Almost inevitably, travel and wine writers smitten with Valle de Guadalupe in the northern reaches of Mexico's Baja peninsula call it "the next Napa Valley."
Maybe in 50 years, I thought after spending several days there four years ago.
After returning this spring, however, I need to revise my prediction. Now, Valle de Guadalupe may be just 20 years from qualifying for fitting comparisons with Napa Valley for its wines and the amenities it offers wine tourists.
"It's a really young industry," said Leonardo Torres Lerdo de Tejada in speaking of Valle de Guadalupe's wine trade. "It's a 10-year-old industry, really, but it's amazing how it has grown so fast."
Torres is one of the three children of Victor Torres Alegre, a Bordeaux-educated winemaker instrumental in helping develop several wineries in Valle de Guadalupe. We're standing in his own winery, Vinicola Torres Alegre y Familia, completed three years ago.
As with most of the 50 or so wineries in the valley, it's a small family-run facility secluded along a narrow and rutted dirt road. But the winery is definitely Napan in aspiration and design. The press is from Slovenia. The vibrating sorting table is from Italy. The conical stainless-steel fermentation tanks are from Spain. The oak barrels are from France. Torres Alegre's premium brand of wines Cru Garage sell for the equivalent of between $80 and $100 each.
The family built the place with adobe bricks made onsite, but incorporated modern and artistic features. The fermentation tanks, for one, are underground, allowing for the gravity feed of freshly squeezed juice.
To enter the winery, we climbed a short, steep flight of blocky, staggered steps. I was sure that the alternating pumping of the legs to get up the stairs was meant to replicate the old-fashioned treading of grapes, but Torres, an artist who designed the winery, set me straight.
"People are never conscious of climbing stairs. It's just automatically done. But with my art I like to take people out of their normal consciousness. These stairs make you conscious of movement. You have to plan your steps. They make people change the state of their mind before coming into the winery," Torres said.
In its exploitation of art even smaller and more rustic wineries include at least a note of artistic flair the wine culture of Valle de Guadalupe is up to speed with Napa Valley. In one respect, it's even ahead. Napa Valley doesn't have anything comparable to the Museo de la Vid y el Vino, Valle de Guadalupe's sprawling new $4 million center that showcases contemporary Latin American art as much as it traces the long history of winemaking in Baja California.
While modern winemaking in Valle de Guadalupe is relatively young, vineyards have been cultivated in Baja since 1701, when the Jesuit padre Juan de Ugarte introduced grapes to the mission at Loreto. Wine grapes gradually moved north, arriving in Valle de Guadalupe in 1834, but plantings didn't accelerate until a community of Russian Molokans established itself in the valley in 1906, principally to plant cereal crops. Soon they added vines at the urging of the area's first commercial winery, Santa Tomas, founded in 1888.
The Molokans, pacifists who fled Russia at the start of the 20th century rather than fight for the czar, are largely gone today, but the lessons they learned and the types of grapes they cultivated linger.
Today, Valle de Guadalupe is home to 8,500 acres of wine grapes, not much of an increase over what it was four years ago, but the number of wineries has jumped from between 30 and 40 to an estimated 50 or so. (Valle de Guadalupe's wine trade is only loosely organized, and definite figures are elusive.)
While output is concentrated among a few large producers, notably Vinos L.A. Cetto, Santa Tomas, Monte Xanic and Domecq, a visitor need not travel too far off the main highway Route 3, labeled here and there as "Ruta del Vino" to find vintners specializing in small-production, handcrafted wines. Just be prepared for your vehicle to get dusty, and it doesn't hurt to have four-wheel drive.
Valle de Guadalupe yields between 80 percent and 90 percent of Mexico's total annual wine production, with distribution concentrated in the country's larger cities and resort areas. The United States is a major export target for the Mexican wine trade, but few cases get farther north in California than San Diego and Los Angeles.
Given the heat and aridity of the area vines tend to be more stumpy than tall warm-climate varieties such as tempranillo, zinfandel, petite sirah and grenache show the most potential for establishing Valle de Guadalupe as a fine-wine region, but substantial blocks of cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, nebbiolo and merlot also are spread across the valley.
Vineyards and wineries are concentrated within an area about 15 miles long and 5 miles wide. The valley is just inland from the seaside party town of Ensenada, and cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean help mitigate the enclave's desert heat.
Water is in short supply, however the Guadalupe River through the center of the valley is basically dried up restraining the development of new vineyards.
Early on, much of the juice squeezed from the valley's grapes went into the production of brandy, with the transition to dry table wines really starting to gain traction with the arrival of several European-oriented vintners over the past few decades:
Camillo Magoni, a pivotal presence in the valley since 1965 and the winemaker at Vinicola L.A. Cetto since its founding in 1974.
Hugo d'Acosta, founder of two valley wineries, Casa de Piedra in 1997 and more recently Paralelo, the driving force behind La Escuelita, a rustic cooperative and school where many aspiring valley vintners made their first wines.
Hans Backhoff established Monte Xanic in 1987 with four partners and since has been showing that cabernet sauvignon does indeed deserve a place of esteem in the area.
Victor Torres Alegre is credited with introducing techniques to demonstrate that cooler-climate white-wine grape varieties also can yield impressive results in the desert.
