Explanation and disclaimer: this is written at the very beginning of 2012, and is current to that time. Be advised that things can change rapidly around these parts.
Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe compose what I think is the premier wine country destination for Southern Californians, but finding an initial handhold in the area can be a little tricky: much of the best stuff is hard to get to and requires a little upfront knowledge. The flip side of this coin is that the region is small and the people are very familial, so it’s easy to personally meet a lot of the people driving the gastronomy and culture.
The Origin Story
First, a little background. The Valle de Guadalupe and surrounding areas are one of the oldest wine growing regions in California. However, its current era is considered to have started in the late 80′s, when winemaker Hugo D’Acosta came to Santo Tomas winery with a program to develop the region via wine, food and culture. He brought chef Benito Molina from Mexico City to helm Santo Tomas’ restaurant in downtown Ensenada, and Hugo’s brother, architect Alejandro D’Acosta, designed the new Santo Tomas winery faciltiy south of town.
Hugo and his wife Gloria Ramos founded La Escuelita — a winemaking school — and in the late 90′s Hugo left Santo Tomas and started a series of wineries in the Valley, including Casa de Piedra and Paralelo. Benito left Santo Tomas and he and his wife Solange Muris opened Manzanilla Restaurant in town. in 2001, Jair Téllez opened Laja in the Guadalupe Valley, bringing wine country food to the Valley itself.
Over the years, as more people attended the school, started making wines, and developed the cuisine and culture, a vibrant winemaking region developed.
Truth be told, I see all of these people regularly, and it’s never occurred to me to ask them if all the details of this story, which I feel I’ve heard a thousand times, are accurate. Perhaps some aspects are a little simplified or incorrect; but in any case it’s kind of the accepted wisdom, and serves as a good backdrop against which to explore the dynamic happenings of the moment.
Wine and Wineries
In my opinion, what distinguishes Baja California wine country from most of its counterparts in California is how widespread the integrity of Mexican wines is: while the wines aren’t generally cheap, there’s only a little market-driven winemaking, and most of the wines reflect the character of the grapes, the location, and the winemakers.
That said, here are some things to keep in mind:
* The most visible winery in the region, L.A. Cetto (pronounced “CHET-toe”, it’s an Italian surname), makes many good wines, particularly under their Don Luis label; however, they also make some very inexpensive, not-as-good wines. You may have had one of those wines and decided you don’t like Mexican wine, or maybe toured their winery and found it (while in my opinion reasonably fun) to be similar to other large winery tours in more well-known winemaking areas. There’s a lot more going on in the region than you’d know if you only know Cetto: it’s a large winery that’s been doing its thing for a long time and it seems to operate fairly indepedent of the recent developments in the area. Enjoy Cetto for what it is, but look beyond it, too.
* Similarly, Domecq is another large, well-established winery. I’ve never tasted their wine, but from their size and visibility I imagine it has similar strengths and weaknesses as LA Cetto.
* Like any wine region, there is bad wine coming out of Mexico, both from large corporate producers and small wineries. Don’t let that discourage you from finding the good wines.
* As a nascent winemaking region without economies of scale, and also because of the tax system in Mexico, good Mexican wine isn’t cheap. At a retail store or winery, expect to pay about $15/bottle minimum for a good white and at least $25/bottle for a good red. For that price, though, you’re likely to get a handcrafted product that reflects a physical and cultural landscape unlike that of any other wine region.
* Right now, some wineries are working to make good table wines at slightly lower prices, and so far I’ve tasted a few successes (Adobe Guadalupe’s Jardin Secreto comes to mind at around $20).
The most distinctive aspect of the terroir of the Valle de Guadalupe proper is a flavor I describe as “salted plum”. In the better wines, this adds a great, subtle character; in the less-good wines, it can get unpleasantly overpowering. I’m told this flavor originates in the water table, which in some parts of the valley can have a lot of salinity from the seasonal river that flows through the Valley. In other parts of the Valley the water is very “sweet” with little or no salinity. This difference is reflected in grapes from different vineyards in the Valley, where some wines show a more distinct salinity than other wines. That said, there is also plenty of wine being made with grapes from nearby areas that show none of this salinity: these areas include Ojos Negros, Santo Tomas, Uruapan, Tecate, and others. Personally, I really enjoy the salted plum character when it expresses itself subtly.
Here are some of the wines I most often find myself drinking:
Mogor Badan. This is a very small winery that predates the “Hugo Era”, which means that one occasionally finds bottles of their red wine from as far back as the early 80′s. Mogor makes two wines, a red blend which is expensive, and a Chasselas white wine which is a less expensive wine we often drink at home. The original winemaker, Antonio Badan, passed away a few years ago, and his sister took over as winemaker. Wine from both winemakers is, in my experience, excellent.
Vena Cava. Vena Cava is made by Phil Gregory, who along with his wife Eileen Gregory owns and operates the terrific La Villa del Valle bed and breakfast, and its restaurant Corazon de Tierra. Vena Cava’s primary wines are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc (my favorite wine wih Baja oysters), Cabernet Sauvignon, and a “Big Blend” red. These are available and distributed on both sides of the border. Phil also makes reserve wines, and a glorious bubbly cava which is sometimes available at their restaurant.
