Ever curious and hungry for adventure, Elaine Masters is a passionate traveler and digital storyteller. As founder of Tripwellgal.com she thrives on variety, from following fishing trends to cocktail culture and uncovering unsung destinations. Elaine hunts for stories, pictures, and video across the planet from her San Diego base. A scuba diving and seafood fanatic, she agrees with Helen Keller that, "Life's an adventure or nothing."
Rows of grapevines flow down from your seat on an elegant hillside veranda while your fingers rest on a goblet of deeply satisfying wine. A platter of local cheese, olives, and bread is tempting at your elbow. That scene repeats itself dozens of times daily in the Valle De Guadalupe in Mexico's Baja California, the arm of the country that protrudes into the Pacific Ocean.
Valle De Guadalupe has been heralded as the "New Napa", but it's truly a realm of its own.
The Valle is also a cultural phenomenon, with Michelin Star and award-winning chefs opening multiple restaurants; glamping (fancy camping!) and boutique hotels host tippling guests, and the villages dotting the Ruta de Vino abound with local celebrations.
With nearly a hundred vineyards, the Valle wine region is not a new endeavor. After the fall of the Aztecs in 1521, Cortez planted Spanish grapes across Mexico, and they thrived in the sheltered heat of the Baja valleys.
Today, many of those varietals remain in a strong Mexican viniculture, and international growers have set their stakes in the mineral-rich soil as well. Wine makers from across the globe have settled in the Valle including Casa de Piedra Winery co-founder, Hugo D'Acosta. D'Acosta has a French background and his co-founder, Thomas Egli is Swiss.
Dr. Backhoof of Monte Xanic is of German descent, and Tru Miller of Adobe Guadalupe hails from Holland. Russians are represented in the Valle as well; The Molokans fled persecution in Russia nearly a hundred years ago, and those interested in a rural lifestyle planted grapes in the Valle. Today there are only four families left, and they run a bakery, museum and restaurant.
There are a multitude of tour companies taking groups small and large into the Valle, but it's also easily accessible by car. Either way, do not forget your passport! Repeat visitors with US passports can apply for Sentri cards (a trusted-traveler customs program) when they join the TSA program. It's not a quick process, but having the card speeds up re-entry into the US.
If you drive in be sure to purchase Mexican Insurance before leaving the US. It runs about $20 a day depending on the vendor.
From San Diego, you can drive straight down the I-5 to San Ysidro and into Tijuana. Then follow signs to Ensenada toll road and cross east into the Valle. This is the most scenic route, but not the fastest. At the Otay Mesa border crossing, enter Mexico and follow signs for Tecate. The Toll Road going east is a swift and scenic drive to Route 3, which turns south to the Valle. Other drivers venture south on Highway 125, cross into Tecate then continue south on Highway 3.
Once in the Valle, you'll find that many of the wineries are set along dirt roads. Be prepared for a bit of dust!
Museo del Vino
For a Valle winery overview, consider stopping in at the Museo del Vino on Route 3 for a glimpse into the history, identity, industry, and art of wine-making in the Valle. You'll have to resist the temptation to stop for a wine-tasting before you turn into the Museo parking lot.
Wineries large and small
This list is a tiny representation of the many wineries in the Valle. Consult a map to plan your itinerary.
- El Cetto is one of the largest and first wineries with tours and several levels of wine tasting. It's on the north end of Route 3.
- Dona Lupe is east of El Cetto, just down the corrugated dirt road. It's a small winery with big ambitions. The family recently built an enormous shop, extended its patios, and often feature live music. Definitely pick up a bottle of their olive oil.
- Encuentro is also on the north end of the Valle, on the hill above the highway. It's a sweeping modern building with a tasting room, space for meetings and parties, as well as an underground cellar.
- Decantos Vinicola is a futuristic setting for a winery. The building sweeps up and out, with a wrap-around patio for views. Decantation or gravity is used to eliminate the need for mechanical pumping from receiving the grapes to bottling. Visit the cool tank rooms for a welcome respite from the afternoon heat.
- Chateau Camou is one of the oldest wineries in the area. Built into a shadowed hillside, the winery looks modest. But here you will find internationally renowned vintages. Their 1996 Gran Vino Tinto Merlot put Mexican wines on the map.
You may never have tasted the Valle's wines, but it's not for lack of trying. Mexican rules allow huge tax incentives for wine imports, but little encouragement for in-country production. It's difficult to get the wines into the US as well. Try to sneak some in, and you may be issued a fine for the trouble of watching border officials pour your delicious vintage, mezcal, or tequilla out in front of you. Excruciating!
A few of the wines are available at markets like Whole Foods in San Diego, but the best way to find which variety is to your taste is to visit. If that's not possible, purchase through a private importer such as Truly Fine Wines in San Diego.
Where to eat in the Valle
Decide on a strategy or you may find yourself full of sliced meats, cheeses and bread from your tasting adventures. That would be a shame, as dining out in the Valle can be spectacular.
- Dona Esthela's -- Winner of the Best Breakfast in the World award. Home-grown feasts, as authentic as they get. A modest setting for astounding breakfast and lunch.
- Deckmans al Mojor -- Michelin star chef set up temporarily and never left. The best mix of local ingredients, seafood and meats served al fresco
- Animalon -- Chef and cookbook author Javier Plascentia set his intimate restaurant beneath an Oak tree. Eating here is a feast for all the senses.
- Laja -- Called the "French Laundry of the Valle."
Where to stay in the Valle
Whether it's a glamping adventure, an Airbnb cabin or a luxurious resort, hospitality in the Valle is friendly and comfortable.
- Adobe Guadalupe is a private villa where horse-breeding and vineyards complement the hospitality. The building is a Spanish-colonial wonder built around a central fountain with a wine cellar below. There's also a food-truck and wine shop for those not staying at the Adobe.
- Maglen Resorts offer three boutique properties in the central Valle. Each is spacious and constructed of local stone, brick, and wood. Two restaurants are on the property.
- Cuatros Cuatros is a bright development on the lip of a hillside above the sea. There are glamping tents, a set of boats turned into a landlubber's restaurant, and a popular bar set for sunset views.
- Campera -- Sleep in a bubble! There are ten bubble-tents with full services and each offers spacious night views. Set in the Valle's central plain.
- Airbnb: Budget conscious and independent travelers will find high and low-cost choices across the region.
A trip to the Valle de Guadalupe is a culinary and wine-tasting adventure to cherish. With articles by The New York Times, Sunset magazine and others, cruise passengers being shuttled in from Ensenada, and multiple tours crossing down from the border, this place is poised for a sudden influx of tourism.
But you can avoid the crowds. Just remember that in less two-hours south of San Diego, you can be relaxing with a wine glass, a gorgeous view, and plenty of places to wander.