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.
It’s a wine country unlike any I’ve come across. Start with the fact that in these parched environs, only splashes of vines are visible from the highway. Nowadays grapes grow in all sorts of places, but how they came to the valley is a peculiar tale. An obscure Russian sect of agrarian Christians known as the Molokans immigrated to Mexico around 1905 and put their farming talents to the test of the desert. The Molokans didn’t drink alcohol, but they sold their grapes to those who did.
In 1988, a scientist of German ancestry named Hans Backoff Senior founded Monte Xanic and thereupon became the first maker of high-quality wines in the Valley. Others followed, and the oenologists they hired from France, Italy and Spain brought their native varietals with them. You would think the resulting wine would be a hopeless multicultural jumble, everywhere-tasting wine in the middle of nowhere.
But then you would start drinking and stop quibbling. As one of the region’s pre-eminent winemakers, José Luis Durand, told me: “That eclecticism is part of our wine’s character. It expresses the freedom that our culture affords us.”
I dined with Mr. Durand, a native Chilean, one evening in the unprepossessing oceanside city of Ensenada, a half-hour from the valley, at an Italian restaurant called Da Toni. My brilliant if endearingly attention-disordered companion makes deeply personal valley wines featuring far-flung grapes like nebbiolo and tannat.
Elsewhere in Ensenada, at Sano’s, a dignified steakhouse, I washed down my filet mignon with a silky tempranillo-syrah blend from Norte 32, whose owner, a retired pilot named Oscar Obregón, beamed modestly as I stammered out praise.
And one afternoon in the city I found, alongside a clutter of docked fishing boats, a sunny seafood shack named Muelle 3. The yellowfin tuna sashimi and shrimp puff pastry might have been flawless by themselves — but, leaving nothing to chance, I ordered a needle-sharp sauvignon blanc made by Wenceslao Martinez Santos of Relieve Winery, and perfection was assured.
In the preceding paragraph I unintentionally made the case for simply staying in the poor man’s Cabo San Lucas of Ensenada where, in addition to the excellent restaurants, the usual beach hotels and tequila bars abound and the roads are paved. I won’t stop you, though you are especially likely to regret your choice should you linger in Ensenada in the middle of November, when the so-called Baja Mil procession of Americans in off-road vehicles makes its bellowing way down the thousand-mile coastline from Tijuana to Cabo. The serene rusticity of the valley has the feeling of a place rather than a playground.
“If you come here directly from Napa, you’ll feel like you’re on a safari,” the winemaker Fernando Perez Castro said as we enjoyed a grand lunch of pig’s feet taquitos, tomato salad, radishes with black mole sauce and cabrito tortas (a sandwich of grilled baby goat) on the shady patio of TrasLomita, the restaurant on the premises of his family’s winery, Hacienda La Lomita. “But you see that this isn’t a place where big corporations have imposed a narrative. This is all about small families who actually live on the property. And along with making a tiny amount of high-quality wine, we’ve now brought tourism to the table. We’re giving our clients a full experience.”
At certain sites like La Lomita, that experience — superb wine and food in a picturesque setting presided over by a charming host — feels unassailably complete. Or it would, if there were rooms. Once Kirsten arrived three days into my weeklong trip, we stayed two nights in the area’s oldest hotel, Adobe Guadalupe, an elegant inn built in 1999 by an American businessman and his Dutch wife, who came to the valley to make wine and raise horses. Today, according to its website, the hotel is the most prolific breeder of Azteca Sporthorses in the world, and guests may ride them through Adobe Guadalupe’s vineyards.
As I prefer horses from a distance, we largely contented ourselves with the view from the hotel’s lovely pool, the armada of mountains providing a backdrop of surly majesty. Adobe Guadalupe’s conceit is that of a self-contained refuge. Its gracious courtyard and high-ceiling public rooms stocked with well-traveled books invite the visitor to proceed slowly, if at all.
Just by the entrance, a gift shop of local crafts is also well stocked with early vintages of Adobe Guadalupe’s excellent wine at startlingly low prices. More recent versions of the same wine are available by the glass at the adjacent charming food truck, which sells flavorful if strangely non-Mexican snacks. The greater disappointment comes with Adobe Guadalupe’s dinners, which feature the banal sort of beef-and-asparagus fare one encounters at Middle American country clubs.
Thus come evening we would find ourselves bumping down the unlit desert roads. One particular three-mile divot-riddled byway connecting two paved thoroughfares is the address for some of the valley’s best-regarded restaurants. These include the aforementioned veranda grill Finca Altozano; across the street, Brasa del Valle, another campestre-style restaurant emphasizing fresh ingredients; and a quarter-mile down the road, Laja, the valley’s venerated ranch-house establishment with a prix fixe menu that leans more to the Mediterranean than to down-home Mexican. From Adobe Guadalupe, the drive to each of these is a mere 10 minutes, though getting there is not half the fun.
We were glad, then, to procure a room for our final night in the valley at Bruma Valle de Guadalupe, a first-class resort-in-the-making owned by Juan Pablo Arroyuelo, a restless Mexico City developer. When we visited, Bruma’s rambling complex consisted of six sleek guest rooms, a pool, dirt-biking trails, a vineyard, a kitchen for daytime meals and an architecturally stunning winery built out of recycled optical glass and discarded wooden beams from a San Francisco bridge.