They Should Build a Wall

The Mexicans, that is.  It would help them keep an amazing wine region all to themselves.

Just a few hours’ drive south of San Diego sits a gem of viticulture and gastronomy, still largely unspoiled by crowds, white stretch limos, or tipsy tourists drinking too much at the tasting bar.  Valle de Guadalupe is less than 30 minutes inland from the Pacific Ocean-side city of Ensenada on Baja California.

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While Americans like to think of Napa Valley as the birthplace of North American wine, it was actually a Spaniard named Don Lorenzo Garcia who reportedly established the first North American winery in Mexico as far back as 1597.  As for Valle de Guadalupe, the first plantings came courtesy of the Catholic Church, as Jesuit priests started growing wine grapes there in 1791.

Today, more than fifty thriving wineries are sited in the valley, ranging from a nearly million case producer – the largest in Mexico – to small boutique wineries making just a few thousand cases.  What’s more, there is a thriving food scene – with restaurants sourcing local produce, meat, and fish – and lodging that is sophisticated, design-forward, and accompanied by convivial hosts.

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The only thing missing in Valle de Guadalupe is paved roads.  But part of the joy of the area is driving off the highway, over rutted dirt roads, past farms, houses and cattle grazing.  And once the dust cloud around your car clears, you may very well find an exquisitely designed winery or restaurant rivaling the best in California or New York.

We stayed at Casa Mayoral, a family-run lodge with a whopping four guest houses.  They start your day with their fantastic breakfasts (such as Chilaquiles) served on a patio overlooking the valley, sustenance for the first wine tastings of the day.  A brother-sister team run the place and they could not have been more helpful in arranging dinner reservations and wine tastings.

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Their very first dinner recommendation hit the mark perfectly: Deckman’s.  With outdoor seating overlooking vineyards, we were shielded from the wind by a three-sided hay bale structure, (no smoking please!) and warmed from the evening chill by a selection of thick blankets and the wafting smoke of a wood-fired grill.  Their menu is all locally sourced and carefully crafted in an outdoor kitchen which acts as visual background to the experience at the table.

Las Nubes (translation: the clouds) is a good example of the quality and spirit of the region.  They are a smaller winery, producing just a few thousand cases per year.  But they grow and produce wines from an expansive number of grapes including: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Carignan, Grenache, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Nebbiolo.

I spent some time in the cellar with Las Nubes founder and winemaker, Victor Segura, and his assistant winemaker, Ivan Lopez.  We talked about the experimentation they had been doing over the years – blending of grape varietals, yeast choices, speed and temperature of fermentations, and American versus French Oak.  They were generous with their time and, as was evident throughout the valley, they were clearly passionate about their roles in creating another world-class wine region in North America.

I’m happy they let me in.

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