Is This The Next Napa Valley?
The Valle de Guadalupe wine region in Baja California is making a name for itself as a place where some of the world’s best wines are being crafted.
Wait, did we say great wines? Made in Mexico? Absolutely! In recent years, wines from the Valle de Guadalupe have been winning international awards, including two silver medals in the 2016 Vinalies Internationale wine competition, organized by the Union of Winemakers of France and held in Paris. That’s right, Mexican wines are winning awards in French wine competitions.
Wine lovers everywhere are taking notice, and the Valle de Guadalupe has been attracting visitors in droves, fueled by articles in prominent publications like Food and Wine magazine, Forbes, and the San Francisco Chronicle heralding the region as “the Next Napa Valley.” Sunset Magazine also produced a video about the valley’s delights:
As wine lovers and prior residents of the California Bay Area, we were intrigued. We were already pleased to have discovered several excellent Valle de Guadalupe wines available in local La Paz wine stores and restaurants, so on a recent weekend, we headed north with some friends to check out the source of these amazing wines. On our visit, we found the “Next Napa Valley” moniker doesn’t do the region justice. The Valle de Guadalupe has its own unique charms, and visitors planning a trip there will find many options for outdoor adventure, wine tasting, great food and more. Boasting over 100 wineries, the valley has grown from a quick detour for travelers on the way through Baja to a stunning destination in its own right.
Our goal for the trip was to visit the Valle de Guadalupe, sample the wines from multiple vineyards, and enjoy a taste of some of the local cuisine. Locals told us that summer is the busiest time in the valley, but that the weather that time of year gets very hot. We planned our trip for October, and found the weather to be perfect, with warm days and cooler nights. As a bonus, the wineries were not at all crowded. We just missed the Guadalupe Valley Wine, Food and Music Festival held in September.
La Paz is just a short 2-hour flight from Tijuana, so we decided on the following five-day itinerary:
- Day 1: Fly from La Paz into Tijuana and spend a night on the town.
- Days 2-3: Hire a driver to take us on a tour of Valle de Guadalupe wineries.
- Day 4: Head back to Tijuana for one more evening out on the town.
- Day 5: Return to La Paz.
Day 1: Tijuana
We flew out of La Paz on Volaris, a Mexican airline that has daily direct, round-trip flights from La Paz to Tijuana for just over $100 per person. The small La Paz airport is only a 15 minute drive from downtown La Paz, and from El Centenario, where we live, it is even closer. This makes it easy to fly from La Paz to destinations throughout Mexico with minimal hassle.
We were through security in just a few minutes, and landed in Tijuana a short time later. On the taxi ride out of the airport we could see the border – including the infamous wall. We had booked our stay at the Grand Hotel Tijuana, located on Blvd. Agua Caliente next to the popular Revolucion restaurant district and overlooking the Club Campestre Tijuana golf course. The hotel is modern with full amenities, and our stay included full breakfast buffet. The rooms facing the golf course side were clean, comfortable and nicely appointed. Rooms facing the city were older and not as nice, so if you stay there, ask for one of the newer rooms when you book your reservation.
One of our friends is a Caesar salad aficionado, so our plan was to have dinner at Caesar’s, a world-renowned restaurant established in 1927, where Caesar Cardini is said to have invented the famous salad. When we arrived, the restaurant was packed, so we were glad we had made reservations. We were seated at a table in a side room, just off the main room and right next to the band, which was setting up to play. At first we thought this might be a less than desirable table., but we were soon proved wrong! The band, Baja Beats, was sensational, and we enjoyed the music throughout our dinner, singing along to popular tunes and clapping enthusiastically to the beat.
We selected a nice red blend from (where else?) the Valle de Guadalupe from the wine list, and ordered pulpo (octopus) from the numerous delicious-sounding tapas appetizers. After the appetizers, our waiter arrived with the Caesar salad cart. We watched as he masterfully prepared the dressing, mixing anchovies with plenty of garlic, and expertly separating egg yolks, whisking in olive oil and then showing us the dressing before tossing it with fresh whole romain leaves and parmesan cheese. We were not disappointed, and agreed it really was one of the best Caesar salads we’d ever had. Our entrees of beef wellington and fresh ravioli were also excellent, although at that point we were glad we had decided to split two entrees among the four of us, which barely saved us room to finish off the meal with a decadent chocolate dessert. Full and happy, we headed back to the hotel feeling very pleased with our kickoff into the weekend, and more than a little impressed with the Tijuana food scene.
