Napa Of The South

An influx of chefs and winemakers have transformed the hardscrabble country around Ensenada, Mexico, and they've created a hot new destination for foodies.

The broad green leaves of cabernet sauvignon vines are caked in fine beige dust. Our car bumping along Calle Séptima only adds to the layers churned up on the parched roads in the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most prolific wine region. We’re surrounded by browned mountains studded with smooth granite boulders, framing a valley where cactus feels more at home than grapevines.

As we turn down another deeply rutted road, our car bucks, the metal tongues of the seat belts in back ding the window glass like pellets hurled from the side of the road, and we feel like bobbleheads. These washboard roads, veining through the valley between two narrow paved highways, symbolize the dilemma confronting an area of Baja California clustered around Ensenada that now has about 100 wineries and a growing number of high-quality restaurants — and countless accompanying tourists.

“Bad roads equal good tourists,” is how Hugo D’Acosta summarizes the fight to keep the valley rural. It’s a perfect explanation that pits the passion that’s fueled tremendous growth in the past five years against the commercialism that’s beginning to take root.

Most people celebrate the Baja California valley as an emerging wine region, but it’s the oldest in North America, with vines first planted in the early 1500s. They were destroyed in 1699 when Charles I of Spain banned wine production in foreign colonies to protect his domestic industry.

Phil Gregory, the owner of Vena Cava winery, pours a glass of wine during a tasting.
Phil Gregory, the owner of Vena Cava winery, pours a glass of wine during a tasting.

There were only three wineries when D’Acosta started working at Santo Tomás in the 1980s: L.A. Cetto, Domecq and Santo Tomás. Even today, with all the wineries sprouting in the valley, these three produce about 80 percent of the wine in the region. As the owner of four local wineries and consultant to many others, D’Acosta has been called the Robert Mondavi of Mexico for his pioneering techniques, marketing genius and nonprofit wine school, La Escuelita.

Many outsiders compare the Valle de Guadalupe to Napa Valley, but that sells both short. Sure, there are two main highways that run through the valley of each, and both places are considered the premier wine-growing regions of their respective countries. But other comparisons fail.

For instance, compared to Napa, the climate of Valle de Guadalupe, about 90 miles southeast of San Diego, is like comparing a tropical rain forest to the Mojave Desert. And whereas Napa has many different soils, you’ll find only one type in Baja, says Lourdes Martinez-Ojeda, the winemaker for Bodega Henri Lurton. The main variables are water and temperatures — warm during the day and cool at night. Martinez-Ojeda spent nearly a decade at Chateau Brane-Cantenac in Bordeaux and partnered with Lurton in Baja. That alone is a milestone; he’s the first French vintner who has so heavily invested in the valley.

Baja grapes are harvested over three months as winemakers attempt to balance fruit and acid. When it comes to grape varietals, just about anything goes. Many red wines are big and extracted, but few are over 13.9 percent alcohol, according to the labels. Higher levels trigger more taxes. Fortunately, truth in labeling isn’t a government priority.

This laissez-faire attitude also creates a milieu of experimentation, which is what makes a visit here so intriguing. Because of the freewheeling nature of the wine business, vintners can blend and bottle grapes from various locations, whether they be from Napa Valley or Bordeaux. Even locally cultivated blends can be nontraditional. Torres Alegre’s Del Viko Blanco combines French colombard and chenin blanc; Vino de Piedra pairs tempranillo with cabernet sauvignon; Monte Xanic achieves a complex blend with syrah and cabernet sauvignon. D’Acosta is making sparkling wines, including a blanc de blanc that is a blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, a grape well-suited to the region, and blanc de noir made with zinfandel.

The connections between the area’s vineyards and restaurants are woven together like a fine tapestry. At no other place is the adage “What grows together goes together,” truer than here. Most top local restaurants have a strong Mexican influence, and each chef adds his or her twist. Many dining rooms are outdoors, where even on hot days, there’s a sense of awe looking at the vines carved into the valley.

One restaurant, Deckman’s en el Mogor, is set on a working ranch that produces more than enough wine, vegetables and livestock needed to feed guests. Both the dining room and kitchen are outdoors and on weekends chef/owner Drew Deckman stokes seven fires.

Arriving diners walk up a hill overlooking vineyards and are greeted by a circular grill rack paved with tortillas, suspended and slowly turning over a blazing fire. Two dogs roam the dining room, respectfully begging for leftovers.

