The Toast of Mexico

Baja’s up-and-coming wine country will have visitors pouring in

By: Kimberly Thorpe

When the American film “Sideways” was released in 2004, California’s wine country became synonymous with romance. Tourists flocked to the region and journalists wrote about it in the first person. The pink sunsets and inherent sexiness of wine became ubiquitous descriptions in the media’s coverage. This unanimity was not for a lack of originality, but rather due to the universal beauty of vineyards. Mexico now also has a wine country that can be just as romantically described. Only, it’s a little early to do so. Baja California’s Ruta del Vino (Wine Route) is on the way to becoming a popular getaway.

Today’s Baja wine country is a vast and arid valley, sparsely populated and incredibly underdeveloped. The region’s 23 wineries hardly dominate the landscape, consisting of the rolling valley floor, winding dirt roads, an occasional home and a handful of abandoned houses. It’s quiet and at times, very empty. It’s not until after approaching the vineyards that you see other tourists’ cars. And then you must pull over to one side of a narrow road.

The signs that hint at the region’s upcoming success as a popular tourist destination are as present as the unobstructed sunshine in the valley’s basin. This is good news, especially for western U.S. residents. The drive from Los Angeles to the wine country is only four hours, a feasible weekend escape. But the crux of a wine region’s success lies ultimately in the quality of its wine. Fortunately, Mexico is experiencing a renaissance of caliber in the wine industry, as the owner of the Adobe Guadalupe winery explained. After a three-day trip to the region, the group of wine experts I traveled with agreed that more than a few of these wines are ready to compete internationally.

As with any wine region, Mexico’s wine country is striving for identification, and for now, the blended wines are the strongest. One of the most complex blended wines surfaced at L.A. Cetto Valle de Guadalupe, one of the largest wineries. Try a glass of their Terra Reserve red wine, a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot grapes. There were also excellent wines made simply from Merlot grapes, such as the 1999 Gran Reserva Merlot at Vina de Liceaga. After tasting a glass, one wine specialist remarked that it was the second-best Merlot from North America that he had ever tasted. Sometimes the winemakers will urge you to try a wine while in a stage prior to its peak. We did just that at Bodegas de Santo Tomas winery, and took small tastes from the fermentation tanks. Once again the experts agreed: The 2006 harvest was going to be a great year for Mexico.

The winery owners are showing confidence in their wine and in the region’s potential as a greater tourist attraction. Many of the wineries either already offer, or are constructing, a gift shop, parking lot and an expansive wine-tasting room. At Monte Xanic winery, a large pond was constructed purely for aesthetics. The Mexican Board of Tourism put up tall signposts that read La Ruta del Vino and display directions to the next winery along the route. Five years ago, the vineyard owners and local businesses in the region were able to change the area’s zoning to forbid any future construction unrelated to the wine industry.

There are only three bed and breakfasts in the area, along with a handful of places to camp. Yet, during our visit we saw two more hotels under construction and near completion. The Adobe Guadalupe winery and Bed & Breakfast is an incredibly charming and elegant hotel that has been there seven years. The one-story structure surrounds a courtyard containing a fountain, a swimming pool and hot tub overlooking the vineyard. It’s also one of the only wheelchair-accessible places to stay. A four-course meal is available for dinner for an additional fee, and breakfast is included for $168 a night.

There is also the one-year-old Las Brisas del Valle B&B that was built in accordance with feng shui principles, and has served as a yoga retreat. Earthy shades of rose, blue and beige extracted from the region’s soil color the walls, and each room has a private balcony with views of the valley (rooms are $150).
Authentic Mexican food is delicious, and the food around the wine region is no exception. Our group ate mostly in nearby Ensenada, where the downtown teems with nightlife. A great place to start your trip is at Capricho’s Restaurant in downtown Ensenada, which offers elegant-looking plates of food, like shrimp in mango sauce, and carries over 100 Mexican wines. Then, depending on which wine you enjoyed, you can plan your wine-tasting tour accordingly. The most exceptional Ensenada restaurant was Seis Veinti Tres, both for it’s uniquely modern style frosted glass and abstract art and noticeably fresh seafood.

Mexico’s wine country may not be as renown or developed as California’s Napa Valley, and yet, it still has a lot to offer it’s more economical and gives tourists the chance to experience the new face of Mexico.
Visit www.discoverbaja for up-to-date information for planning clients’ trips. On the Web site, click the wine country link for a list of wineries and hours of operation, tour companies, lodging options, cuisine and most importantly, a map. To avoid international fees at the airport, fly clients to San Diego instead of Tijuana. While some rental car agencies allow you to drive into Mexico, many do not. Check online for various Baja wine tour companies that can pick clients up and drive them around.