Day 2: Wine Tasting in Valle de Guadalupe
The next morning our driver arrived in front of our hotel, and we were a bit dismayed to find him driving a compact Fiat Uno! Not to be deterred, the four of us, and our luggage, all crammed into the car, which was a pretty tight fit, and set off for the valley. Good thing we all knew each other so well!
Since it was too early to check in to our hotel, we headed to Cuatro Cuatros, a winery and soon-to-be-built residential development just south of the main road into the valley. The winery features a restaurant with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean from atop the hill. Since the restaurant was not open yet, we headed to the tasting room instead. It was an impressive building with soaring wood and iron doors, and a dramatic covered patio leading to the tasting room. We remarked that it seemed a perfect place to hold an event – maybe a destination wedding. It was also one of the pricier stops on our tour, with a tasting of three wines costing $500 pesos per person. Ouch! We decided to split 2 tastings between the four of us, and sampled a few of the wines, all reds. They were good, but not exceptional, so we headed on to our next stop.
At Lomita Vinicola Mexicana we tried the Sacro and Pagano red blends, taking our glasses to the large viewing room where we sat in hanging chair hammocks on the covered patio overlooking the valley. The large airy room featured Mexican folk art painted on the walls, and we peered down into the barrel room below. Each of us had a favorite of the wines we tasted, but after our tasting we agreed we were getting hungry.
We bypassed the touristy restaurant that our driver advised would require a long wait, and, on his recommendation, headed on down the road to La Cocina de Dona Esthela. The local cowboy style restaurant is known for its borrego (wood roasted lamb) and shredded beef machaca, both served with fresh hand-made tortillas – we watched the tortillas coming fresh off the press just beyond our table. The lamb was delicious, a little bit spicy and juicy, with extra broth served on the side. One of us also ordered the elote hot cakes, and they were fabulous – sweet and fluffy – it would be worth the visit just to order those alone. With a pitcher of delicious lemonade to wash down our lunch, we left full and ready to continue our tour.
Next up on our list was Vena Cava, self-proclaimed “The Hippest Winery in Mexico.” The winery’s unique wine cave and tasting room is constructed out of salvaged boats brought down from Southern California. An outside bar serves appetizers, wines by the glass or bottle, and artisan beers on tap. There is also some great local fare available from the on-site food truck. We tasted the Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, and both were very nice, but the Big Blend was the star of the tasting.
After a full day of driving, eating and tasting wine, it was time to check into our hotel. We were booked into the Hotel Boutique Valle de Guadalupe, a small beautiful hotel with a variety of rooms, suites and villas, an on-site restaurant, called Fuego, a pool, a full stable for horseback riding tours, and a soon-to-be-built spa that is due to open in 2019. The basic room was on the cramped side, but for just a bit more our suite offered a more luxurious experience, with modern furnishings, a spacious room and a walk in rain shower. Several separate covered seating areas are scattered around the property, including one with a fire pit, to gather and relax.
The morning’s wine tastings and lunch had made us sleepy, so we all headed off for a quick siesta. For dinner, we had reservations at Deckman’s en el Mogor, a renowned farm-to-table restaurant owned by the valley’s only Michelin-starred chef. We arrived just as the sun was setting, admiring the farm’s rustic charm. The grilled vegetable plate was the perfect way to start the dinner, and the roasted pork and fresh fish entrees we ordered paired well with the Cruz Vineyards’ 2016 red blend and local beers on tap.
Day 3 – Valle de Guadalupe
The next morning we decided to switch to a different driver with an SUV, which had been offered by our hotel when we checked in. In our more spacious ride, we began the day’s tasting at Bruma, a young but growing winery featuring an 8-room bed and breakfast, David Castro Hussong’s restaurant Fauna, and some really excellent red wines from one of the valley’s up-and-coming winemakers, Lulu Martinez Ojeda. The Bruma tasting room is stunning, with an octagon shaped glass barrel room centered around a 300 year old oak tree that extends through the ceiling and up through a shallow pond above it. Artwork from the famous Mexican artist Cesar López Negrete hangs on the walls around the room. It was stunning, and we found the wines were equally as impressive.
