The Ensenada Wine Country Still Earns Praise

EDITOR NOTE: Slightly outdated but still relevant, this article paints a beautiful picture of the Ensenada countryside. The wine country in Baja is a beautiful escape, with exceptional food and resorts. It could be a viable escape during the lockdown.

As we drove along the heavily pocked dirt road, bouncing our way through near-total darkness, with no signs to indicate the proximity to our destination — with no signs of any sort — the whites of my girlfriend’s eyes were plainly visible in the night as she murmured, “I’m not so sure about this.”

Perhaps, it now occurred to me, I had not thought all of this completely through. Here we were, deep in rural western Mexico, about 50 miles from the Pacific, rattling down a profoundly vacant road in an unmarked taxi bound for a restaurant recommended to me by a stranger. Kirsten’s dubiousness was understandable. But more than that, it was no trifling matter, given that I intended to propose marriage to her the following night, at a different restaurant at the end of another endless dirt road.

I sputtered out my assurances. Appearances to the contrary, I told her, tourists came here to the Guadalupe Valley all the time. The restaurant, Finca Altozano, had been given high marks on various websites. The driver, whom our innkeeper identified as Eduardo, appeared to know where he was going and seemed too courtly to have foul play on his mind. Kirsten seemed to be listening only to her heartbeat.

The restaurant’s parking lot was itself made of dirt. But it was packed with cars, and when we stepped into the buzzing and low-lit veranda perched high over the valley, I felt all residue of self-doubt transmute into shimmering bravado. Finca Altozano seemed instantly familiar only because it’s the kind of casually evocative country establishment that so many American restaurateurs spend millions on to get wrong.

Seated near the rotisserie, we ordered grilled octopus, grilled chorizo, tacos with grilled beef — grilled everything, and nothing disappointed, least of all the bottle of white blended grapes that was produced by a winemaker down the way named Amado Garza. It was apple-crisp and surging with minerality. Those flavors originated from the same brawny terrain that had delivered us here.

As a native Texan, I have visited Mexico many times, and, even more frequently, Alta California, all the way down to the border where San Diego County gives way to Tijuana. But my only excursion into Baja had been many years ago, to its baja-most tip, the uproarious beach-and-nightclub resort city Cabo San Lucas, an episode in my earlier life of Hombres Behaving Badly of which, thankfully, there is no known documentation.

The thousand-mile fishhook-shape stretch of land extending from Cabo up to Tijuana, and separating the Gulf of California from the Pacific, always struck me as a geographic anomaly of unknown utility, belonging to neither country, and in no particular way announcing itself as worthy of exploration. But then last March I happened to be on assignment in Mexico City, where I met various sources at restaurants of their choosing.

It’s no surprise that there is outstanding food in Mexico’s capital city. What stunned me was the quality of the wines. White and red, across the varietal spectrum from viognier to Sangiovese — each was bristling with territorial expressiveness, and completely affordable. The best were unambiguously world-class. And all of them hailed from something called the Valle de Guadalupe, in the Free and Sovereign State of Baja California.

I had encountered other barely discovered wine sanctuaries while traveling in Croatia, Hungary, Israel, Slovenia and Turkey. Could it be that Mexico, the land of cerveza and tequila, surpassed all of them?

A week after voters in the United States elected a man who had vowed to erect a wall on America’s southern border, I drove across it with San Diego in my rearview. There are three crossings from San Diego County: Tijuana, Tecate and the one I randomly chose, Otay Mesa.

It’s worth noting that the breezy, 90-mile journey from San Diego International Airport to most Valle de Guadalupe attractions along the main expressways (Routes 1 and 3) can be a great deal more plodding in the opposite direction. Driving back into the United States can, depending on day and time, involve anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours in the checkpoint line. To help with planning, a Border Wait Time app is available.

Whatever qualms you may have brought with you about driving to Mexico are likely to fall away once you take leave of the mangy border townscape of Otay Mesa and the slender, well-tended expressway plunges you into a bronze desert spiked with granite protrusions. The stern beauty of this backcountry will seem familiar to visitors of southern Arizona or the Big Bend country of southwest Texas. What it does not in any way call to mind are the Cancuns and Cozumels that constitute a vacuum-packaged offering of Mexico.

About two hours south of the San Diego airport, I arrived at the five-year-old resort known as Encuentro Guadalupe, which, from the approach, appears to be a space colony of metallic abodes jutting from a lunar mountain. A dirt road, my first of what would be many, led uphill to the reception area. From here my room was accessible farther up the mountain by means of a dusty hotel van.

I was in no hurry for this. Instead, I spent the next hour on the open-air bar terrace hanging over the valley, eating a delicious avocado and tuna ceviche while relishing the view and the keen desert air with other tourists, most of them Mexican.

Eventually I hailed the driver and we trundled up to my “king eco-loft,” which Encuentro Guadalupe in its promotional materials characterizes as “luxury camping.” The “luxury” part was right: My quarters, including breakfast, cost over $300, considerably more than I had expected to pay. The room was narrow and austere: a king-size bed with a white bedspread, white steel walls, a small bathroom and windows that faced the desert mountains. Upon closing the heavy metal door and drawing the curtains, I experienced the sensation of being in a clean, low-lit refrigerator.

As soon as I could, I retreated to the resort’s infinity pool, with its spectacular view of the desert crags. The Jacuzzi was occupied by several hairy-chested Sinaloans who beckoned me to share their bottle of mezcal. I did so, and after clinking glasses and exchanging a few guarded speculations on United States-Mexico relations in the Trump era, I left them to stew in the frothing water and commenced what would become a multiday driving meander down the Guadalupe Valley’s Ruta de Vino.

Originally posted on The New York Times

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