Feasting in Valle de Guadalupe

In Destinations, North America by Kathryn Lejeune

Valle de Guadalupe is one of those rare places that is both modern and innovative while remaining true to the spirit of their traditional culture. Residents here have a deep respect for their land, and in return have been blessed with a rich bounty that utilized to its full potential. Rather than trying for a consistent menu, cuisine is focused on whatever is freshest of the moment. The wine, as I was frequently informed, is all about quality over quantity. As a result, both the food and the wine of this Mediterranean like valley exhibit a robust diversity bursting with carefully curated flavor. Chefs from all over the world are flocking to Valle de Guadalupe, at least ten new wineries open each year, and the accolades are pouring in.

Hearing a rumor of the beauty of the drive, we decided to try the back route from San Diego, bypassing Tijuana and the coast. Enormous smooth boulders completely cover the mountains, creating a bizarre and wonderful landscape as we sailed down the newly paved Route 3. Before too long, we were in green valleys with handpainted signs advertising spiced olives and homemade marmelada. As we passed bustling tiendas and horses grazing in wide open fields, we wondered aloud that we had only driven ninety minutes from the border. After passing a half dozen or so wineries, the unmistakable lofts of Encuentro greeted us from their high vantage point on a hill.

The unique minimalist cabins are a stunning sight and yet perfectly in tune with their surroundings. Described by its owners as an anti-resort, Encuentro was developed with the idea that true luxury exists within a balance of privacy, leisure, and harmony with nature. A fabulously mustachioed man named Cuco drove us up the dirt road from the lobby. Though deceptively small from the highway, as we approached our loft we could see they were actually quite large. A tall, impressive door swung open to reveal a bright white blend of rustic and modern decor. I hooked up my iPod to the sound system and music streamed all around me from the in-wall speakers as I tried out the waterfall shower. Later, we sipped sparkling sangria and snacked on a plate of local cheeses by the infinity pool as we watched the sun set over the valley and turn everything golden. In the morning, we made our first winery stop at Las Nubes, sitting down with owner and oenologist Victor Segura.

Sipping our way through each vintage, we discussed the past, present, and potential of Valle de Guadalupe. His green eyes flecked with gold sparkled in the morning light as he looked out over his vineyards. “The valley right now,” he reflected, “is experiencing a gastronomical revolution. We knew we could not compete with Napa in terms of quantity, so we decided to focus on quality.” Though Victor insisted that there was no organized faction dictating the methods by which wineries and restaurants operated, he did admit that most follow a similar philosophy, which values organic, sustainable practices and uses only the best possible local ingredients. The dedication to the earth goes even further, I noticed, influencing the very aesthetic of the valley.

On weekends, Las Nubes partners with Criollo to offer wine tasters a variety of globally influenced tapas. We sampled each with delight, though our favorites were the chorizo montadito with roasted peppers, pesto, and local cheese, and the peach ricotta with prosciutto and arugula. As for the wines of Las Nubes, Victor’s thoughtful personality could be seen in each glass, whether he described it as happy or elegant. His secret to crafting a good wine? Listen to the grapes, they will tell you what they want. From there, content and contemplative, we headed down more dusty roads to Monte Xanic winery. Modern and elegant, with a Palm Springs vibe, it is surprisingly difficult to see until you’re right upon it as it is blended perfectly into the valley. Offering a subtle collection of wines that are highly sippable, Monte Xanic is an excellent stop on the route to take advantage of their veranda with fireplace.

