By Paul Eakins
We bounced around like bull riders as the van wound down a dark and seemingly endless dirt road.
Under other circumstances, this might have concerned me and my wife in the heart of Baja California, Mexico. But this van was driven by a 30-something entrepreneur from the Los Angeles area and was headed toward a culinary and wine oasis in the desert.
This was Baja wine country, or Valle de Guadalupe, one of the more surprising up-and-coming wine and food destinations in North America.
Sure, you could drive north to well-established wine regions around Santa Barbara, or up past the Bay Area to Napa Valley. But just three hours south of Orange County is this largely undiscovered gem with not only world-class wine and food, but also a rich cultural experience.
Maybe you’ve been to Baja before, but the drug cartel violence and other insecurities may have kept you away for a while. Though the U.S. State Department continues to issue travel warnings for the region and there has been a recent surge in cartel-related killings, overall crime is reportedly down, and I felt completely safe during my recent weekend there.
When crossing that southern border, rather than insecurity I felt a sense of freedom and escape cruising down the stunning Baja coast. I apparently wasn’t alone in that sensation, as we discovered numerous other Americans and foreign tourists at the wineries, restaurants and hotels we visited.
My wife and I started our journey by meeting up with like-minded adventurers at Union Station in Los Angeles, where we were being picked up by Coast to Costa, a tour company started by 34-year-old Andrew Tyree in 2013. Tyree already had been leading trips to Cuba, Spain and other parts of Mexico when he discovered the burgeoning wine, food and beer scene in Baja last year on his honeymoon. (Yes, in addition to wine, craft beer is on the rise in Baja.)
Soon after, he expanded his operation to include weekend trips to Valle de Guadalupe.
“Every time I go down there, I’m discovering more places,” said Tyree, who used to visit the area as a youth, partying in Tijuana in the quintessential Southern California rite of passage.
But like Tyree, the region has matured beyond its party reputation.
“Even in TJ right now, it’s more craft beer-centered and wineries,” Tyree said. “The whole area’s kind of grown up a little bit.”
Our first stop wasn’t actually in wine country, but at Wendlandt, a craft brewery in Ensenada. The small tasting room attached to the brewery is just steps from a rocky coastline and ocean view. It serves a deep variety of drinks, from full-flavored ambers and dark beers to hoppy IPAs. It also operates a brewpub in downtown Ensenada.
Then it was on to the wineries, which brings us back to that dark dirt road.
As we bounced along, we could see the lights of the occasional small house or farm but little else until we arrived at our destination, the Vena Cava winery and Corazon de Tierra restaurant. The winery specializes in sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, while the hilltop restaurant – built of wood and glass and exuding a rustic feel – focuses on local ingredients, many grown on site.
There is no menu. All the food served is based on the ingredients available that day, which creates unexpected and exciting food combinations. We dined on succulent quail, tangy ceviche, oysters, a variety of inventive vegetable dishes with edible flowers and unforgettable sauces and spices.
Throughout our weekend, we visited other wineries along the Valle de Guadalupe’s Ruta de Vino (wine route). The region produces 90 percent of the wine in Mexico, which to this point is much more famous for its beers and tequilas.
At Restaurante Familia Samarin, we learned about Baja’s long history of winemaking, which goes back to Russian immigrants such as those who opened the winery and restaurant in 1905. Their descendants still operate it.
It’s a great place to stop on a hot day, since sangria is the specialty. It sells a variety of locally made jams, cheeses, apple pie and other savory items perfect for an edible souvenir. Also onsite is a small museum in the family’s original adobe home that exhibits their history in Baja.
Another winery and restaurant that have gained fame, this one for its unique hotel accommodations, is Encuentro Guadalupe. The beautiful restaurant and tasting room are constructed on and into a hill that affords breathtaking views of vineyards in the valley below and the mountains beyond.
Calling it a hotel is barely accurate, though – Encuentro features “eco-lofts,” modern cabin-like structures built on stilts dotting the hillside.
Gibran Huerta, a 30-year-old entrepreneur from San Diego who does marketing for Encuentro, said he was drawn back to the area after years of straddling the border. Despite enjoying the Baja cuisine for most of his life, he didn’t realize what the region could offer until recent years, as the scene has exploded.
“I didn’t notice the beauty of it … until I started seeing it from other people’s perspective,” Huerta said.
He said the prices of some of the wines and new hotels in Baja draw fewer Mexicans than they do foreign tourists, including plenty from Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Though unique, Encuentro is pricey – think high-end American hotel rates.
Instead, we stayed at Cabañas Cuatro Cuatros, as arranged and paid for by our tour guide. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to try the wine there after arriving late at night, but we did find ourselves surrounded by dark hills with a ceiling of stars.
The site is just off the coast highway but feels like the middle of nowhere, a perfect place to camp – or in our case, “glamp,” in comfortable, large canvas tents built on wooden platforms that contain beds, space heaters and modern bathrooms.
The top of a steep, nearby hill boasts a bar and incredible views of the deep blue Pacific Ocean far below.
If you stay overnight and need a filling breakfast before heading out for more wine tasting, try La Cocina de Doña Esthela. The small local kitchen, where you can meet Doña Esthela herself, crafts classic and flavorful Mexican dishes such as machaca (shredded beef) with eggs, chorizo and huevos rancheros.
Sitting in the small dining room or outside on the simple patio under the warm Baja sun, as fresh tortillas and mouth-watering dishes pile up on the table, you can see why FoodieHub, a gastronomy website that curates dining picks from top culinary experts, chose Doña Esthela as the tastiest breakfast in the world last year.
The region has far more wineries than we had time to visit, and it seems to be adding more every day. Those must remain to be discovered later, when the flavors, sights and ambiance draw us back to Baja.
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