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Dec 8, 2008 05:18 PM

The Essential Valle de Guadalupe food and wine!

It was another divine couple of days in Baja last weekend.The food, the wine, the people, the scenery.It has now been about 8 years or so since I've been traveling regularly to Tijuana, Ensesenada, and the Valle de Guadalupe.Occasionally Rosarito, and two trips driving all the way to Loreto.Much has changed.

I've also been in a couple of discourses on wine and food in the Valle de Guadalupe here and on the wine board in the past 7 months which got me to thinking recently,thanks ibstatguy and dnamj! "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in" What is the Valle de Guadalupe and Mexican wine?This is the question that drives the restauranteurs, vintners,chilango wine enthusiasts, journalists,quesotraficos, tourists, and adventurers alike.In Polanco, it's about the boutique and cult Mexican wines.Do you have any Tres Mujeres?Casa de Piedra? For the American media it's Laja, Monte Xanic,Adobe Guadalupe, and Cetto.I mean, every article sends you to the same five places!

Currently, I count 34 wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe(Francisco Zarco,El Porvenir),San Antonio de Las Minas(sub apellation), Ensenada, Santo Tomas, and Ojos Negros.There are an equal number in development in the Valle according to my friend Steve Dryden(Baja Times wine writer/D.F. columnists), and there are people making table wines from their own backyards being sold in restaurants and shops.Yet, where does everyone go?Cetto, Domecq,Santo Tomas,Monte Xanic, Chateau Camou, or Adobe Guadalupe.Where do they eat?Laja.Where do they stay?Adobe Guadalupe or La Villa del Valle.The report, so-so wines, great meal at Laja, wine was expensive, brought my own, I can find better wines cheaper.....

There are good wines at these places, but not necessarily on the tastings.Cetto wines are usually the cheapest in a restaurant and a good value wine with dinner, but they do have better wines not on their tastings in a higher price range.Dona Lupe makes organic wines, but her real talent is in the amazing food products she makes not her wines, which are OK.The Camou tasting has a nice blanc de blancs and chardonnay, but the reds are their cheaper offerings, again their best wines aren't part of the tasting.The more expensive Camou and Xanic wines are not on the tastings and are more of a reflection of their potential.There are wineries just like this in California, and anywhere for that matter.

The next level of traveler makes it in to Muelle Tres and Manzanilla, where I believe the spirit of wine country in Mexico is well represented by Benito Molina.Local ingredients, Mexican ingredients, and select Baja wines.Most of what Benito has you won't find on your drive to Cetto or Adobe Guadalupe.Many are by appointment only, and some are illusive, like Hugo D'Acosta.Liceaga is easy to find and has tour groups coming through, even the obnoxious kind like were there on the Friday after Thanksgiving.The Liceaga tasting has a nice Merlot, chenin blanc, and the grappas are outstanding.

I went to see if one of my favorite wineries, Vinisterra, was open early Friday, after a couple of tacos de birria.Perfect Mexican breakfast to cushion the consumption of Baja wines.They were closed again, but after talking with a groudskeeper, a French women who had been talking on her cell phone said that she would give us a tour.Vinisterra just built a beautiful tasting room and production facility, I first went years ago when you went up to the house for a tasting.Agnes, a perky and apt wine enthusiast from Bordeaux led us through the Vinisterra wine making process, including a taste of wine from the maceration tanks, still very sweet and viscous.Agnes was a blast and made an amazing guide for a friend of the family that had just taken the tour with the owner earlier that hour! I hope Agnes stays on.But more importantly, this French wine drinker as she called herself, put my convictions into her European perspective.When I asked what she thought Mexican wine was, she named tempranillo,nebbiolo, and chenin blanc, among others.Agnes described the mineral and saline qualities of the soil, and how more professionalism has brought forth wine makers that can balance this challenge of terroir. Vinisterra has a fine tempranillo, nothing like a Spanish Rioja at all,different, Mexican.A Mexican wine, with mineralty, but balanced.Interesting, unexpected, and delicioso. Baja makes different wines, the best Mexican wines, but you have to drink the right ones to know them.Casa de Piedra, J.C. Bravo, Tres Valles, Vinas Piojan, Mogor Badan, the Cabernet at Valmar, Vinos Californios Roganto, that sauvignon blanc made by Hugo at Benito's restaurants.

