If you’re still hungry after the fifth course, the chef will go get something from the garden and improvise.”

Really? Who does that?

If you go

• The Valle de Guadalupe is about 90 minutes south of the border, easily accessible by car.

• Choose wisely when buying from the 100-plus wineries: You can only bring one bottle of wine per person back to the U.S.

• Tasting rooms can keep irregular hours and many are by appointment only; make sure to call ahead.

• Information on wineries, restaurants, lodging, events and more can be found on the Discover Baja website.

• Various companies offer private tours; one of the more authentically foodie-centric companies is the LA-based Club Tengo Hambre.

• Drivers can be arranged through companies like Baja Wine Tours; tel. (888) 671-9842 or email info@bajawinetours.net

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