Author: Guillian Flyn
Photography: Robert Benson
Information provided by: Riviera San Diego
Less than two hours from the San Diego border, this vast, craggy valley is not just a hotbed for foodies and the sip-and-swirl set. With a muy tranquilo vibe, it’s the ideal place for instantly slipping into vacation mode, winding along dirt roads to indulge in one-of-a-kind outdoor dining and dream-big architecture that embraces the land. You can even take off on a helicopter to the ultimate hilltop picnic. “We are making history as we speak,” says Fernando Perez Castro, a vintner. Consider this your lesson—splash of flinty rosé included.
“Right now there is this boom in Mexican wine,” says Fernando Perez Castro, owner of Hacienda La Lomita, one of the valley’s next-level wineries helping to produce the region’s 2 million cases annually. “A new generation is stepping up the quality,” says Castro, cradling a 100 percent grenache. The winery just added a new alfresco eatery, TrasLomita, and a VIP tasting room.
The Suite Life
It’s an eco-lodge. It’s an anti-resort. And it’s a study in rugged elegance done right. Encuentro Guadalupe (rates from $320) should post a sign—“Act Cool and Blasé”—to prevent guests from bubbling over with excitement and running amuck off the hush-hush pathways to their pod suites jutting out from the rocks. The newest arrivals? A hotel helicopter to whisk guests off to rustic mountaintop picnics, and Convivia Cantina by chef Flor Franco. In a cross-border partnership with the S.D.-based Snake Oil Cocktail Co., the bar boasts the valley’s first dedicated cocktail (and mezcal) program. The What’s up Doc? features a carrot juice concoction with a slab of pork belly as garnish. So just sit back; order the daily ceviche and chill out already.
The Great Outdoors
South African chef Ryan Steyn never planned to stay in the valley when he first came on an exploratory trip with his then girlfriend, a Baja sommelier, five years ago. But love stepped in. His new El Jardin restaurant at the winery and inn Adobe Guadalupe is set on a patio shaded by trees of red peppercorns and pomegranates. The menu is 70 percent raw, featuring yellowtail with uni and seaweed caviar. And with foie gras banned across the border in California, here foodies have a secret spot to score the illicit delicacy. Steyn serves his with a pomegranate jelly. How to wash it down? “Tru Dulce from Adobe Guadalupe. It’s a sweet wine.”
Valle de Guadalupe is a pioneer of eco-chic with new additions like Viniphera Spa (treatments from $200). Shipping containers decked out in solar panels lay the groundwork for this private retreat tucked away on the lavender-scented grounds of the Quinta Monasterio winery. Aestheticians are dewy poster girls who swear by the wine soap made from a secret family recipe.
The only menu at Corazón de Tierra arrives at meal’s end—and that’s only if you request a copy. After the requisite six courses, diners might forget to inquire as they gaze into the garden setting, licking the secret sauce from their plates. Award-winning chef Diego Hernández will only call it salsa madre (“mother sauce”). On this night, it was served with local duck, artfully plated with Anaheim chile, baby eggplant and squash blossoms. The restaurant, housed on the grounds of La Villa del Valle hotel (rates from $225), was named one of the top 50 in Latin America last year. Hernández earned his chops at the acclaimed Tijuana Culinary Art School, which just this year introduced its first sommelier program. In the kitchen, an army of alumni in crisp black aprons are armed with tweezers tucked into their shirt sleeves. They’re ready for the next course. What menu?
Wine geeks: Brace yourselves. Leave it to the valley’s renegade architects to create a subterranean Vine and Wine Museum, replete with moody low lighting and oak barrel displays. It’s the ideal backdrop to soak up the region’s rich winemaking history, from the Spanish Jesuits concocting sacramental vino to the Russian Molokans, who developed large commercial vineyards in 1906. In addition to a bottle display of all the valley’s vintners, there’s a lesson in Baja’s Mediterranean climate, which is similar to California wine country. Baja’s winemakers, however, are creating their own distinctive bouquets that some say rival their neighbors. Bring it!
“Fifteen years ago, I used to come here every weekend and put my cazador under a tent,” recalls acclaimed Baja chef Javier Plascencia. Today, his Finca Altozano eatery is a natural extension of those pioneering days with his Mexican barbecue. On every table at this rustic compound (there’s even a private dining room under a large oak tree) is the mesquite-grilled, crackly skinned lamb in a lime vinaigrette. The other menu hit: buttery grilled octopus with fried peanuts that pairs beautifully with a Claudius Rosé. Bonus: A not-to-miss wine store features the region’s independent producers.
The Big Queso
Where there’s wine in the valley, there’s queso. The cheese scene continues to ripen, thanks to chefs who are increasingly making their own varieties, but don’t miss the original head honcho—Rancho Cortés—a producer making a variety of cow’s and sheep’s milk cheese, along with a coveted olive oil made from the property’s fruits. The no-frills tasting room serves a slightly floral queso fresco, along with hard cheeses made with basil, jalapeno and olives. Just follow the “queso” signs. Literally.