Control freak? Who, me?
After 36 years of life experience and numerous online personality tests (am I the only one who could do these all-day-long?), I have come to understand that I like being in control. I like creating google spreadsheets for vacations, buying tickets to events months ahead of time, making reservations and just generally knowing what’s going to happen. Surprises? Generally not a big fan.
I can rationalize it by saying that given limited time, planning ahead is the best way to ensure I get to do what I want to do and not be disappointed. But admittedly, it is not just a rational effort, but one that runs deep somewhere in my unconscious and the lack of it tends to generate a certain level of anxiety. I like to know what I am doing and what to expect.
For the most recent 4th of July vacation, however, a combination of a hectic work schedule and travel meant I found myself with days to go with no plan in hand. A great friend in Seattle threw around the idea of exploring the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, Mexico. In my opinion, Mexico is my spirit country and I travel there often for work and for fun, but had never visited that northwestern state. She said the place had vineyards. And nice hotels. And possibly a spa.
I mindlessly clicked on links she sent our way and did what felt like 10 minutes of research before deciding that maybe, just maybe, this time around, I could just go with the flow. Go with her plan without much investigation. I trust her taste and sense of adventure and instinctively knew that this could not turn out badly. I need to do that more often.
Valle De Guadalupe
Some are calling it the Napa of Mexico. Just 1.5 hours from Tijuana and about 2 hours south of San Diego, the Valley benefits from a mediterranean microclimate that receives humidity from the Pacific Ocean some 25 kms west but reaches high temperatures in summer when water access is a challenge. The area produces nearly 90% of Mexico’s total wine production but the scale is still small…it feels personal. The most widely cultivated varieties are similar to those grown in California including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot but also Carignan and Tempranillo. The rosé wines are highly pigmented and some are even made by mixing red and white wine together. I am sure the French would rather die but we really enjoyed the Rosa del Desierto produced by Clos de los Tres Cantos and brought some bottles back home. In my research, I learned that drought conditions can result in high salinity in the soil which in turn can make some grapes taste salty. This is a interesting and not an unpleasant experience, and you can definitely taste this in some of the red wines.
The area has been producing wines commercially since the 1980s but only recently, the world has started to notice. In July 2019, the area felt new and exciting, where many hotels are still adding rooms to cater to increasing tourist demand and restaurants and vineyards are expanding capacity. It does, however, have sufficient infrastructure to provide activities for a week-long trip – but the general feeling is that there is more to come. We felt a wave of inspiration in seeing a new area develop and grow, providing opportunities to create something new.
How to Get There / Transportation
From San Diego, we took an uber to Tijuana intending to cross the border by foot. The drive is almost too easy, however, as after passing an unattended toll road booth; road signs started popping up in Spanish and large colorful billboards advertised Mexican products. As we looked at a giant Mexican flag waving on top one of Tijuana’s hills, the uber driver concernedly asked: are we already in Mexico? We seriously hope that Joy, our driver, was able to painlessly make her way back to San Diego as she did not have a passport on her! (and it was her first day on the job!). So word of caution to drivers.
Although we considered the self-driving option from Tijuana down to the Valley of Guadalupe, a combination of security concerns and expectation of high levels of wine consumption led us to opt for a driver who would stay with us during the whole trip. Best decision ever. Not only was he knowledgeable about the area, but he also had the most impressive collection of road-trip related gadgets that you could ever need. Running low on cellphone battery? Jose Luis has a portable charger. The car stereo not up to par? Jose Luis has a bluetooth operated, portable speaker with strobe lights. I recommend you enquire with rental car agencies that can also provide you with a driver for your time in the region.
Where to Go / Vineyards
Reading the introduction you may have thought I was a carefree fairy on this trip, but let’s not exaggerate 🙂 We still called and contacted wineries to schedule visits and made restaurant reservations – I recommend you do that as some have specific slots for cellar tours. Many of these not have websites but you will find them on Facebook.
What a start to this trip. As you drive south along the scenic highway from Tijuana to Ensenada, you will be #blessed with Pacific Ocean views on your right and imposing cliffs on your left. Perched on top one of these cliffs is Cuatro Cuatros. I cannot stress enough how relevant to your trip is that you go here, especially if you can make it to the sunset. Insider tip 1: Before you go to the lookout bar, you can purchase a bottle of wine in the reception bar area for a much lower price and bring it up with you. Insider tip 2: It does get chillier as the sun sets so buying a poncho at the reception area gift shop is encouraged. I love my friends for reassuring me that this ~lewk~ worked for me given the surroundings. You will have many golden hour photo opps – check out the view from the bathroom sink!
Clos de los Tres Cantos
I first read about this small winery in an online design magazine. Pyramidal shaped structures made out of local stone and repurposed materials make for an austere, but organic environment. We were lucky to be hosted by Erica (previously worked at Monte Xanic) who was gracious, friendly and knowledgeable. We were very intrigued by their almost transparent white wine called Paradoja (Blanc de Blanc) and the aforementioned rosé, Rosa del Desierto. This is a small winery so be sure to make a reservation.
The OG of the wineries in the area and one of its largest producers and winner of many awards. Email confusion meant we missed our slot to visit the cellar but the wine tasting area by a small lake is very pleasant and breezy. My friend Coco brought the 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend back to Seattle and confirmed it was a hit even outside its habitat.
Recommended by our adopted Mexican uncle, Jose Luis, this winery is set on a hill and you can see it from the main road. Overlooking the green vines from the terrace is a welcome respite from the generally arid surroundings. No reservations necessary and children are not allowed.
Set inside a mission-style church facade, the tasting room of Adobe Guadalupe has a selection of local products for purchase in addition to their eponymously named wines which carry catholic saint references and its “Lucifer” mezcal. There is a food truck permanently parked next to its front garden with wooden benches and umbrellas creating a very charming set up. Everyone recommended we eat there but we already had other plans, so next time!
With the Pacific Ocean only a few kilometers away, this area has access to extremely fresh seafood while also being famous for lamb and heartier meat dishes. There were no bad meals on this trip. Prayer hands emoji.
Also important: restaurants close early so consider this when making plans.
Part of the El Cielo winery, this is a large restaurant next to the vineyards with a large garden that would be perfect to let your children and/or pets roam freely. We enjoyed a smorgasbord of octopus (yes, order it), tuna (yes, order it) and rib eye (yes, also order it). We were so happy and full and giddy. Good times.
First of all, reserve as this is probably the most popular restaurant in the area. After a heavy protein intake, we were excited that they made heavy use of their grill to simply prepare vegetables like red peppers, zucchini and Brussel sprouts. We had a delicious rosé by Casa Magoni followed by a cucumber mint green drink and a lot of water. As we learned on this trip from our keto-expert friend, good carbs (fiber) are deducted from total carbs so I think we were good diet-wise, all things considered.
Another popular spot, this is an outside/inside restaurant where you enter into a traditional adobe house with the most Pinterest-worthy flower decorations and twinkly lights. An American chef manning the outdoor grill gave me Francis Mallman vibes and felt so right for the place. This restaurant is going for more inventive interpretations of local ingredients compared to the more traditional renditions. Tip: the Flintstones-sized bone marrow dish should come with a warning as it most definitely should be meant for sharing.
Our choice was the Hotel Boutique Valle de Guadalupe. The hotel is set on a large property with two pools, a restaurant and gardens. It is quiet and frequented by a combination of California couples, groups of friends and many local Mexican tourists. The pool area is serene and the rooms are spacious.
Moral of the story: Letting go of control can be great. Especially when a trusted friend is at the wheel.