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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 california.com 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.