Vino Mexico!

Published 04 September 12 01:40 PM

Head to Valle de Guadalupe for upscale wineries, chic hotels and a south-of-the-border answer to the French Laundry

 Luis Garcia for The Wall Street Journal



WE WERE WATCHING the kids swim in his backyard pool in Los Angeles when my friend Juan Carlos, who grew up in Tijuana, began raving about a life-altering bowl of chicken soup he'd recently eaten.

"It was at the Mexican version of the French Laundry," he said. "You know—a fancy, farm-to-table place in the middle of Mexican wine country."

I had no idea, I sheepishly admitted, there was wine country in Mexico, nor anything resembling the French Laundry. But Valle de Guadalupe is a Mediterranean microclimate in Baja California where wine has been produced for more than a century, and it's in the midst of the kind of winemaking and tourism renaissance that Napa Valley experienced in the 1970s.A decade ago, the area was mostly known in the wine scene for being home to L.A. Cetto, a huge maker of mid-market wines—the Mexican version of E. & J. Gallo. Today Valle de Guadalupe boasts scores of artisanal wineries; the region's wine has improved and become trendy enough to be served in fashionable Mexico City restaurants. Top chefs are opening eateries in the area, and several stylish boutique hotels have been built in the past few years.

It sounded irresistible, so a few months later, I found myself caravanning, with Juan Carlos, his wife and my husband in one car, another couple of friends in theirs, across the Mexican border and south on the Tijuana-Ensenada Cuota toward Valle de Guadalupe, a 3½-hour ride from L.A.

We ditched our plan to drive directly to the valley when Juan Carlos pointed out Bar Villa Ortega, his favorite spot in Puerto Nuevo, for Pacific lobster, placemat-size flour tortillas and micheladas—pressed lemon over ice with beer in a salt-rimmed glass. We sat on a spacious covered patio built on a bluff, making us feel like we were eating on the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

We arrived in the valley with our bellies full of lobster and ears full of mariachi music. Flanked by low sierras, a carpet of glimmering green vines heavy with fruit stretched over the valley, interrupted by the occasional winery. These varied in style from sleek, modern structures to rustic haciendas. If it hadn't been for the dirt roads and the lack of a chic town square, I would have thought I was in Sonoma.

We pulled into Adobe Guadalupe, a six-room bed-and-breakfast I had chosen for its website photos of a pretty hacienda with a pool—an undersell, we realized as we gaped at our surroundings. Don and Tru Miller, a retired American banker and his Dutch-born wife, finished building their retirement dream in 1999. It fulfilled his lifelong ambition to make wine, with a 60-acre vineyard, winery and cave, and hers to breed Azteca horses, with a stable and dressage court. The home is decorated with Ms. Miller's European crystal collection, local art and a subtle angel motif.

We hurried down to the wine cave for the tasting that came with our stay, and Mr. Miller plunged a glass thief into oak barrels of his red blends.

"When we got here 14 years ago, there were a dozen wineries, no bed-and-breakfasts, no restaurants," he said. Today, there are some 50 wineries, a couple of internationally-recognized eateries and, by my count, at least 10 attractive small hotels. Though American tourism dwindled in the past three years amid Mexico's drug war, well-heeled domestic tourists have made up the difference, Mr. Miller said. And this summer, several sources told us, U.S. visitors are trickling back.

"Our biggest obstacle to growth is restricted water," said Mr. Miller, the first of many winemakers who would describe the trouble securing well permits, the cost of water and the salinity that affects some wines.

That night, we supped in the Millers' dining room on rock cod, produce from their garden and a magnum of their excellent Kerubiel, a Syrah-Cinsault-Mourvèdre-Grenache blend. Later, we spotted stars from the outdoor Jacuzzi; Baja's night skies are considered among the clearest in the world.

The next day, we checked off wineries on my itinerary, as well as several that Mr. Miller insisted we visit. We were fascinated by La Lomita, completed in 2009. It was conceived by the scion of a Mexicali family, with help from a childhood friend who studied winemaking in La Rioja, Spain. The tour showed off ultramodern equipment and the circular structure built around it that allowed grapes to be crushed on the top floor, poured into fermenting tanks on the level below and naturally cooled between thick stone walls. (The winery is also famous in Mexico as a location in a popular telenovela, "Cuando Me Enamoro.")

A Merlot festival under the oak canopy at Viña de Liceaga winery offered a lot of too-warm Merlot offset by a to-die-for spit-roasted lamb taco. We sampled local aged cheese and snapped up artisanal bread and cookies. The loft-like tasting room at Monte Xanic felt like a speak-easy, with tables of stylish Mexicans sipping refreshing unoaked Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.

That night, we rattled down bumpy dirt roads to Laja, the restaurant several food blogs have dubbed Mexico's French Laundry. One look at its rustic wooden dining room, linen-free tables and lack of personnel belied the comparison. We ambled to the back patio, overlooking a garden and vineyard, unmet by staff. The laid-back service would never cut it with Thomas Keller, but it didn't feel neglectful, simply relaxed.

The meal consisted of perfectly cooked kohlrabi ravioli in beef essence, Baja sea bass and braised Wagyu beef with zucchini, butternut squash, and leeks that tasted as though they had been harvested hours before. After sorbet with plum granita and lemon foam, and a fruit salad in orange liqueur for dessert, we decided to test a line on the menu that appeared to indicate we could order seconds for free.

"It's true!" our waiter said gleefully before bringing us refills. The four-course menu (five, if you count the two desserts) with plentiful wine, tax and tip, came to $67 a person. Laja, I decided, had little in common with the French Laundry other than complete loveliness, in its own way.

The next day, our group divided between horseback riders, who rented Ms. Miller's Aztecas for a guided tour to a mountain view of the valley, and visitors to Tres Mujeres, a hobbit-size winery where Ivette Vaillard and two colleagues make wine with equipment owned by a small cooperative. Ms. Vaillard has been slowly building up the little winery for 30 years, demonstrating how it can be done without millions of dollars. When we bought an unlabeled bottle of the women's rich six-grape blend, she signed the bottle.

For lunch, we steered into Almazara, a new restaurant from Tijuana-based celebrity chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero Yagües, deep in what was once Latin America's largest olive grove. We nibbled on inventively-sauced sashimi and marlin tacos, while the chef, in his trademark camouflage chef coat, described how the grove will be thinned to make way for a boutique hotel, spa, wine club headquarters and a golf course.

I could picture his vision: The boom in this valley will mean more restaurants, wineries and hotels, and more people like the Millers or Ms. Vaillard who will see the potential of this pocket of Latin America. As long as the water issues are mitigated, Mexican wine will continue improving, and sophisticated global investors, artists and tourists will discover the region.

I want to come back to see how the future unfolds. But that hot afternoon, as the silvery grove of centenarian olive trees shook in a welcome breeze, I felt grateful to have discovered it now. 


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