Worried about spending too much? Well, when you consider the cost of eating at Manzanilla, Muelle Tres, and the phenomenal La Guerrerense, where you can have ceviches of fresh abulone, cod, pismo clam, huarache oysters, and that #&%#ing urchin for next to nothing, what's the problem?How about this, go to Bevmo, get your affordable wine and take it to the best Mexican seafood place in the US......forgot, we don't have places like Muelle Tres or La Guerrerense.OK, the Water Grill, for the same quality, $120 a head, $25 corkage, your stellar wine selection $18, a total of $163. At the stand $30 for the Baja wine, and $10-$15 for a seafood feast that will change your life.

The globalization of wine is a bore, this has always been the wisdom shared by my European friends who are used to their unique local food and drink being distinctive.While Napa makes world class wines, at times I'm perplexed by the lack of diversity.I guess Robert Parker has many wineries doing a bit of a dance.Of course, there are others ignoring RP and making different wines in every market.But, is this what you expect?The same paradigm applied to all experiences?If so, then I suggest getting off the tourist track and at least exploring the best of the Valle de Guadalupe, and no some of these things aren't on the map.That's part of the fun.

Finally, when I see Hugo D'Acosta sitting having lunch meetings at Manzanilla, restaurant owners taking classes at La Escuelita, chilangos in Polanco chasing down cult wines from Baja, and brand new cuisines evolving in front of my very eyes, I just have to ask.Do you think that these people in the Valle aren't possibly getting together and asking eachother questions like," I have a lot of spicy foods, what have you got for me Hugo?" "Wow, this Sonoran beef needs something different, what do you think Camilo?"Only the French and Italians are capable of such complicated thoughts?Baja Med cuisine(La Querencia and and Villa Saverios), Valle de Guadalupe cuisine(Laja), and exploding gastronomic movement from Tijuana to Ensenada are only possible because of the synergy between the food and wine that is happening right now.Laja is part of that, so are the Baja quails I had at a street cart near Francisco Zarco.Martin San Ramon, the brilliant chef from the Cordon Bleu who runs Rincon San Ramon moved back to Baja to be a part of this revolution.The food scene in northern Baja eclipses anything we have here in California wine country in quantity, diversity, and quality.

Baja wine and food is an essential part of Mexico.The wines are made for the chefs in cooperation with the winemakers, and if you're not partaking and exploring then you're missing the experience.For me, it's Manzanillo and Muelle Tres and Benito's select wines, it's Casa de Piedra and J.C. Bravo, roadside Baja quail with a glass of local wine from the abarrotes that sells ostrich, the real del castillo degustacion at Saverios with a nice chenin blanc, the farmer's market pizza maker at Rancho Badan,quesatacos at La Ermita, the sashimi de callos at La Querencia, the pizza with chorizo de abulon at Baja Med Pizza co., fish tacos at my favorite stand, La Guererrense, Ivette Vaillard's Mas Mezcla, and tacos de birria on a Sunday morning.

I want to hear from the Mex board heavies, to borrow my good friend and companero Eat Nopal's roll call method.EatNopal, Kaire Raisu, Dining Diva,Christina, Anonimo, RST,Massa Assassin, etc.What do you think?And, the Wine board folks,ibstatguy.I love wine, drink wine from all over the world, respect you all as fellow romantics and would also like to hear from you if you happen to pop in. Perhaps our discussion could serve to help those planning their trips that they might have the best Mexican wine and food experience possible.Isn't that why we leave the house?

A little bird for you!
Carreta las Gueritas, Francisco Zarco

cordorniz estilo Baja

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  1. I don’t consider myself a Mexico board heavy but I am game to comment.

    The food and wine of Baja California, from Tijuana’s Gastronomic District to Francisco Zarco and beyond are varied, complex and often of the highest quality. The range of tastes run from the simplest fruit and jicama sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar (oh my god, my tongue just exploded- that is really salt and chile powder!), to steamed tacos with radishes, or smoked oysters at Manzanilo (and I mean really smoked, no gimmicks or tricks). Or unfiltered honey from the sort-of-farmers’-market in El Porvenir, harvested by the Viejas Indians, poor relatives of their casino owning cousins in San Diego. Local cheese from the roadside market in San Antonio de Minas is a must.