Chef Drew Deckman of Deckman’s en el Mogor.
Chef Drew Deckman of Deckman’s en el Mogor.

Deckman’s menu includes a medley of peppers, squash and other vegetables accented with ash pesto, all artfully piled on a slab of wood. Hunks of grilled pork are accompanied by a smoky vegetable tian. His more refined skills emerge on striped sea bass from nearby Ensenada, set atop squash with avocado purée, bubbles of aeriated clam vinaigrette and whole roasted garlic cloves.

Deckman is still trying to find the balance of what he wants and what the public wants. “If we get too fancy, it feels out of place,” he says, “but if it’s too casual, I feel out of place.”

At another al fresco restaurant, TrasLomita, diners walk to the long communal tables on a path beside the vineyard, passing the outdoor kitchen and three man-made waterfalls tumbling into a lily pond. The food produced by Sheyla Alvarado offers her interpretations of classics, such as a tostada mounded with a bright conglomeration of avocado and coriander with small dices of jicama and fish, as well as a beautifully realized black shrimp ceviche surrounding a sauce black from charred vegetables. The restaurant is associated with La Lomita Winery, founded in 2009.

The area’s porous soil and salty water table give many wines a strong saline quality. This flavor profile may not win blind tastings, but it captures a sense of place and complements the food. It stands to reason: Salt cushions the impact of chiles and balances other ingredients, which in turn brings out fruit in the wine.

Some winemakers are trying to manipulate those distinct qualities, but D’Acosta thinks that’s a mistake. Wines should express their region, he says, and those unique characteristics should be celebrated.

Like D’Acosta on the wine scene, Jair Tellez was a pioneer when he opened his restaurant, Laja, in 1999. Tellez had returned home from a stint in the U.S., where he went to school in Berkeley, worked a year at Daniel in New York and then spent eight months with Roland Passot at La Folie in San Francisco.

Laja, which serves a four- or eight-course fixed-price menu, is housed in a hacienda-style building, surrounded by gardens that inform his menu — including a salad with lettuce, tomatoes and roasted peppers and lamb chops propped on fire-charred eggplant and leek puree.

At Roberto Alcocer’s Malva, which opened in 2014, we sat under a canopy of trees and saw the chef walk across the patio to snip celery leaves. A few minutes later, they garnished our tostada layered with smoked fish, lettuce, leafy herbs, half-moons of zucchini and nuez de la India, or candlenut. Like many other Baja restaurants, Malva is associated with a winery, Mina Penelope.

Lunch at Finca Altozano includes a panoramic view of the valley.
Lunch at Finca Altozano includes a panoramic view of the valley.

Alcocer peppers the menu with ingredients unfamiliar to many foreigners, such as hierba santa, or root beer plant, with carnitas sopes. Combinations also are unexpected: He arranges a tender chunk of braised beef rib on the clean, wide bone, set off with bright orange puddles of pureed vegetables and topped with three similarly colored lobes of local uni.

Most restaurants I visited were creative but had clear points of reference; none were as interpretive as what we found at Corazón de Tierra, a restaurant associated with Vena Cava winery and the Villa del Valle bed and breakfast. Chef Diego Hernandez Baquedano offers a changing five-course menu. On our visit, it started with a small brick of masa topped with a tiny fillet of smoked salmon, kind of a deconstructed tamale, followed by a quarter-sized tortilla mounded with tuna and bright orange sea urchin powder. He thickly spreads finely minced bluefin tuna on the crisp tortilla and decorated it with dots of green wasabi.

A manicured mound of squash with peppermint, shaved almonds and sunflower petals on red pepper sauce had an arid quality that matched the landscape, served with a wine fermented in the bottle. Next the restaurant poured a house-made orange wine that tasted like turpentine when paired with scallops, tomatoes and cucumber water. It shows how not every experiment works; of all my meals, this had the most highs and lows.

One of our best lunches was at Finca Altozano, where chef Javier Plascencia, the owner of five restaurants in Mexico, including Misión 19 in Tijuana, has earned international acclaim. At his asador campestre, or country grill, I can imagine a vaquero galloping up on a horse to get the pot roast — a hefty chunk of beef nearly floating in a natural juice gravy with thick coins of potatoes and pickled onions.

The open-air restaurant overlooks a wide sweep of valley vineyards, a pen with goats and pigs and Lupe, a food truck the chef opened last fall. Surrounded by picnic tables, the truck features tortas, which are some of the best sandwiches I’ve had. The soft telera roll is piled with crispy chopped pork and a thick layer of avocado. Other fillings include tripe, turkey and brisket.