Our next stop was Vinicola Solar Fortun, a remote wineyard where a large patio for tasting overlooks the valley. Santiago Lopez Viana (son of founder Jose Alberto Lopez) is the winemaker and was serving us that day, telling us stories about each wine we tasted. We tried the lighter Mourvedre as well as their award-winning O Positivo and Noble Cru blends. All three were very good.
By then we were feeling hungry again, so our driver took us to a small restaurant called Xato Cocina de II inside the Bodegas del Paraiso and led by Victor Jara, former chef at Fuego. While we had planned on a quick casual stop, we were pleasantly amazed when our lunch arrived. The shrimp tacos were fresh and tasty, but the duck burritos were to die for – and both dishes were as beautiful as they were delicious! It was one of those gems you are glad you discovered by foregoing a larger, more expensive stop.
The day was not yet over, so we headed to the last two wineries on our list – Chateau Camou and Quinta Montasterio. Chateau Camou offered old-school European charm with some very good reds and a quick tour of their cellar, while Quinta Montasterio offered a more relaxed tasting room, featuring equally nice reds paired with a tasty cheese plate we picked clean.
We hopped back in our car for a short drive back to our hotel for another much-needed siesta before dinner at Fuego. We had been looking forward to eating at the restaurant based on the wonderful breakfast we’d had that morning. However, despite having a reservation, the restaurant seemed overwhelmed by the unexpected crowd on their way to see a popular singer at a nearby winery. When our dinner finally arrived it was okay, but not great. Given the circumstances, we chalked it up to timing, and wandered over to one of the fire pits where we sat sipping the last of our wine and enjoying warding off the chill of the evening with a wood fire.
Day 4 – Tijuana
We all agreed we were done tasting wine, and ready to head back to Tijuana. The drive back was uneventful, and after checking back into the Grand Hotel we decided to wander out for some lunch. We were pleasantly surprised to find a gourmet sandwich shop named Wild Cypress just across the street that featured locally sourced, organic ingredients, home-made potato chips and artisan beers on tap. It was delicious.
After heading back to our rooms for some rest and relaxation, we headed out one last time to experience Tijuana’s cuisine. This time we were lucky enough to find that Restaurant Casa Plasencia (same ownership as Caesar’s) was walking distance from our hotel, no taxi ride required. Not only did we get to enjoy another classic Caesar salad prepared at the table, we also sampled some excellent local carne asada. A great finish to the weekend!
Day 5 – Home to La Paz
We deemed our trip a success and well worth it, but all that eating and drinking had us tired and ready to get back to our normal routines. A short 2 hour flight later, we were back, relaxing on our terrace and enjoying the view of the Bay of La Paz. Luckily, we didn’t have to worry about bringing wine back with us on our flight. We were told many of the wines we tasted are available in La Paz stores and restaurants, and most of the wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe will ship their wines anywhere within Mexico.
There are over 100 wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe, and we barely scratched the surface of all the valley has to offer, so we are already discussing ideas for our next trip. Should we change our accommodations and stay in one of the hillside “eco-lofts” at Encuentro Guadalupe, or the swanky Casa 8 bed and breakfast at Bruma? Which restaurants should we try next? (tip: Fauna and Finca Altozano are tops on our list). We also decided that adding in some outdoor activities, like cycling or hiking, to balance out all that wine tasting and eating would be a good idea.
Luckily, there are many options to choose from. As inexpensive and easy as this trip turned out to be, we will definitely plan another visit next year.
Local drivers are very knowledgeable about the area, the wineries, the restaurants, and the accommodations. They can also help you make reservations since some of the wineries require them. It’s also a good idea to have someone else driving who is NOT doing any wine tasting, which means your group can fully relax and enjoy the ride.
- Ruta del Vino Tours: https://www.facebook.com/uvasparavino/
- Marrufo’s Tours: https://www.facebook.com/TransporteRutadelVino/
Multiple tour companies offer travel packages ranging from a simple 1-day visit to a guided multiple-day tour, most of them starting from the border crossing in Tijuana (or from Ensenada if you’re already in Mexico).
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