Uncovering Mexico’s best-kept secret, one glass of wine at a time.
A confused brow furrow, a side-eyed glance and then a bemused smirk precede the question, heavy with doubt and a hint of patronization: “They make wine there?”
That’s the reaction I get when I tell people I’m going to Mexico’s Baja California to report on its wine region for a travel piece. Comically, it’s the same reaction I get days later when I tell the people of Baja about Arizona’s three wine-growing regions.
“Hacen vino allí?”
“Sí,” I say. “Vino bueno.”
In fact, the winos of Baja have more reason to be perplexed. Our wine industry is a bebé compared to theirs. Baja’s oldest winery, Bodegas Santo Tomás, was founded in 1888 and is still one of the largest wineries in Mexico today. Baja has more than 100 wineries, most in its rocky yet fertile Valle de Guadalupe, and produces 90 percent of Mexico’s wine – a stat everyone from winemakers to my tour guides are quick to boast to me. It’s received national and international press, from The New York Times to The Guardian. Now it’s PHOENIX magazine’s turn to see what’s up in Baja.
The strangest part of all of this is that I, of all the people on the PHOENIX staff, am acting as ambassador between these two wine regions. Before this gig, I rarely drank. A year ago, I didn’t know a Cabernet from a Merlot, and one glass of wine was enough to convince me that everyone around me was impossibly charming and probably geniuses. But here I am, fresh off reporting for our Arizona Wine Country guide (September 2014), with a lot more wine knowledge, a slightly more discerning palate and a marginally higher alcohol tolerance.
¡Salud! Bienvenidos a mi aventura.
If you don’t want to drive your car all the way down to Baja California, you have two travel options. You can take a quick flight to San Diego, get a taxi to a border crossing, walk across and meet a driver from your hotel. Or you can drive to the border, park in a secure lot, walk across and meet a driver from your hotel. I’m doing the latter, parking at a paid secure lot mere yards away from the border, maintained by the staff of the adjacent TC Worthy Cash & Carry (405 Tecate Rd., Tecate, California, 619-478-5666). I make a wrong turn about 15 minutes before I reach the Tecate border, causing me a nearly hour-long detour to correct myself. Take it from me: When you’re about 20 minutes out, use your phone’s or car’s GPS to help you complete the journey.
Crossing the border is a breeze, and after a few steps I’m whisked away by Francisco Moyado, one of five tour guides/drivers employed by the Hotel Coral & Marina (Carretera Tijuana-Ensenada Km. 103 #3421, Zona Playitas, 22860 Ensenada, BC, 800-862-9020, hotelcoral.com) to ferry guests to and from the airport and on tours of the Ruta del Vino, Baja’s expansive wine trail. Lucky for me, Moyado is an expert on wine – he even makes his own at home. Somewhere between my rusty Spanish and his clipped English, we find a common language of Spanglish wine appreciation.
At the hotel’s swanky Bistro & Cava, my first meal in Mexico is seared ahi followed by ceviche and then cod in a rich and creamy sauce topped with threads of zucchini and carrot, all atop a glorious risotto. The seafood parade is a sign of more to come – nearly every meal I eat in Baja involves the ocean’s finest in some form. I get my first taste of Mexican wine with dinner and am pleasantly surprised by how velvety and complex it is. The Casa Magoni Chardonnay and Baron Bálch’e Cabernet Franc are the perfect bienvenidos to Mexico.
After a buffet breakfast at Bistro & Cava (which includes a made-to-order chilaquiles station, satisfying my addiction each morning) and a tour of the hotel, I try the latest craze in Baja wine country pampering at the hotel’s C Spa: Vinotherapy, a spa treatment using local winemaking byproducts. Grape leaves, stems, seeds and skins are used in scrubs and moisturizers for an aromatic all-over body treatment and massage, which comes with a glass of chilled white wine. Sustainability has never felt so glamorous.
I pour myself back into the tour van and am squired to three of the coolest wine destinations in Baja. Malva Cocina de Baja California (Carretera Ensenada-Tecate, Km. 96, San Antonio de las Minas, 22755 Ensenada, BC, +52-646-155-30-85, minapenelope.com/malva) is a restaurant perched on the side of a hill, flanked by vineyards on either side. Sheep and goats roam on top of the hill, producing milk for the restaurant’s cream, butter and cheese. Chef Roberto Alcocer’s innovative approach to nouveau Mexican cuisine is apparent even in the restaurant’s art, two colorful murals that remind me of Barrio Cafe back in Phoenix. His food is polarizing, according to nearly everyone I speak with in Baja, but I love it. I inhale an open ravioli with shredded beef, wheat berries and blobs of fried bone marrow drenched in an earthy sauce, paired with the house wine, a slightly spicy Grenache Mourvedre.
The next two wineries I visit are both owned by Fernando Perez Castro, a charming young entrepreneur and Renaissance man who cares as much about the art and history of his properties as he does about sustainable wine-making. Finca La Carrodilla (Parcela 99 Z1 P14, Ejido El Porvenir, Ensenada, BC, facebook.com/fincalacarrodilla) is a biodynamic winery with a huge rooftop garden overlooking the vineyard and leading into the second-story tasting room. Hacienda La Lomita (Carretera Ensenada, Tecate Km. 13, 22760 Ensenada, BC, +52-646-156-8459, haciendalalomita.com.mx) is a sprawling property with a restaurant and gardens in addition to a playfully chic tasting room. A huge, art-lined circular grape-sorting area feeds directly into vats below in the wine-making room, and grand arches frame the Mexican landscape beyond. Perez Castro says he’s part of a new generation of winemakers who are taking the existing infrastructure of the Mexican wine industry to the next level. “In a way, we as Mexicans are rediscovering what wine can literally bring to the table,” Perez Castro says. “We have a more global vision in terms of how to make wine.”
