A Grape Discovery

 

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Laurel and I drove down to Ensenada. We’ve visited the city many times before, but we had never gone inland to Guadalupe Valley. Recently, we’ve heard a lot of talk about wineries in the valley and decided to check it out for ourselves.

Just as you’re arriving at the north end of Ensenada, Highway 3 goes east, and the sign says, “Ruta de Vinicola.” We turned and drove through an industrial area full of trucks and dust. Beyond that, typical coastal scrub, chaparral and cactus for a few miles, then you come up to a ridge, and over it lies an amazingly green and beautiful valley, planted edge to edge with vineyards and olive trees. We had done some research, and our first stop was at a museum devoted to the history of wine and vineyards worldwide, beginning with the earliest grape growing in ancient Egypt and Georgia (Eastern Europe, not America).

We talked to a graphic designer in the boutique shop filled with all sorts of aspects of wine and vines. He gave us some excellent advice on where to go first. The museum even has a tasting room, and we got a detailed map showing vineyards, restaurants and hotels. We were astonished to find out there are about 160 vineyards in the valley, which produce ninety percent of the wine in Mexico!

Before we left for Mexico, we checked at Yelp and found some highly recommended wineries and restaurants. Many of the restaurants have chefs who use fresh ingredients from their own gardens and seasonal seafood and meat from local sources. It was about noon by now, so we drove up to Finca Altozano, one of the restaurants most highly rated. It was an open air, rustic place filled with happy eaters/drinkers. We found a place at the bar, which also offered the entire menu, and had mini-tostadas of octopus ceviche, house-made sausage and fresh-baked crusty bread with olive oil, along with glasses of a terrific local Sauvignon Blanc.

(I have to warn you. If you read this entire blog, you’ll go away hungry.)

Another warning: Part of the charm of Valle de Guadalupe is the fact that two paved roads run through it east and west. Highway 3 continues north to Tecate after it joins the northern road through the valley. There’s one paved road that connects the two on the west side. All of the roads to the wineries, hotels and restaurants are simply dirt, some of them a little bumpy, so your pace will be slow, and your car will need a bath when you get home to the states.

After lunch, we drove a little farther east to L.A. Cetto, one of the largest wineries in the valley, for our first tasting. We discovered that the tastings aren’t especially cheap and usually run between ten and fifteen dollars for five tastes, depending on the types of wines. We stood out under the shade of some large fig trees and tasted five, one of which we liked so much we bought a bottle. It’s a white blend, with Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Noir grapes. I might add that actually buying bottles needs to be a rare event, because the California wine industry protects itself, and only one liter per person is allowed through customs.

We visited a couple of other vineyards that afternoon, and both also offered excellent wines. After our tasting at La Cielo, they gave us the very nice glasses we had used. And Adobe Guadalupe told us about The Wine Connection in Del Mar, which sells both Adobe Guadalupe and L.A, Cetto, as well as a couple of other Mexican wines. Outside this winery is a row of stone mounds with flying horses mounted above them. Of course, they’re sculptures, made of metal, but create an interesting backdrop to the sampling area.

We took a break from wine during the afternoon and visited Laja, a restaurant that gets many five-star reviews. We made reservations for lunch the following afternoon.

Early Sunday morning, we left our hotel in Ensenada, near city center. The valley is only about a half hour from the city, so we had decided to stay there, even though the valley has some excellent hotels and resorts. Excited by what we had seen on Saturday and the prospect of lunch at Laja, we drove up and arrived before many of the wineries had opened for the day. We had heard very good things about Viña de Frannes, so we headed up the northern valley road. When we reached the entrance to the vineyard at about ten, a rope was still stretched across. One of the nearby guards waved to us, walked across and dropped the rope, then beckoned us through. The buildings of Viña de Frannes were still at some distance, probably more than half a mile away beyond large fields of grapes.When we arrived, we parked the car in an empty dirt parking area and walked to the main building.

Our server, a young woman who had only begun working there a short time before, greeted us and showed us to a row of tables outside on the veranda. We were the first customers of the day, and she spent quite some time pouring and describing each of the five wonderful wines we tasted. She told us that the winemaker, Ernesto Alvarez Morphy Camou, had opened Frannes just a few years ago, after many years of running his earlier vineyard, Chateau Camou. The new winery he named after his son, Francisco, plus Ernesto. The modern buildings of Frannes are nestled near the far northern edge of the valley, below steep bluffs, and the views from the veranda are beautiful. We still had to buy one of the two bottles California would allow back in the state, and we chose an exceptional 2012 Cabernet Franc to bring back.

After this incredible experience, we decided to find out what Ernesto’s flagship winery, Chateau Camou, was like, now with new owners. Camou turned out to be a huge whitewashed building with well-worn wooden doors. Inside, the place was filled with oak barrels and chandeliers, giving a buttery light to everything. The indoor welcome was as inviting as Frannes’ outdoor was. We drank some fine red wines, some of them fifteen years old, and a couple of surprisingly mature whites. By the time we finished at Camou, it was nearing our reservations at Laja, so we headed south.

Laja is a bit of a splurge but well worth the price. For fifty dollars, they serve eight courses, small enough so you don’t waddle away from the table, but large enough so you’re very satisfied. For an additional twenty-five, they match a local wine with each of the courses.

It turned out to be a wise decision on our part, because it was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten, and included courses with scallops, octopus and local lamb you could cut with a fork. The spinach ravioli with duck cracklings was extra special, as was the catch of the day, which was white sea bass. Two very creative desserts finished the meal. Lemongrass and kohlrabi ice cream (Really!) followed by a spinach biscuit with goat cheese ice cream. We’ll be going back sooner than later.

EZ Exit

Last Thanksgiving, we drove down to Ensenada for the holiday. Coming back, we waited at the border for three and a half hours! We decided this would not work if we wanted to continue visiting Mexico. We found out about Sentri pass, which costs about a hundred dollars and lasts for five years. We now have Sentri passes, which are good anywhere you come through customs into the U.S. The Sentri pass line was less than a half hour long, and when we reached the gate, we handed our passes to the customs official. He scanned them and said, “Thank you. Go ahead,” as we were pulling out our passports. He said, “These are all I need,” when we told him that this was our first time using them, and we should expect our car to be thoroughly examined and even X-rayed.

He smiled and said, “The computer says everything’s okay, so have a nice day,” and we drove through with relief and delight at the way they worked. They take about three months to get, but they last five years. If you’re interested in visiting Mexico, as we are, I strongly suggest you get them. They even speed your wait through lines in airports anywhere in the country. Happy traveling!

One Response to A Grape Discovery

  • Vincent J. Patti says:

    “Lemongrass and kohlrabi ice cream (Really!)”

    If I could be a superhero in one of this summer’s ad nauseum, comicstrip blockbusters, because of your travelogue, I’d be one with superhuman taste buds plus the skills of Mercury. Now, I can only try emailing the restaurant and having them email me back a gooey and unfulfilling soupcon of the abovementioned stuff.

    This stated to say thank you for a lovely account and nicely appointed visuals to boot – as usual!

    Love you two,

    Vincent

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