    I like the wines from L.A Cetto for their value (especially the nebiollo) but for high quality, look for J.C. Bravo, Roganto, Baron Balch’e (fantastic, expensive, zinfandel), Vinisterra, Vinos Pijoan (with the wines named after the women in the winemaker‘s life)… I could go on. Oddly, the creeping salinity of groundwater in the Guadalupe Valley might be what gives a distinct taste in some of the reds, but it is a note I find appealing. I have noticed the distinct taste in some California wines produced in San Diego that are sourced from Baja grapes. In any case, my less than well educated tongue finds a distinctive terroir (but I will let the more educated wine experts consider what it is and from where it comes).

    I visited some relatives in D.F. last fall and I was surprised to hear how much they knew about what I thought were obscure Baja wines. Good news travels. They were envious of my ability to drive to Baja and drink Mexican wines. Try as I might, I find it hard to get most people to think beyond burritos or tequila at Hussong’s Bar (not that I am against tequila). The idea of fine food, good wine and Baja just eludes most people.

    If you have never been to Baja California (or you have gone to Puerto Nuevo for lobster and beer and are curious about taking the next step), consider planning a trip. The coast road is a beautiful drive. The road to the Guadalupe Valley (Hwy 3) is being widened from the coast to Francisco Zarco so there may be some construction delays, There is a small road from the coast through El Tigre to the valley that has just been paved so the adventurers might want to try this short-cut. There are a two or three new hotels in the valley (and plenty in Ensenada, an easy drive) and enough wine tasting venues to satisfy anyone. Hit a few big places, like L.A. Cetto or Monte Xanic, The tasting room at Adobe Guadalupe is great and if you don’t like their wine, buy a bottle of Lucifer, mezcal distributed by Hugo D'Acosta; it is smoky and intense. Sip it slowly. Dig around and find the tiny cellar at Tres Mujeres (with their hand labeled bottles). Vinisterra’s new tasting room is beautiful and the owners are gracious. Eat a meal in one of the two restaurants in San Antonio de Minas that double as plant nurseries, like La Hacienda. Ostrich, goat, lamb… try something new. Go to Dona Lupe’s for some preserves (I could skip the unfiltered organic wine however), or maybe the same at Casa Vieja. If you are leaving by way of Tijuana, take the time to have a meal at Cheripan, Villa Saverios, La Differencia or better yet, make that another trip.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ringo Gato

      You are definitely a heavy, hermano.Thank you for your contribution.YOU get this place.This is exactly what Agnes was saying, the saltiness and mineral terroir, when balanced, is beautiful and pure Baja. I can see that you've dug around and have really experienced the best Baja has to offer.I know the cheese market you speak of, next time grab yourself a codorniz de la carreta.Saludos.

    2. great chatter! i'm currently working on the movies at the studios in rosarito. i should be here a couple months. while i am going back to los angeles nearly every weekend i will be going down to ensenada on some weekends (probably thanksgiving)

      any recommendations for rosarito? i havent had anything too outstanding and i havent seen too many notable seafood options but i also haven't been looking too hard either.

      i am also intersted in exploring the baja wines. what would you recommend in the 20=30 dollar range? i tend to prefer bigger reds. cabs, petit syrah's zins, but am open to others, especially if its notable to the region.... just beginning to do my research now but a primer and cheat sheet is always good.

      Ejercito Nacional #843 Loc C 101 Al C 105, Mexico City 11520, MX

      11 Replies
      1. re: modernist

        Hey Modernist! Rosarito is as you say lacking in the options, for this reason I've really steered clear for the past couple of years. Vince's is good for mariscos, locatred on the main drag.There used to be a great quail, venison, and cabrito place called Mexico Lindo II, but they're gone.

        THere are great tacos, but just typical stands, for which there are better in Tijuana and Ensenada.

        I would get out to Ensenada and try to get to TJ.

