I would rather live my life as if there is a God, and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t, and die to find out there is!


Sunday, February 22, 2009

MEXICO WINE COUNTRY TRIP

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As an amateur winemaker and one who enjoys wine, my wife and I planned a trip to the Mexican wine country in upper Baja. Located in the north part of the state of Baja California Norte, the route of wine (Ruta del vino) enjoys Mediterranean weather perfect for growing grapevines. There are just a few places in Mexico that combine these unique features: the altitude, seasons, temperature and summer evening marine breezes - in addition to being home to folks with a love of the art of making wine.

My wife, Susan and I took an early Wednesday morning flight from Sacramento to San Diego, rented a car with Mexican insurance and headed south. It took about 15 minutes to get to the border and 70 minutes after that we were in Ensenada via the toll road (which cost a total of $6.00 from the border to Ensenada – worth every penny).

We checked into the hotel where we had reservations, Hotel Cortez, in the central and tourist section of town. The hotel is about 50 years old but well maintained. We ended up staying there three nights. Since it was about lunchtime, we walked a couple of blocks to a restaurant named “Mariscos de Bahia de Ensenada” that had been recommended to us by the desk clerk at the hotel as a good place to have seafood. It was good recommendation as the food was very good. After lunch it was back to the hotel for a quick nap.

Next was a drive out to Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley) which is Mexico’s premier wine region in Baja. It only took about 30 minutes to reach the valley. We poked around there a couple of hours taking in the sites of the valley and the towns of San Antonio de las Minas, El Porvenir and Francisco Zarco. The road between Ensenada and Guadalupe Valley is currently being upgraded from 1 lane each direction to 2 lanes each direction for about 15 miles and was it rough traveling. What made Susan the most nervous is the 2 to 4 foot drop-off on the right side of the lane. Not wanting to be on this road after dark, we were careful to be back in Ensenada before nightfall.

After dark we walked around town a bit and came upon a restaurant and wine bar called Capricho’s and settled in at the bar to try some local wines. We tried 2 glasses each of local reds and found them to be of excellent quality. We were pleasantly surprised to exit after paying only $14.00 before tip. To add to the pleasure of the experience we spent some time talking with the proprietor, Carlos. He is a wealth of information relating to the wines of the area and many other interesting facts, and quite a charming host. If you want to find Capricho’s just ask anyone where Hussongs is. Hussongs Cantina is the Baja's oldest bar and is the verified originator of the margarita - everyone knows where it is. Capricho’s is directly across the street.

Thursday morning we enjoyed a leisurely coffee at a little coffee & tea shop just a door or two down from the hotel. This was one of Ensenada’s several establishments on the main street with charming European style enclosed outdoor seating. Great for people watching! Next we drove to the downtown section of Ensenada, away from the tourist area, where many businesses are located. Our purpose was to visit a dentist Susan had found on the internet, as I needed a small piece of bonding replaced. We visited Dr. Anda and set an appointment for 9:30 Saturday morning. We then visited several pharmacies to obtain a couple of prescription drugs for our dogs. We usually get them on line but thought they’d be a better price in Mexico and indeed they were. We then headed south of Ensenada a few miles to the Baja Country Club. On the way we passed the area where the “big box” American stores are located. There is a Home Depot, Costco, Wal-Mart, Smart & Final to name a few, and an Applebee’s restaurant. We actually stopped in the Wal-Mart for a few minutes. All the aisle signs were in both Spanish and English. Some of the locals call the area “San Dieguito.” That would be “Little San Diego”.

Baja Country Club has an 18-year-old golf course, but residential development surrounding the course has just recently begun. Fairly high quality homes are being built and sold, a few of the homes were occupied, some completed and ready to sell and still others being built. The homes range from 1600 to 1900 square feet, and are situated pretty close together. The construction quality is, I would say, a step or two above the typical quality of housing development homes in the United States. Prices ranged from $170,000 to $250,000. A real good value if one wants that style of living. It doesn’t appeal to either Susan or I as we are not golfers but it was interesting to see.

After a bit more sight seeing, and a nap, it was off to find a place to eat. It was already after 3:00 and we were getting hungry. Susan had heard about Santo Tomas Winery’s restaurant called La Esquina de Bodegas. So we decided that was our late lunch-early dinner target. The restaurant is set in part of the old winery production center, with an adjoining art gallery of local work. Our meal at the Esquina turned out to be a real delight. First we selected a bottle of one of the Santo Tomas red varietals; I don’t remember what it was, but it was quite good. To go with the red we ordered a cheese board to start . Then we both chose one of the 4 course daily specials, Susan had the fish and I ordered the steak. It was a quaint and elegant, yet a cozy place to enjoy a leisurely meal. We each had one additional glass of wine and the total tab came to $46.00 before tip. Talk about real value!

Friday. Breakfast was at Tacos Del Sol about a block from the hotel. We both had the traditional Mexican breakfast of Chilaquiles (con Huevos). Very nice. We enjoyed talking with Jamie Espinoza who waited on us; perhaps he is the proprietor. In any event he is very friendly and interesting.