Finca Altozano is another must stop, though we were still so full from Criollo’s excellent crostinis that we could do little more than taste a few dishes and admire the rustic open design of the restaurant and kitchen. Open spring through autumn, depending on the weather, Finca Altozano has an award winning menu and oyster bar, fresh every day from Ensenada. Long tables make it perfect for communal dining with big groups. Originally a summer home with vineyards planted merely for decoration, Viñas de Garza is a family run winery that has won numerous awards and boasts several wines over 90 points despite its short time in production. The wines of Viñas de Garza reflect the family, according to daughter Melissa Garza, exhibiting bold and robust flavors. While sitting on their flowered tasting veranda, I asked her what their secret was and she smiled, saying, “It is my father and the personal care he takes with each aspect of the process. He is a control freak who loves what he does.” As we were coming to expect from the leaders in the region, the Garzas are dedicated to sustainability. Melissa assured us that everything that can go back into the earth, does. Take a closer look at the gravel on the road, for instance, and you will see the tiny black rocks are actually grape seeds leftover from the winemaking process. With advance notice and a group of eight or more, it is possible to arrange for a premiere tour. This special tour provides an intimate look into the inner workings of the vineyard with one of the family members as guide, and Mother Garza cooks up a plate of homemade bites in an exclusive section of the tasting area. After a few more winery stops, we headed to Malva, where Chef Roberto Alcocer has teamed up with childhood friend and oenologist Veronica Corona for their own unique take on the region’s gastronomic aesthetic. It’s a small operation, currently offering less than a dozen vintages, but, as we were coming to expect from the valley, it was all about quality, locally sourced ingredients. Alcocer has been hailed as one of the top new chefs in Mexico, and his approach is a refreshing blend of innovative and traditional. Even as we pulled up, we saw him returning from the gardens with a large handful of greens, freshly harvested. He crafted a feast for us, featuring tuna, partridge, rabbit, pork, and an incredible variety of vegetables and edible flowers. During dessert, Veronica joined us at our table. “Do you like the ice cream?” she asked us, “we milk the goats every morning.” Yes, it’s that fresh.

Down dusty roads with no names, but carefully posted with signs, we found La Villa del Valle, a luxury bed and breakfast with an eclectic ranch charm. Eileen and Phil Gregory are expats who found their way to the valley in order to put their knowledge of sustainable practices to good use. Through their careful stewardship, seventy acres of vineyards, orchards, and gardens have blossomed tremendously. Twenty thousand lavender plants make the air smell like heaven, and you, too, if you buy a bottle in their organic beauty line. La Villa del Valle’s extensive grounds also feature a rock labyrinth perfect for meditation, and a tree-lined path that leads to the pool, hot tub, and yoga studio. Wine tasting is available at Vena Cava just down the hill, a unique structure made from overturned boats and found objects. The six rooms of the villa are beautifully appointed in a luxurious Mexican ranch style and filled with artfully arranged paintings and sculptures done by the owners, their friends, and other local artists. Anyone so inspired is encouraged to make use of the community guitar or borrow a book from the large bookcases that cover an impressive diversity of authors and topics. I selected a well worn copy of Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to peruse on my semi-private balcony overlooking the fountains and gardens.

Also sharing the land is Corazon de Tierra, recently voted one of the top 50 restaurants in Latin America. This small restaurant is a beautiful combination of modern and traditional, with raw wood and metal accents, and chairs of all sizes upholstered in traditional Mexican textiles, making a colorful feast for the eyes. A burbling pond hugs the tall windows, which looks out onto the gardens. During dinner, a breathtaking sunset lit the room in rose hues. Having heard so much about the craft beer of the region, I elected for Astillero IPA from a small microbrewery in Ensenada which was floral, hoppy, and an ideal balance of sweet and bitter. Though celebrated head chef Diego Hernández Baquedano was out for the evening,  Francisco Ruano, aka “The Mayor”, crafted a custom six course meal for us that was much like an orchestrated symphony, running us through a citrusy fish and avocado appetizer, colorful salad, tender octopus, deconstructed shepherd’s pie, grape palate cleanser, and a dessert that showed of the diversity of the local figs. The valley comes alive on the weekends, with many wineries also offering tasty bites.

During the week is a slower pace, which will ensure a more intimate experience. Many restaurants are only open Thursday to Sunday or weekends, so check before you go. Fresh rosemary and lavender add both flavor and beauty to nearly every water carafe offered.  The best time of year to visit is fall and spring, as summer can be quite busy and winter weather brings a chill. Every August the valley bursts with activity during the Wine Harvest Festival, though its increasing popularity makes it necessary to book lodging and events up to eight months in advance. Valle de Guadalupe is a testament to the partnership that can exist between humans and the land, showing unequivocally that when respect and love are put into the earth, it is repaid ten times over. Throughout our visit, despite feasting unreservedly, we were left feeling bright and nurtured. This is an exciting time for the valley, and in years to come, if the current philosophy is adhered to, it will surely prove to be a gastronomical paradise unrivaled in the world.