Back at the hotel, I get a break from wine with the Marina Grill’s superb margaritas – the mango and tamarind are tops. Because of the high number of Americans living in boats in the hotel’s marina (it’s the only hotel in Baja with its own marina), ‘80s and ‘90s music videos on VH1 Classic blare from screens on the grill’s patio overlooking the water. It’s strange hearing “Billie Jean” overlapping the staff’s rapid-fire Spanish, but even a few of the servers can’t help singing along.
On today’s itinerary are a classic and two newcomers. First, L.A. Cetto (Av. Canon Johnson 2108, Hidalgo, 22130 Tijuana, BC, +52-664-685-3031, cettowines.com), which was founded in 1928 and still draws huge crowds for its hourly wine tours, indoor and outdoor tastings and picnics. The highlights for me are a sweet, fresh Chenin Blanc called Blanc de Blancs, which tastes like a crisp pear, and a ruby-red petite Syrah that tastes like a spicy bowl of berries with a hint of dryness at the end. The grounds, like those of every winery I’ve visited here, are beautiful, with gazebos, flower gardens and arbors everywhere you look.
A new restaurant on the Ruta del Vino is giving the wineries a run for their money – world-renowned chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero’s new La Esperanza (Carretera Tecate-El Sauzal 22750, Valle de Guadalupe, BC, +52-664-648-1267, facebook.com/laesperanzabajamed) is absolutely gorgeous, from both design and culinary standpoints. The décor is farmhouse-chic meets Latin sophistication, with lots of clean, bare wood accented with natural stone, potted succulents and dark fabrics. The restaurant’s open dining room is situated above a blanket of grapevines, which Guerrero’s wife Judith describes as La Esperanza’s “carpet.” There’s not an official menu when I visit, on its second day of business, so the kitchen improvises a tasting of Guerrero’s famed “Bajamed” cuisine, a mix of Mexican, Asian and Mediterranean ingredients and influences that has revolutionized Mexico’s culinary world and put Baja on the international foodie map. From a seafood cocktail (coctel de mariscos) to a portobello and pork belly taco, I echo the world’s praise.
I finish my day with a trip to Baja’s two-year-old Museo de la Vid y el Vino, or Wine & Vine Museum (Carretera Federal 3, 22750, Valle de Guadalupe, Ensenada, BC, 011+52-646-156-8165, museodelvinobc.com). English cards and an English-speaking guide are available for non-hispanohablantes to explore the history of wine around the world and in Baja California. Massive, floor-to-ceiling windows overlook – you guessed it – a vineyard, and Mexican wine bottles from throughout the years are displayed in hulking panels. After hearing my guides talk about the rich history of Baja wine over the last few days, it’s gratifying to see the art and artifacts firsthand.
Alas, it is time to say “adios” to mi querida Baja. After one last dish of chilaquiles (and a made-to-order quesadilla with homemade corn tortillas), I pack up my things and head to the border. For a final taste of Mexico, my guides suggest a trip to El Mejor Pan (Zona Centro, Benito Juárez 331, 21400 Tecate, BC, +52665-654-0040, elmejorpantecate.com), a panadería (bakery) serving sweet and savory treats. To detox after all the wine and rich food, a trip to Vida Jugos & Smoothies (Blvd. Costrero #1970, Local 33 Plaza Artesanal, Ensenada, BC, +52-646-132-0683, facebook.com/vidajugos) might be more in order. It’s owned by Gerardo Martinez Reyes, one of Hotel Coral’s guides, and his wife.
As for me, I’m homesick and craving comida americana. I wonder which wine would pair best with a cheeseburger...
Comida y Vino: Pairings
Historically, wine has been difficult to pair with Mexican food, says Hacienda La Lomita and Finca La Carrodilla owner Fernando Perez Castro, due to its high acidity and copious spice. Torta ahogada, a sandwich drenched in flaming chile de árbol sauce, is “impossible – it’s too hot,” he says. Perez Castro says these traditional dishes lend themselves to successful wine pairings:
Cochinita Pibil Slow-roasted pork marinated in adobo, from the Yucatán province. “It goes incredibly well with rosé.” Find excellent versions at Gallo Blanco and Barrio Cafe in Phoenix.
Ceviche Ubiquitous in coastal areas, seafood, onion and tomato are “cooked” by acid from citrus fruit. “Mexican chefs take a more friendly approach [with the acid] now in order to pair it with wine,” he says. He’d serve ceviche with a Sauvignon Blanc. Try the pairing with ceviche from Mi Comida Restaurante Latino in Glendale.
Chiles En Nogada The meat-, fruit- and nut-stuffed chiles (popularized in Phoenix by Barrio Cafe’s legendary iteration) originate from Puebla. Perez Castro says Grenache is the perfect foil for its “complex flavors.”
Or: How I Learned to Start Road Tripping and Love the Bomb. ...
Locals’ Las Vegas
Eat, drink and play like a native in the rehabilitated heart of Nevada’s most notorious city. ...
Great Arizona Campsites and Cabins
From cowboy-chic cabins and high-altitude campsites to recreation-rich mountain retreats and old fire guard stations, we've mined... ...
We traversed the dusty back roads of Arizona to find secret splash spots, hidden hikes, off-menu delights and more. Join us for a furtive foray into the dark heart of Phoenix... and beyond. ...
52 Weekend Adventures - 2016
From fireworks in Lake Havasu City to foraging in the forests of Flagstaff, our guide promises grand excursions for every week of the year. ...