•MEXICAN TERROIR: Mexican wines are making a splash with international consumers and connoisseurs. For example, wines from Mexican producers like Casa Madero (located in Coahuila), Bodega Encinillas (from Chihuahua), and Monte Xanic (from Baja California) received the Special Prize (Prix spéciaux) from the Challenge International du Vin, the longest-running global wine competition, in 2021. Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe is the country’s wine capital, a region blessed with beautiful vistas, a diversity of soils, and a culinary scene to match. Best of all, it is less than a stone’s throw away from the U.S. border and is a perfect destination for a two-day trip.
•UNCORKING HISTORY: The Spanish Conquistadores brought the first grapevines with them to present-day Mexico in 1521. As in Europe, monks played an essential role in developing the production of wine. By the end of the 16th Century, New World wines competed with exports from Spain. King Philip II issued orders to stop planting vines in the newer dominions. In some places, sacramental wine was still allowed. Eventually, like Fray Junípero Sierra in 1767, Jesuit missionaries established vineyards in San Diego, California. Still, Mexican wine did not take off until the 20th Century, with some producers like L.A. Cetto being established in 1930.
•NUMBERS: According to data from the Mexican Government, there are approximately 140 producers in Baja California’s “Wine Route,” a corridor that stretches from North to South, from the border town of Tecate to Ensenada (65 miles from Tijuana). The Guadalupe Valley is a highly productive region with over 28 thousand acres of grapes, olive, and asparagus cultivation. Smaller regions or valleys make up the wine country: Ojos Negros, Santo Tomás, La Grulla, and San Vicente. Without regulated or official designations for grapes, Baja produces over twenty varieties, including Cabernet (Sauvignon and Blanc), Garnacha, Grenache, Merlot, Malbec, Mission, Nebbiolo, Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, among others. These kinds have adapted well to the local Mediterranean climate. In 2019, Baja California produced 2.3 million gallons of wine.
•PANDEMIC: Before the health crisis, more than 120,000 people used to attend the wine harvest festivities (vendimia) in Baja California. Covid-19 canceled these events in 2020. Now, recovery seems promising as 56,000 visitors visited Ensenada for this year’s opening weekend of the vendimia (July 30-31), according to Baja California’s state government. The wineries in Baja California offer plenty of open-air activities but still require masks regardless of vaccination status. Despite having applied millions of first doses, Covid-19 total vaccination rates are lower than in the U.S. Baja California is at the yellow threat level (second in Mexico’s four-tier system), with 60,400 estimated active cases of Covid-19 as of the writing of this post. Mexico is one of the few countries globally that does not require tourists to provide a negative Covid-19 test when entering the country but exercise caution nonetheless. Regardless, travelers must be careful to obey specific health rules depending on where they are.
•ARRIVING VIA AIR: The Guadalupe Valley is readily accessible for international and Mexican visitors alike, whether by air or by land. U.S. travelers can fly to San Diego, California, and then travel by road to Mexico. The distance from San Diego International Airport to the valley is approximately 90 miles for a trip that lasts one-and-a-half hours. Tour guides can also arrange trips and logistics from San Diego, avoiding the hassle of getting there on your own. If already in Mexico, connecting flights from Mexico City to Tijuana, Mexicali, or Ensenada are available. Southern California travelers usually cross into Mexico at Tijuana. Consider getting a rental car once you cross or arrive in Mexico; your trusted travel site can offer options from various agencies. Make sure to purchase liability insurance. Renting a car in the country requires a valid driver’s license, passport, and credit card.
•THE ROAD: The roads from Tijuana to the Guadalupe Valley are safe, and the views are worth it. Take Scenic Highway 1D, a tolled federal highway, along the edge of the desert and the sea. Head South, towards Rosarito-Ensenada, and carry change in Mexican pesos for the toll-booths (at least the equivalent of U.S. $20 USD or just over MXN $400). Prices for automobiles, pick-up trucks, and trailers are displayed at every toll, and the cost includes highway insurance. At the community of El Sauzal, outside of Ensenada, you must leave Highway 1 for Highway 3 towards the Guadalupe Valley. The vineyards are located along this road. All foreign-born visitors must carry an FMM (Forma Migratoria Múltiple) tourist card, which serves as a visa of sorts in Mexico. You can apply online at the National Migration Institute’s website. You can also obtain this card at the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana. If you obtained it online, you must get an official stamp a the border.
•RESERVATIONS: With multiple places to eat, wine, and sleep, make sure to plan your trip ahead of time. Staff at the wineries and restaurants are friendly and speak English, so make sure to call ahead of time for any accommodation you may need. Some places offer cabins, suites, or rooms for staying overnight, which can come in handy if getting a little tipsy. Avoid driving at night or if you have had something to drink. Many wineries have dirt roads from the main highway, so be careful with your automobile. Northern Baja California established a reknown culinary scene in Mexico because of quality local ingredients, artisanal beers, local wineries, and chefs that arrived from all over wishing to make their mark. The pandemic forced iconic restaurants, like Corazón de Tierra, and El Pinar de 3 Mujeres, to close. Others are going strong. Try to visit Fauna, a restaurant at the Bruma winery, chef David Castro Hussong, or La Esperanza BajaMed by chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero, near the L.A. Cetto winery. Both places offer unique takes on regional cooking, with plenty of shellfish to go around. Do not miss the roadside tacos at La Principal. Stay at Casa 8 (a fancy B&B at the Bruma winery), or at the Cielo Winery and Resort, if you are willing to splurge. Other options include plenty of Airbnb locations that have adapted chic desert design or even staying in Ensenada and making the day trip to the Valley.
•REMEDIOS VARO AND HER IMPACT ON SURREALISM: Julia Bozzone writes a late obituary for the great Mexican painter, more than 50 years after her death. The article is part of the Overlooked series in The New York Times, especially apt for an artist whose work has begun to regain attention internationally. Varo filled her work with Renaissance-like allegories fitted in dreamlike landscapes.
•TURKEY TAIL TORTAS AT THE BORDER: Food magazine bon appétit published “A Tail (Yes, Tail) of Two Cities,” an article about how Ciudad Juárez perfected turkey tail sandwiches and the way this delicacy is shared with its sister city of El Paso, Texas. It was written by Roberto José Andrade Franco.
•ENSENADA FISH TACOS: The recipe might look simple: fried flaky white fish, on a tortilla, with shredded cabbage and a hint of sauce. However, it takes a true master to perfect the dish, with a tempura-like batter that must provide the perfect texture to contrast with soft tortillas. It is one of Baja’s most remarkable culinary experiences (and it carries a hint of Asian influence for the frying technique). You can find them at roadside stalls and fancy restaurants in Baja. If looking for some in the U.S., try the ones at Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill. Pair it with an ice-cold Mexican blonde beer. ¡Salud!
* Spotlight by Sergio Mendoza, a freelance writer and consultant specializing in strategic development and geopolitics. He writes the Mexican Memo, a bilingual newsletter on Mexico-U.S. culture and politics. Twitter: @Sergistan