Unlike Napa Valley, identified most closely with cabernet sauvignon, Valle de Guadalupe has yet to become associated with one varietal or style of wine.
At this time, the valley's lineup of wines includes an unusually high proportion of blended proprietary wines. Some vintners say this reflects just how diverse growing conditions are in the valley, and that resulting blends are more expressive and complex than varietals.
"If you know how to play it, you get more body, more aroma, more flavor," said valley native Arturo Gonzales, assistant winemaker at the winery Paralelo.
Others say that the reason for so many blends is twofold: For one, the valley still is searching for the variety or varieties for which it eventually will become most respected; secondly, some vintners simply don't have enough of any one variety to bottle it as a varietal.
Over the past four years, the quality of Valle de Guadalupe's wines has become more reliable, but it's still an area suitable more for the wine enthusiast who can take the clumsy with the elegant in tasting rooms, and who doesn't need paved roads, posh accommodations and Michelin-starred restaurants. The valley's two small settlements, San Antonio de las Minas and Francisco Zarco, are basic farm towns, where the businesses are practical and the nightlife is nil.
While Valle de Guadalupe still is short on fashion boutiques and spas, and while many of its day visitors prefer to stay in nearby Ensenada, its tourist amenities over the past four years have become more numerous and varied.
Route 3 has been widened and includes a rarity among Baja highways, the left-turn lane, in this instance at the Museo de la Vid y el Vino, which tells visitors of the winemaking in the region and offers views of surrounding vineyards.
By day, Francisco Zarco is positively abuzz with new taquerias and curio shops. More stylish inns are springing up amid the low hills, none more dramatic than Endemico, a combination inn, winery and restaurant whose rooms are individual casitas perched high over the vines and tucked among the large white boulders that distinguish the valley's hillsides.
Valle de Guadalupe is no Napa Valley, but the wine tourist looking for intriguing wines by day and luxurious lodging and inventive food by night is having an easier time finding satisfaction.
"We're seeing how it's done elsewhere," said Leonardo Torres Lerdo de Tejada back at Vinicola Torres Alegre y Familia. "We're taking our cues from Temecula Valley and Napa Valley."
VALLE DE GUADALUPE
Plan your visit to include a weekend, when winery tasting rooms, restaurants and inns are more likely to be open; on weekdays, except Fridays, the going is unpredictable.
The best access to the area is by road. The drive from Los Angeles can be as short as four hours, or about two hours from San Diego. Google estimates the drive from Sacramento to be under 10 hours. One can fly to Tijuana, the nearest city with regular commercial air service, and then take a bus to the valley, but with layovers, it would take longer to fly there than to drive from Sacramento.
If your heart or palate is set on visiting a particular winery, call ahead to confirm your visit. Appointments aren't always necessary, but it won't hurt to alert vintners of your anticipated arrival. Tastings tend to be free, but some wineries charge hefty fees.
To see the valley's wine trade at its liveliest, plan a visit during the annual Fiestas de la Vendimia in August, an industrious harvest celebration that typically includes special tastings, entertainment and food; keep an eye on the fiesta's website, www.fiestasdelavendimia2013.com, but be forewarned, it's in Spanish.
Kick off a visit with a stop at Museo de la Vid y el Vino, kilometer 81.37 along Route 3 outside of Ensenada. Wine tastings on the premises are to start in October. Signs are in Spanish only, though English-language audio guides are being developed. Admission is 50 pesos (about $4). Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; firstname.lastname@example.org
WHERE TO STAY
Hacienda Guadalupe: Perched on a slope along the east side of the valley, just above the new Museo de la Vid y el Vino, the aptly named Hacienda Guadalupe is modern, comfortable and equipped with most amenities visitors would welcome, including swimming pool, hiking trail and restaurant, though it is without TV and the Wi-Fi is slow; $150/$200; www.haciendaguadalupehotel.com.
Endemico: Also high in the hills, but along the opposite side of the valley, Endemico is a one-stop headquarters, with its restaurant, bar and rooms providing sweeping views of the valley; $148/$280; www.hotelendemico.com.
Rancho Maria Teresa/ Hotel Posada Inn: Rustic, inexpensive and smack-dab in the middle of an orange grove on the valley floor, Rancho Maria Teresa/Hotel Posada Inn is especially popular among families, but it is close to heavily traveled Route 3. Facilities include swimming pools, a winery and a popular restaurant specializing in traditional Mexican cookery; around $55; www.ranchomariateresa.com.
WHERE TO EAT
The oldest and most revered fine-dining establishment in the valley is Laja, a quiet and sophisticated cottage in the middle of the valley. The food is modern, buoyant and seasonal, the chefs harvesting the produce at dusk from the garden off to one side of the house. The prix-fixe menu four courses for 650 pesos (around $55), eight courses for 850 pesos (about $75) lately has included dishes like fava-bean ravioli finished with beef juice and parmigiana; swordfish with garlic, fennel, spring onions and roasted vegetables; and oven-roasted local lamb with potato and carrot. Open January to November, Wednesday through Saturday; www.lajamexico.com.
The flank-steak tortas of the roadside stand Tacos y Tortas del Valle on the north edge of Francisco Zarco aren't to be missed. Mike Dunne is a wine critic and competition judge. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at email@example.com.