Last fall I decided to forgo my predictable escape to the beaches of southern Baja for a long weekend in the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s emerging wine region just east of Ensenada and a short drive south from San Diego, California. Though dusty and undeveloped, several recent openings of unique small hotels, are suddenly transforming Valle de Guadalupe into a destination for wine and food enthusiasts who are looking to experience something new south of the border. While Valle de Guadalupe is nothing like Napa – nor does it aspire to be – it combines several things that make a visit worth your while: good wine, plentiful sunshine, delicious farm-and-sea-to-table Mexican fare, and intimate, luxurious accommodations.
Bruma Casa 8: Set back from the highway on the edge of an expansive vineyard is Bruma, an exquisite small hotel tucked beneath the shade of 100-year old oak trees. The eight rooms, constructed of concrete and steel, are minimally decorated, and while they may not have all the creature comforts of a resort stay, are incredibly comfortable and appointed to take in the views of the vineyards and the mountains beyond. Breakfast is served al fresco beneath the massive oak branches, and consists of Mexican mainstays such as chilaquiles and juevos rancheros. While afternoons can be spent tasting wine all over the valley, a few hours by Bruma’s picture-perfect swimming pool is a relaxing alternative to winery hopping. Enjoy a bottle of Bruma’s crisp Sauvignon Blanc or grab a Pacifico from the honor bar behind the pool. Pass the time relaxing in the peace and quiet of this special little country house – you will feel like you are the only person there, save for the house dog, Bruno, who putters about, begging you to play with him.
Casa 8 is the first phase of a larger planned development of the Bruma property, which has grown to include a winery, restaurant (Fauna), and villas that are currently under construction. But don’t worry, there is no intent to grow Bruma into a massive development, and there is every intent for the roads to remain dusty. If you are looking to visit on a weekend, book well in advance, as Bruma is the most coveted reservation in Valle. $$$
VALLE DE GUADALUPE
Fauna: The new restaurant adjacent to Bruma’s winery was our favorite meal of the whole trip. Chef David Castro Hussong, a native of Ensenada, has cooked all over the world, but when the opportunity to run Fauna presented itself, he decided it was time to come home. The beautiful contemporary space with soaring ceilings and concrete floors is heavily accented by natural wood and steel beams. The restaurant's dining room opens up to an outdoor patio with two long communal tables that lead to organic gardens. All the food produced in Fauna’s kitchen is either grown on the property or sourced locally, with special attention to fresh seafood from the Pacific Ocean. In addition to serving Bruma’s wines, Fauna has an excellent selection of tequila and mescal. $$$
Deckman's en el Mogor: Award winning chef Drew Deckman is a household name in the food community in Baja. Built on a bluff overlooking the vineyards below, Deckman's restaurant is the pioneer of sustainability in the valley. From the construction of the restaurant's outbuildings, to the way it uses and recycles water, to the sourcing and preparation of the food used to prepare each dish; Deckman's brings the Slow Food movement to Valle.