Moebius. Laja’s partner/GM Andrés Blanco makes his own wines on this label, and they are reliably delicious. His pink wine, called Antithesis, is a go-to for me, but his Moebius white and red wines are great, too. Andres also makes a wine from French grapes called Vice Versa, which I quite like. I’m seeing this — Mexican winemakers importing grapes — more often. I’m told this is happening because the prices for excellent Baja grapes has risen dramatically due to increased demand for Mexican wine.
Ulloa. Ulloa (the actual name of the winery is Agrifolia, but Ulloa is what’s printed on the labels) is also made by Andrés Blanco, in partnership with Laja/Merotoro partner/chef Jair Téllez. These wines are made in Tecate. The white has a captivating tropical fruit taste, while the red is one of the most dependably good values I find in restaurants.
Adobe Guadalupe. Hugo D’Acosta is the lead winemaker for Adobe Guadalupe, which is also a very well-liked bed and breakfast outside of the town of Guadalupe (I’ve never been inside the property, but I hear great things). Their main wines are all named after archangels and are uniformly delicious; they also make a “value” red called Jardin Secreto which costs around $20 and that we often drink at home and in restaurants.
Pijoan. Pau Pijoan is a retired veterinarian who names all his wines after the women in his life. My favorites — wines, that is — are Silvana, a Chenin Blanc blend, and Paulinha, a funky clairet-style chilled red (really very dark pink). Many of Pau’s wines come from grapes grown in Uruapan, south of Ensenada.
Calixa. This is the second label of the Monte Xanic winery, and while everything I’ve had by Calixa recently has been good, we are particularly enamored of their Grenache rosé which you can often find in restaurants in Mexico for under $30/bottle, and is usually around $15 in a store.
As for visiting wineries, it’s a slightly different thing. Some wineries are open to the public only by appointment, some only on weekends, and some only during the week. Others don’t really accommodate guests at all.
As far as visiting the wineries listed above:
* Monte Xanic, which is a fairly big winery with a fun tasting room, is open daily for tastings.
* Pijoan is often open for tasting on the weekends and their web site mentions appointments.
* Vena Cava has a brand-new, intimate winery designed by Alejandro D’Acosta, which is visually stunning, they offer tours and tasting by appointment, and tasting without an appointment in the restaurant on the property, Corazon de Tierra. I’m told the winery itself will be establishing regular hours soon. The winery and restaurant are on the same property with La Villa del Valle.
* I don’t beleive Moebius or Ulloa are open to the public.
One of the most memorable winery tours I’ve ever had was at Paralelo, designed by Alejandro D’Acosta (see an LA Times photo essay on it here). They offer tastings by appointment only. Other wineries which can be particularly enjoyable to visit include Tres Mujeres and Hacienda La Lomita, both of which are (at least sometimes) open for tasting on weekends.
Prime hours for visiting wineries are typically 11am to 3pm. Wineries often change their tasting hours or days so don’t be afraid to call first.
Restaurants and Food
First, a surprising note: while Ensenada and the Valle compose, in my opinion, the best restaurant region south of the San Francisco Bay Area, great wine in restaurants, particularly by the glass, is less available than it should be. The reasons have to do with the relatively high cost of wine in the area, high taxes on wine, and the economic downturn that hit restaurants and tourism here starting in 2009.
As a result, the best by-the-glass wine lists tend to be at restaurants that have a connection either to a winery (such as Laja with Ulloa and Moebius wines, and Corazon de Tierra with Vena Cava wines) or to a wine store (such as Parque with La Contra). At other restaurants without such an affiliation, the by-the-glass list may be either very limited or hit-and-miss, although usually there is a good (but typically somewhat expensive) bottle selection and corkage seems to be welcome everywhere in the region.
Here are the places I eat at most often.
In the Valle de Guadalupe
* Laja is the grand-daddy of deep farm-to-table cuisine in both Southern California and Baja California. Simple presentations with exquisite flavors, produce grown on site, local meats and seafood, local handcrafted wine, olive oil, cheese. Year in and year out, Laja has been consistently world-class, and very influential throughout Mexico as well as San Diego and Los Angeles. Fixed price, either four or eight courses.
* The brand new baby of the Valley, on the other hand, is Corazon de Tierra, at the Villa del Valle/Vena Cava property. The restaurant is gorgeous; you eat on a glass enclosed deck overlooking the restaurant’s garden, with sweeping views of the Valley in the background. The cuisine draws on the Valle de Guadalupe / Ensenada tradition that’s been set out in the last decade or two, but also is staking out its own identity. And it’s delicious. Usually five or six courses, fixed price.
* In the hills above San Antonio de las Minas, Ochento’s Pizza makes tasty thick crust pizzas in a brick oven, and, I’ve been told, their own wines (which are good). Often they feature live music on weekend evenings, too. Typically about $20/per person for pizza & wine including tip.
