In the world of food, no place has a greater buzz around it right now than Mexico does. One of its epicenters is off in the far northwestern corner of the country, just an hour and a half south of the United States border at San Diego. Baja California is one of Mexico’s most far-flung states, both geographically and culturally, and recent years have found it finding its own culinary identity. Using its ocean bounty and variety of fresh produce, a new and distinctly Mexican cuisine has begun to take shape. Ingredients commonly used include locally produced olive oil and wine – two things Mexico isn’t historically known for producing.
It’s true, though – Baja California is producing wine and olive oil in spades, and this new culinary capital is looking toward the Mediterranean for inspiration. Think street tacos with grilled abalone and a drizzle of olive oil, for example. Sides could include freshly plucked vegetables and a full bodied wine to accompany it. Just inland from the port city of Ensenada lies the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s largest grape growing region, which accounts for 95% of the country’s wine production. Lacking a signature varietal or regulatory oversight, winemakers are free to experiment, and you’ll find no shortage of diverging styles and opinion on what grows best here and how. The dry, hot climate means that certain grapes – like pinot noir, for example – could off the table, though that doesn’t stop some winemakers from trying. A visit to the Valle de Guadalupe means inventive restaurants, exciting wines and a bevy of gorgeous boutique hotels to choose from.
Family-run Lechuza Vineyards is a favorite on both sides of the border – word has it that famed chef Thomas Keller just put some of their wines on the list at The French Laundry. A visit to their winery puts you directly at the Magnussen family home, where they let you sample the best their land has to offer. Across the valley, Villa Montefiori specializes in Italian, old world-style wines, which is fitting as its winemaker, Paolo Paoloni, hails from Italy originally. There’s also an excellent Italian restaurant on-site, called Tre Galline, which provides the best Italian food on either side of the border. As for the wine, favorites include their inky Nebbiolo, dynamic Aglianico and their Mexican “Brunello.” Dr. Victor Torres Alegre originally studied winemaking in Bordeaux and brings that expertise home to Mexico. Vinicola Torres Alegre y Familia is another special experience, also fusing the old world with the new in the form of exciting blends unique to the Valle de Guadalupe.
TrasLomita is on the grounds of a well-known winery in the area, Hacienda la Lomita. A walk through its gardens leads you to a sort of backyard oasis in the form of TrasLomita, where Chef Sheyla Alvarado brings the best of his Baja experience to your plate. Deckman’s en el Mogor is headed up by Michelin-starred American Drew Deckman, who is a true grillmaster. Favorites include his yellowtail collar and rib eye steak, but anything you get will be lovingly and expertly prepared in his outdoor “anti-kitchen,” which revolves around an open-air grill and prep station. Chef Roberto Alcocer also loves grilling, but dresses it up a bit at his restaurant Malva, which is tucked away against the hills just at the entrance to the valley. The tasting menu is the best way to showcase Alcocer’s expertise, giving diners the true range of Baja-style cuisine. Corazon de Tierra is the valley’s most famous outpost, where Chef Diego Hernandez shows off his range of Mexican taught and trained techniques, using strictly local ingredients. This is the valley’s hottest ticket, to be certain, and a meal here, under the backdrop of the mountains beyond and the restaurant’s garden beside it, will be unforgettable.
The cherry on top of a Valle de Guadalupe vacation is its incredibly chic boutique hotels. Adobe Guadalupe is a hacienda-style property where gourmands, wine-lovers and horse aficionados can rest easily in the center of the valley. Their wine is top-notch, as is the food on-site, and the decor eclectic, chic and cozy at the same time. For those seeking more modern-designed accommodations, look no further than Encuentro Guadalupe. The rooms at this hotel are individual eco pods set atop the hills lording over the valley, creating a stunning vantage point whether you’re staring up at the pods or scanning the vistas below them. Bruma is a yet-to-be-finished eco-luxury resort, with five stunning bed and breakfast suites completed at time of print. The goal is to have more rooms, winery operations and a restaurant, but visitors will have to make do with comfortable and smartly-designed rooms, a gorgeous pool and beautiful valley sunset views for now.
By Jackie Bryant