I’m often asked at the shop if we carry local wines. I know this seems like a ridiculous question to us desert denizens, but to visitors from anywhere east of Nevada who flock here to bask in our idyllic winter climate, it seems wholly possible.
The answer: Not really. Yes, there’s Temecula, but you’ll seldom see Temecula wines outside of Temecula. Rancho Cucamonga has a fascinating wine history, but it story seems to be completed (for now). Farther northwest, you have Santa Barbara, Monterey, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo—but I wouldn’t necessarily call a five- or six-hour car trip “local”.
That leaves us with a most unexpected local wine region: Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe. In less than four hours, you can be pulling into one of the valley’s many wineries or hotels. I recently went down to explore the region, its wines and restaurants—and I’m going to share with you just how mind-blowing the experience was.
We ventured down mid-week in May. Our drive was easy, through rolling hills and flat agricultural lands. As we approached the Tecate border crossing, we frantically got out our passports, itinerary, lodging reservations and concierge contact info, so we were prepared—but the border officials didn’t ask us one question. They didn’t even ask to see our passports.
Um … ok. I guess we’re in Mexico now.
We drove along the Ruta del Vino for about 30 minutes before we reached our hotel. I’m not going to sugar coat it: You drive through some pretty heartbreaking areas—including abject poverty and shanty towns made of any and every kind of scrap available. Please note that I never once felt unsafe. I never found myself even slightly uncomfortable in my surroundings. The area was poor, yes; dangerous, no.
As we pulled into Bruma, the Babylon where we would spend our next three days, I immediately knew we were somewhere incredibly special. Yes, there was a guard gate, and he needed to know who we were before we entered, but it didn’t feel pretentious. It didn’t even feel necessary. It felt more like the security existed to put us at ease.
We pulled into the dirt lot in front of the unassuming reception room—and when I say unassuming, I mean this place is the essence of rustic chic, understated elegance. It’s a place designed to seamlessly blend into its surroundings so you can’t help but feel an escapist mentality, a place where you could almost disappear right along with structures themselves.
We stayed in a separate compound called Casa Montana. This is a villa with a central great room, kitchen and dining room for the guests of the two attached suites to enjoy. What we didn’t know until we arrived was that the kitchen comes with an uber-talented trio of chefs who are there to delight you with whatever your palate desires.
Upon our arrival, our concierge, Danielle, asked us if we were hungry after our long drive. “Yes!” we said enthusiastically, only to begin an awkward conversion.
“What would you like?”
“What do you have?”
“Anything you like! What do you want?” Finally, after some prompting from Danielle, we settled on some chicken burritos. To our astonishment, once we got up the hill to Casa Montana, our chicken burritos—along with fresh, homemade guacamole, chips, salsa, and refried beans—were waiting on the table for us, accompanied by a chilled bottle of delicious Bruma Ocho Rose of Sangiovese. We stuffed our faces while taking in the breathtaking scenery—via the floor-to-ceiling windows—of rolling hills covered with vineyards. The only obstruction to the view was the infinity pool and hot tub flanked by four wide lounge chairs, and a long, built-in outdoor dining table and seating bench, covered in embroidered pillows.
We came to find out that these ladies of the cucina bake fresh muffins every evening to give us with our coffee in the morning, and they bake cookies every night to put on our nightstands.
Can I move in?
Other than the exceptional accommodations, what was the best part of the trip? Without doubt, it was the food. Our first night in town, we dined at Fauna, the restaurant attached to our hotel. We savored 12—yes, 12—courses with wine and beer pairings that left me painfully full, but incredibly inspired. We sampled, among other things, fresh Kumamoto oysters, grilled octopus, bluefin tuna, poached scallops, a tamale stuffed with mussels, and the tenderest piece of ribeye you’ve ever tasted. We rolled out of the restaurant and walked back to our villa while being serenaded by bullfrogs in the pond. (Incidentally, my husband would conclude our stay with a jump in this pond—only to be rescued by the staff Malinois. The dog though he was drowning. Men.)
The second night of our stay featured the best meal of my life. Seriously. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants all over the world, and I’ve experienced some pretty epic food and first-class service, so when I tell you that Animalon unequivocally served the best meal and service I’ve ever had, it’s coming up against some stiff competition. The “restaurant,” if you even want to call it that, is under a 200-year-old oak tree in the middle of nowhere. The kitchen is an old shipping container transformed into a state-of-the-art culinary workshop. When the sun sets, your dining experience is illuminated by fabric-covered lanterns that hang from the low-lying limbs of the tree. When the temperature dips at night (and it does!), there aren’t any heaters; instead, shivering guests are wrapped in traditional blankets.
Our server was Mario. We enjoyed eight magnificent courses under the guidance of this extraordinary man. At one point during the meal, when I apologized—for asking him to see the bottle of another wine, or get a more detailed description of a dish—he responded with the most sincere statement from someone in the hospitality industry I’ve ever heard: “Don’t apologize. Please don’t apologize. I’m here to spoil you. I’m here to take care of you.” Whoa. And you did, Mario. You. Are. Awesome.
I could go on and on about the breakfast we had at Dona Esthela (the manchaca is to die for), and the lunch we had at La Cocedora de Langosta (where the ceviche was so fresh that the fish was still flapping on the plate). Here, we met winery owner Jaime Palafox, where he introduced us to his new natural rose wine made from the mission grape. The pairing was a match made in heaven.
However, this is a wine column, so you’re probably asking: So, how are the wines? Well, they’ve come a long way, baby. They are dedicated to the process. They are knowledgeable about their land and what they can grow. There are producers like Palafox, Bruma, Adobe Guadalupe, Lechuza, Casa Magoni, and Torres Alegre that are uber serious about what they’re doing—which is putting out the region’s best wines. There are a bunch of other wineries we didn’t get to visit whose reputations are exploding in the wine world—wineries like Casa Piedra, Tres Mujeres and Vinas de Garza that we will definitely be visiting next time.
Look out, California: Valle de Guadalupe is doing great things. And it’s closer than you think.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.