* Just west of the town of Guadalupe (aka Francisco Zarco), on the road connecting to El Porvenir, is an open-air carnitas stand on the side of the road, across from the auto parts store. It’s open Saturday and Sunday mornings until the pig runs out. The owner’s son is the Chef de Cuisine at Laja; in different ways, I enjoy both restaurants as much.
In my opinion, the signature dish of modern Ensenada gastronomy (slightly apart from that of the Valle de Guadalupe) is a simple dish of sashimi in a garlic-chili-soy marinade. It’s listed on menus as tiradito de pescado. The three places I know that offer it — all of them have some historic relationship to chef Benito Molina — all do the dish slightly differently. They are:
* Manzanilla, Benito and Solange’s restaurant, is now located on the harbor and is great. They cook a hell of a Sonoran rib-eye too.
* Boules, on the bluffs in San Miguel, is the project of longtime Manzanilla General Manager Javi Martinez and is equally enjoyable for the food, the view, and the games of petanque which are played there, particularly on Sundays and Mondays.
* Muelle Tres, owned by Javi’s brother David, is an casual but upscale take on an Ensenada mariscos stand, also with beer, good wine and good mezcal. It’s on the harbor boardwalk, next to the open-air fish market and the old-school seafood stands. I eat here a lot and love it.
I also eat fairly often at these places:
* Ophelia in El Sauzal. I like this place because the food has a different vibe than most places in town, while still being obviously Ensenadan. Plus, they have a really enjoyable, inexpensive house wine.
* Parque (downtown). It’s attached to a La Contra wine shop, the small by-the-glass wine selection is always good, and of course you can buy any bottle in the wine shop, so that is excellent. The margherita pizza is a standby for me, but I’ve enjoyed every dish I’ve ordered here.
* Criollo (downtown). They call it a taperia (tapas + taqueria): small plates of creative takes on Mexican food. Fun, delicious, and inexpensive. It’s right next to a La Contra wine shop so you can buy a bottle of your preference to pair with dinner.
* Tacos El Fenix “Mi Ranchito” (Espinosa and 6th, downtown). This is a venerable Ensenada instution for fish tacos, and as with all such institutions you can find people say it’s not the best in town any more. That very easily could be true, though I haven’t spent much effort looking for a better one. That’s because this is the only place I’ve eaten at the last ten years where fish tacos taste like I remember them from my youth. In San Diego now, even fried fish tacos are some kind of Mrs. Paul’s inspired battering of cheap whitefish in a mayo-sour cream sauce. At Fenix, the batter is golden and fluffy, the fish has some pop, and the sauce has that sweet/tangy edge that made me fall in love with the thing in the first place. Good stuff.
Be your own restaurant
Much of the seafood served by the best restaurants in town comes through De Garo, a little shop in central Ensenada. It’s the easiest and tastiest thing around to buy some oysters from Garo, a bottle of white wine at any of the La Contra shops, and make your own feast whereever you’re at. Garo also always has excellent fish suitable for grilling if you have access to such facilities.
Just north of the harbor in Ensenada, on the main road, you’ll find a shop called La Flor de Calabaza, that is bringing much of the best produce from the Valley into town. If you’re putting together a picnic or cooking for yourself, here you can find excellent olive oil, local cheeses, preserves, the fixins for a salad, and great eggs. They also have very good coffee and tea, and often have savory treats including tamales.
And by culture, I mostly mean bars.
My favorite bar right now is Oyster Bar Ultramarino, which features immoderately sized sangria and mojitos, and live music in their back courtyard. Takon Machine, a band which plays cumbia versions of popular songs (Spanish-language and English), plays there a lot, as do plenty of other local bands. Ultramarina is a short bike ride from my abode, which I admit adds to its allure.
If you haven’t been to Hussong’s Cantina, you should go. It dates to the 1800′s and is really a great local place even though it’s also a well-known tourist destination.
In addition to the food and booze, I also appreciate the new architecture of the region, especially the work of Alejandro d’Acosta and Claudia Turrent. They’re a husband and wife who maintain separate architectural practices. Some of their most easily-viewed work includes La Escuelita in El Porvenir, and the Tierra de Corazon restaurant and Vena Cava winery, both at La Villa del Valle.
On a serious note about culture here: I’ve only been spending time regularly in Ensenada and the Valle for about six or seven years, there is a rich culture of excellence that I’ve just barely experienced. It runs deep and exists in nooks and crannies and in people’s backyards and personal passions. I think experiencing the depth of the culture is a great reward that awaits anyone who gets to know the region well. Ensenada and the wine country is a place that attracts people with a passion for craft and excellence in many things, and any place you go in the region is a place you may discover something world-class you’ve never before known.
The Wine Route guide from Baja California Tourism office offers great information and maps.
Bajadock’s interactive map of Ensenada and the Valley includes many of the places mentioned in this post.
This Wine Country Guide from Baja Bound Insurance company has contact, tasting, and tour information for many wineries in the area.