Everything on the menu at Deckman's is prepared and cooked outside over the open flame. While fresh Baja oysters and seafood are considered house specialities, the locally sourced beef is equally outstanding. Deckman's is a great place for a late afternoon multi-course lunch. However, if you aren't up for experiencing a tasting, be sure to ask for the a la carte menu. When booking, request patio seating, as the alternative indoor adobe seating, while lovely, lacks the view and ambiance of the patio. $$$$
Animalón: Animalón is a seasonal fine-dining restaurant set beneath an enormous oak tree in the middle of a field. The brain child of renowned Mexican chef, Javier Plascencia, the cuisine of Animalón focuses on ingredients grown and sourced in Baja. To reach Animalón, the road takes you to Plascencia’s mainstay restaurant, Finca Altozano, a bustling, noisy outdoor establishment. After you park in the dusty lot, and realize that Finca Altozano is not actually Animalón, follow the twinkling lights that lead you down a path through the dark, dark night, to a restaurant that appears as if out of nowhere. Adorned with candles and lanterns hanging from the branches of the 100-year old oak tree, Animalón is an intimate culinary oasis that should only be experienced when you are really hungry and ready for a feast. $$$$
La Cocina de Doña Esthela: One of the ways I like to judge a restaurant is by the number of locals waiting in line for a table. La Cocina de Doña Esthela is that place in Valle where everyone comes for brunch – tourists, and locals alike. Expect delicious traditional Mexican fare, but be prepared for an absence of alcohol on the menu – they don’t have a license. $$
Bar Bura: Perched above the Pacific Ocean, and part of the Cuatros Cuatros development, Bar Bura is a short drive from Valle and affords visitors the opportunity to experience the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Be prepared for an experience that includes dusty dirt roads, hay bale seating, craft cocktails, and epic vistas of the setting sun. $$
Taco Stands: Yes, there is a lot of fine food in Valle. But there is also great traditional, inexpensive Mexican fare to be found at the local taco stands and food trucks that populate the towns throughout the valley. So, if you get tired of bivalves and ceviche, look no further and you will find tasty carnitas and refreshing shave ice! $
da Toni: On your way back to San Diego, when you feel like you need a break from Mexican food, stop for a leisurely Italian lunch at da Toni in Ensenada. Serving excellent Italian food, this long running establishment makes all their pastas in house and serve one of the best Veal Milanese that I have had outside of Italy. A meal at da Toni is the perfect way to end your stint in Valle and to fuel up for the inevitable wait to cross the border. $$
La Guerrerense: If you take the route to Valle that passes through Ensenada, be sure to pull up to La Guerrerense, a street side food cart that serves some of the best seafood ceviche and tostadas in Baja. $
ON THE SIDE
Visitors come to the Valle de Guadalupe to eat and to taste wine. The host at Casa 8 will be happy to arrange tastings and make reservations during your stay. Here are a few interesting wineries and tasting rooms along the Ruta de Vino that will give you a sense of the wine that the area is producing.
Villa Montefiori: Set off the highway, up against the mountains is Villa Montefiori, a producer of Italian varietals with a focus on vibrant young reds. The second floor tasting room has beautiful views of the valley.
Bruma: A stay at Casa 8 is not complete without a visit to the winery up on the hill. The impressive structure, built around the remains of a 300-year old oak tree, is both above and below ground, and is constructed of recycled materials taken from the property. While the wines made by Bruma are still very young, a tasting flight is a good way to experience how the wines are beginning to mature. Fauna, the restaurant next door to the winery, serves all Bruma varietals, and is a great place to experience pairings with food. When we visited, the winery had just announced the arrival of a new up-and-coming female winemaker from Bordeaux. This change at the helm is sure to create a distinctive difference in future vintages.
Viñas de Garza: Viñas de Garza is a small family owned winery that was planted in 2000. This lovely tasting room on the ridge has a beautiful outdoor patio draped in bougainvillea. The English-speaking staff is very knowledgeable about the area and the wines that the husband and wife owners have cultivated on the property. The views and ambience make this winery a nice stop.
How to Arrive: Valle de Guadalupe is approximately two hours by car from San Diego International Airport. Why it is an easy drive south, be sure to allow plenty of time for your return drive, as the border crossing back into the United States can take a couple of hours.
Transportation: From San Diego International Airport, rent a car from Hertz, as it is one, if not the only, rental car agency that permits their cars to be driven into Mexico. Be prepared to pay an additional fee for this insurance premium.
Navigation: Once you enter Valle de Guadalupe, the two highways that run the length of the valley are paved. However, be prepared to traverse the valley on rocky, dirt roads, as most of your destinations will not be street side. Take it slow, and avoid pot holes. No, you don’t need to hire a guide, driving in Valle is straight forward. Google Maps provides excellent navigation assistance, even accounting for unmarked paths, of which there are many.
When to Go: Valle de Guadalupe experiences excellent weather all year round, with the hotter months being July, August, and September.
Whats to Come:
Marrakech ★ 6.18
read. share. travel. repeat.
W A N D E R L U S T