        For wines, check out JC Bravo's Carignan, EMEVE is an outstanding new winery, Casa de Piedra, Vinisterra(especially the Pedregal), Tres Valles, Mogor Badan,Roganto Cavas Valmar. There are wineries that don't have tasting rooms that are available in Benito Moilna's restaurants, which you have to go to, Manzanilla and Muelle Tres. He always has great wine selections.You should also go to Restaurant del Parque, run by Gloria D'Acosta, they will have fine selections plus the La Contra wine shop has one of the best selections of Baja wines in all of Mexico.

        I bought my JC Bravos from JC himself and it was cheap. Get a map and make an appointment.Vinisterra has good prices on their Macqouzet line. And, the Don Luis Cetto from LA Cetto is a good value. There aren't many value wines in Baja due to a number of factors, but a little patience and open-minded approach will bring rewards.

        But seriously, for food?Tijuana and Ensenada.

        Good luck, and report back.Most of all, have a great time.

        1. re: streetgourmetla

          streetgourmetla, thanks again!

          i'm curious what your thoughts are as to why baja wines aren't good value?
          the D.F. elite scene propping it up? american consumption?

          we are actually forbidden from going to TJ (corporate security policy) but i'll be on my way for sure. liked your post on the "baja med movement" will be checking those out during the week as its easier reached, then exploring ensenada on weekeneds when i stay in mexico.

          we are also not allowed to go to popotla - the fishing village next door - because apparently our studio has screwed things up for them and they are angry at us. there is also narco activity down there.

          and i always have a good time!

          1. re: modernist

            I recommend your company hiring me as security detail :) TJ is safe for you, maybe not Popotla though.Angry fisherman are even more scary, life in "I Know What You Did......" But seriously, narco activity is not a concern for you, just for rival narcos and the cops that battles them.

            Baja wines aren't a value because of the government taxes which make up about 35% or more of the price, small productions, and high cost of production due to things such as access to a scarce water supply. Only the big houses, Domecq, Cetto, and Santo Tomas have the volume, also Xanic and Camou.There is very little American consumption, mostly the wines are popular in Baja,Mexico City, and other major cities like Monterey or Guadalajara.

            In Tijuana, Tacos Salceados, La Querencia, La Diferencia, and Villa Saverios are excellent. You can find stuff here, on my blog under Tijuana, Baja, and Valle de Guadalupe, or feel free to contact me if you like.

            Ensenada, La Guerrerense, Benito's places, and Tacos El Fenix are musts.

            I think you shall be dining well!!

            I expect to pay in the $35-$40 dollar range for many bottles I like, but do find bottles in the $20 range as the aforementioned places. Again, Benito Molina's places always have cool selections by the glass, whereas most restaurants just have the big 5 producers. The El Porvenir sav blanc at Muelle Tres and Manzanilla is lovely.

            1. re: modernist

              Hi modernist,

              Just a historical note, years ago a friend who was a major governmental official in the Rosarito city offices told us that Popotla was the car theft capital of Baja. "You park, you walk down to the beach, your car is gone."

              As far as eating in Rosarito, La Estancia is very good, Tapanco (which we prefer), El Nido, which is the parent restaurant of Tapanco, and Vince's, as mentioned by streetgourmetla.

              Haven't been there for a while, but Le Costeau gets some love and there is a wine bar and restaurant just north of the Waldo's Mart which has a big wine selection.

              Also, Chabert's restaurant at the Rosarito Beach hotel has monthly wine dinners, featuring local producers.

          2. re: modernist

            I have been in the valley several times in the past few months and have had great food and wine (as well as some mediocre wine). On my last trip a few weeks ago I spent a considerable amount of time at three wineries, Viñas Pijoan, J.C. Bravo and Viñedos Malagon. All have what you are looking for; big red wines in the $20 to $30 range.

            For that matter, Vinesterra has some great wines in that range as well. Malagon may be
            sold out of current stock (most is purchased in advance by buyers in DF, Monterrey, Guadalajara, etc. as well as several restaurants and stores in California and a few other states) but expects to release its latest wines soon.

            One of the big producers, L.A. Cetto has a reasonably good nebbiolo for about $14 (and for a little extra, you may be able to buy it in Los Angeles at San Antonio Winery).