After breakfast we headed off to Valle de Guadalupe to meet up with Steve Dryden, our guide through the wine country for the day. Steve Dryden is a wine, food and travel writer who lives in the Guadalupe Valley, where he guides individual and small group wine tours. He is an extremely well versed authority on the Valley wines. In addition to his freelance writing, he is also on staff at an English language newspaper, the Baja Times. With Steve we visited 3 local wineries with our first visit to Tres Mujeres (Three Women) artisan winery. Steve had made an appointment for us to have a private tasting. They have a charming rustic wine cave for their tasting room and Ivette, one of winemakers was our lovely hostess. The wines we sampled were delicious. It is sort of a co-op winery started by three women, but now has 6-7 women and a couple of men involved. In Mexico the artisan wineries fall under a different law than the large commercial wineries. It all has to do with taxation, and the number of cases an artisan winery can produce each year is restricted. It seems like a pretty good system to me as it allows someone to get started making and selling their boutique wine and then move up as economics dictate.

The second winery we visited was Rancho Malagon (ViƱedos Malagon). Our host there was the very hospitable Nathan Malagon, young winemaker and ranch manager. Nathan shared the history of his family with us and his passion for creating high quality wine was evident. The wines we sampled were excellent. This winery is actually a small commercial winery, not an artisan winery, and they are beginning to export their award winning wine to the U.S.

Our third and final winery visit was to the L.A. Cetto Winery.
L. A. Cetto is one of the most renowned and oldest wineries in Mexico. In addition to the vineyards, L. A. Cetto offers gardens, a picnic area, wine tasting room, and facility tours. Founded by an Italian, Angelo Cetto, history says that Cetto started the wine business in 1930, bought a number of small local wineries in the 1980’s, and now he is responsible for producing more than half of Mexico’s wine. Cetto cultivates 2,500 acres of vineyards in Baja California; also produces tequila and olive oil. This was an interesting visit and the wines were pretty good, but not quite the quality experienced at the two prior wineries.

Now it is early afternoon, about 2:00 PM, and time for a bit of lunch. Steve took us to Los Naranjos Restaurant in Valle de Guadalupe. The good food, verdant gardens and attentive service made for a perfect lunch. Steve shared many insights of life in the Guadalupe Valley and overall it was a memorable experience.

After lunch we parted company with Steve and drove back to Ensenada. Later that evening, we poked around town a bit and decided on going back to Capricho’s for a light supper. We ended up ordering a bottle of wine and a scrumptious cheese plate of local artisan cheeses that went well with the local wine. Once again we chatted with Carlos, the gracious host and owner.

Saturday morning we again had Chilaquiles at our now favorite Tacos Del Sol. Then off to the dentist for my little repair job. The re-bonding of one tooth had been quoted at $450 in the States and my dentist took pity on me when I told him I had no dental insurance and said he could do it for $250. I am glad I decided to put him off. I am very pleased with the work Dr. Anda did in Ensenada, and his charge was $65.00. I love Mexico!

Off to the Guadalupe Valley again. We arrived early afternoon and checked into the B&B where we were to spend the night. Adobe Guadalupe is a working winery, plus a bed and breakfast with six guestrooms. Adobe Guadalupe produces 5000 cases of wine per year. There is a large wine cave where tastings are held in addition to a pool, meditation garden, and of course a wine processing facility. The Moroccan garden is a quiet garden with olive trees from where you can enjoy the view of the vineyards and the mountains. On the grounds are also stables where they currently breed Aztec horses. Aztec horses are the result of a selective mix between pure blood Andalusian and Quarter horses. Everything is very well cared for and attractive.

Sunday morning was breakfast with hour host Don Miller and other guests. Afterwards we all walked out to the stables. Some went horseback riding and Susan and I headed north en route to Tecate.

The terrain in and around Tecate is very different than that of the Guadalupe Valley. It is hilly and very rocky; lots of large boulders. We located the hotel we had been referred to, the Estancia Inn and checked in. We killed a little time then walked about a block to a restaurant named La Mision. The food was quite good. Early to bed Sunday night. Monday morning after breakfast at the hotel restaurant, La Mesquita, we started the trip back to San Diego Airport to catch our flight to Sacramento. It was raining in San Diego. Our trip home was uneventful, and that’s just how I like them.

Overall I am really pleased with this trip and would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in grape growing, wine or just an interest in Mexico. It was time well spent.

Recommendations:
Tacos Del Sol – 1001 Lopez Mateos at Blancarte, Ensenada
Capricho’s Restaurant – 138 Ave. Ruiz, Ensenada
Rincon de Bodegas de Santo Tomas - Avda Miramar 666, Ensenada
Adobe Guadalupe - Col. Rusa de Guadalupe, Valle de Guadalupe
Steve Dryden - Valle de Guadalupe - sbdryden@hotmail.com


Blessings,

Wayne


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