Plascencia also owns Finca La Divina, a four-bedroom B&B; six miles down the road. Many wineries feature accommodations; the largest hotel in the area, Hotel Boutique, has just 30 rooms. What many consider the first local artisanal winery, Monte Xanic, started 30 years ago. It features 18 different wines, many of which can be sampled in the modern tasting room. The winery produces some of the best whites in the valley, especially Sauvignon Blanc with its full fruit and crisp acidity.

D’Acosta opened Casa de Piedra in 1997 with the idea to “live around the vines.” He says people thought he was crazy, but he knew differently from his stint in Europe and a year that he worked at Chappellet vineyards in Napa Valley for two winemaking legends: Cathy Corison and Tony Soter.

D’Acosta’s vision of a wine-centric lifestyle was slow to catch on. Even 15 years ago the valley only had about two dozen wineries, he says.

While small wineries continue to open, the pull of commercialism is growing, for good and bad. Some locals point to Decantos Vinícola, opened in 2015, as an example of the glitz invading the valley. “Go there for an Instagram,” one person told me. “Don’t bother with the wines.” That may be a little harsh; some bottlings, such as the Nebbiolo, are good, even if it can’t compete with its Italian counterpart.

Tortillas rotate on a grill at Deckman’s.
Tortillas rotate on a grill at Deckman’s.

The most prominent symbol of the Baja invasion is El Cielo, a winery, restaurant and planned hotel that looks like it should be in Napa Valley. The winery released its first vintage in 2010, and this year began bottling wine from the 54-acre vineyard surrounding its Spanish-style building. Visitors enter a large retail space and watch a slickly produced video before touring the state-of-the-art production facility and tasting wine in the handsomely appointed cavelike room in the basement. El Cielo also hosts concerts and weddings.

That’s a far cry from other local wineries, where marketing takes the back seat to working the soil.

Now a new crop of expatriates is returning home to add their voices to tradition. At Bodegas Henri Lurton, Lourdes Martinez-Ojeda combines a firsthand knowledge of Bordeaux winemaking with a love of her native land. She’s been back three years and is producing some well-regarded wines, including a lauded reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and an equally impressive Chenin Blanc.

David Castro is her restaurant counterpart at Fauna at Bruma, where she is the consulting winemaker. Bruma houses the restaurant, winery and a budding resort financed by a Mexico City developer. When the 27-year-old Castro left Ensenada as a teenager, he never imagined returning. He moved to New York and worked at Eleven Madison Park, Blue Hill and Stone Barns. When Cala opened in San Francisco in 2015, he became chef de cuisine.

Castro says he was lured back to the valley when the owners gave him control over Fauna, with no expense spared. Diners enjoy his creations in a dramatic wood-clad dining room featuring a 56-seat communal table that extends onto the covered patio.

The food at Fauna shows the exciting direction in which the scene is heading, innovatively bridging modern and traditional. Castro makes a “tortilla” out of two thin rounds of jicama and places yellowfin tuna sashimi and vegetables in between. The waiter then pours on a clear broth of fermented habanero with bright splashes of parsley oil.

Castro serves a savory custard topped with translucent paper-thin oyster crackers, uni and shaved serrano chilies. He makes lasagna with chayote, local cheese and a special Yucatan chile sauce, and ages duck two weeks to intensify the flavor, plating it next to a circle of charred eggplant and onions.

“I think it’s a very interesting moment to come back here,” Castro says. It’s an ironic juxtaposition, because the increasingly flashy Bruma could easily be a place locals vilify. The owners have paid attention and carefully built the structures into the landscape. The roads that lead to the enclave are as weathered with the best (or worst) of them.

After all, good roads, D’Acosta reminds me, will bring the wrong kind of tourists.

“I see us now in a danger zone,” says Castro, echoing the sentiments of just about everyone I talked to. “It could go commercial with no attachment to the area, but I also feel that if we keep it on a personal level, we can showcase what Baja California has to offer in food and wine.”

Want more? Check out Will Hearst’s in-depth interview with Alice Waters.

Michael Bauer has written about food for nearly four decades at the Kansas City Star, Dallas Times Herald, and for more than 30 years for the San Francisco Chronicle where as Executive Food and Wine Editor, he led the food and wine team to four James Beard Awards for outstanding coverage.
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