            If you want to push your budget a little, consider Roganto; a couple of winemakers in the valley said his cabernet sauvignon ranks with some of the best from Napa. My taste buds are not smart enough to make that conclusion but it is very good. I have tasted Roganto at restaurants and wine and food events but have not been to the winery, which I understand is in Ensenada in a rather industrial area (as the owner’s main job is drilling wells, so I have been told). If you want to break your budget, the zinfandel from Barón Balch’é is big, as is its price.

            All of the wineries I mentioned, except L.A. Cetto, require a call in advance to make a reservation for tasting.

            For some great authentic food while you are in the valley, try La Casa de Ladrillo Restaurante y Vivero, (restaurant and nursery). The most popular tables (on a warm afternoon) are underneath large shade trees. The barbacoa is great and they may have dishes with ostrich, quail and venison. The carne (machaca) seca dishes are great. Ladrillo is in the town of San Antonio de Minas and is just off Hwy 3. Vinesterra and a few other wineries (that I haven’t mentioned) are nearby.

            I cannot recall the name of the small café in town, right on Hwy 3, that sells great, big slices of fresh apple pie with cheese baked inside. Speaking of cheese, San Antonio de Minas also has a great cheese store with some wonderful local selections at very reasonable prices.

            As an aside, during my visit at Viñas Pijoan, proprietor Pau Pijoan said he was leaving the following day to meet Hugo D’Acosta in the south of France where they, along with several other Mexican winemakers, had purchased several vineyards in a village. They essentially bought all of the village’s vineyards. Harvest was approaching and they were off for a month or two to make some wine in France as well as possibly bring some grapes back to Mexico to make more wine.

            1. re: Ringo Gato

              Hey Ringo Gato.Well, there it is.I've heard great things about Malagon, so this is also another reason to try them soon.

              Did La Casa Del Ladrillo have all those items when you here there last, because they haven't been stocking all the unique meats due to the economy.They usually have te barbacoa, estilo Baja according to the owner, cooked with tequila. They also had chorizo de abulon, which was fantastic, and a crab burrito.

              Either way, there's always something special on their menu.

              1. re: streetgourmetla

                The cheese store in San Antonio de las Minas is called Los Globos.Modernist, stop and get a hunk of regional Real Del Castillo aged, and some fresh goat. The Real del Castillo is made nearby, wonderful flavor, and the fresh goat is about the best I've ever tasted.

                As RG mentioned, apple pie, is something you should get in town.There are stands that sell them too, pay de manzana and pay de queso(cheescake).

                The roadside quail just before you get to Francisco Zarco hading East on the 3, right side of the road is awesome. Grab a bottle of wine and head over there for lunch.

                1. re: streetgourmetla

                  During my September trip I ate at La Casa Del Ladrillo twice (breakfast one day, lunch another). Quail was on the menu, ostrich was "Mañana," (both days!) and the sign indicating they serve deer was taped over. That is why in my earlier post I indicated the these items may be available. Even when they are not, the food is always tasty and it is nice place to dine. On one of my visits the restaurant was quite full with people from Ensenada celebrating a baptism (city folks coming to enjoy the countryside on a beautiful day in the Fall).

                  1. re: Ringo Gato

                    Yeah, I saw that on your post.The owner was feeling the drop in tourism and I was feeling sad that this wonderful place was so empty when I was there last time. Glad to hear you were there when they had a crowd.Can't lose this place.

                2. re: Ringo Gato

                  thanks for the great responses. i will definitely map this out before i take off for a food tour. there should be a "create a google map" option where one can put pins. its seems like a lot of reference is "by the pemex" or "at the entrance to..." so if one isn't local or well versed it seems could be hard to find...

                  streetgourmetla, do you live in tijuana? if you ever need an eating buddy i'd be down. my coworkers don't go to tijuana, besides the two young PA's and i'm not sure they have the money for it.

                  1. re: modernist

                    Haha, no, but I'm there constantly, so I might as well live there.I was there this weekend.

                    My e-mail is attached to my blog, let me know when you are going to be in Baja because I'm there every month, more or less.