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The Secret of Valle de Guadalupe's Wine (R)evolution

It's not just the great wines and boutique hotels—Mexico's buzziest wine region has soul

There’s usually one way to wake up in Baja California's Valle de Guadalupe during a normal weekender: head pounding, eyes squinting, smelling like last night’s bonfire, and desperately groping for a water bottle. But add an organized festival to those regular festivities—a festival where winemakers, chefs, and hoteliers are ready to party—and you have an entire region in full-on revelry. Wine-soaked and sucking down grilled abalone, one could be forgiven for forgetting this is, in fact, Mexico. The Valle de Guadalupe isn’t the land of the tequila, fried crickets, and enchiladas for which the rest of Mexico is famous (though, yes, there is some tequila). It's only 90 miles from San Diego, but the cross-border journey—which then winds down the Pacific coast, across the mountains, and into the dusty village announced only by rows of vines and the huge “RUTA DEL VINO” sign—can make you feel like you’ve landed on the moon.

One of “the Valle’s” most iconic celebrations is the Festival de las Conchas y el Vino Nuevo, the festival of shellfish and new wine. The festival centers on the unveiling of new white and rosado wines, as well as the fresh seafood, prepared by local chefs, for which the nearby port city of Ensenada is famous.

Half of the festival's raison d'être
But even though the festival is gastronomically driven, one of the undeniable hubs of the weekend is the sold-out Encuentro Guadalupe eco-resort. Encuentro has the distinction of being distinctive; the hotel itself is a series of futuristic-looking pods that dot the hills above the valley and are protected by a minimalist-chic exclusivity. This is Mexico, after all, and exclusivity can indicate a few things at once, including some harsh realities—Valle de Guadalupe's proximity to some less-safe regions means you have to jump through some security hoops when you enter higher-end properties. 

But more tellingly, part of Encuentro's distinction comes from being part of the “new” Valle de Guadalupe: a wave of boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, and architecture-forward wineries that strive for recognition on an international scale. There’s a lot of buzz about this tiny valley, but to understand the new Valle, you have to know about the old.

The wine region’s short history goes something like this: it started with Spanish Missionaries who settled the area and planted the first vines around 1700. All of the vines were abandoned or ripped out in 1857, after Mexico’s War of Reform deposed the Catholic Church, and were only re-planted in 1904 when a group of Russian pacifists made their way to the region. Winemaking continued on a very small scale from then until the mid-1980s, when Hans Backhoff, of present-day Monte Xanic Winery, and Hugo D’Acosta, who was brought on as vintner by Bodegas de Santo Tomas, decided to scale up the region’s winemaking and start grape-growing in earnest. D’Acosta later landed at Adobe Guadalupe and went on to start his own renowned label, Casa de Piedra, while Monte Xanic (with Backoff at the helm) continues to operate as one of the better-known vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe. Since the 1990s, wineries in the region have rapidly grown, with restaurants and hotels following in lockstep.

This brings us to present day and the star-studded bonfire at Bodegas de Santo Tomas during the Festival de las Conchas. To my left and right were several big players in the Valle’s burgeoning food-and-wine scene, including Jorge Maciel, one local winemaker hoping to strike it big. The Ensenada native started making wine in his garage as a hobby, and these days his favored mono-varietals are catching attention in San Diego restaurants. He is a bit of a one-man show: making the wine, fielding sales calls, traveling for tastings, and building his own cellar (which has been six years in the making). Part of his success must be due to the fact that Maciel is charming and, true to that ever-present Valle hustle, knows the value of face-to-face marketing and tastings. He’s also generous with his wine, his time, and is a natural connector; by the end of the night he had set up a private tasting in August, complete with food pairings from South Mexican chef, for anyone who just happened to be part of the conversation.

Seaside festivities during El Festival de las Conchas y Vinos Nuevos
Later in the weekend, at a festival event just north of Ensenada proper in oceanfront El Sauzal, I was in the middle of eating a freshly grilled clam when I was introduced to a friend of Maciel’s and a mainstay of Mexican wine, Paolo Paoloni. He’s a legendary man in these parts, and his wine—especially his big, spicy Nebbiolo—is among the best in Mexico.

Paolini’s father made what his son refers to as “shit wine” back in Italy. In the 1980s, Paoloni moved to Mexico from his native Italy head the beverage titan Jumex. It was then he discovered the Valle de Guadalupe and decided to set up shop with his wife, Graciela. Paolini upgraded the family tradition by being meticulous and passionate—not to mention a bit lucky. The valley’s wines suffer from a salt problem. Locals say that it comes from being in such close proximity to the sea, but in reality, bad fertilizer, irrigation problems, and storage temperature issues are the likely culprits. Whatever the case, certain properties in the dead center of the valley will be forever plagued with salty wine. When Paoloni bought his property in 1997, he liked being pushed up against the hills, but what he didn’t realize was that, in addition to the sweeping vistas, he would also be beneficiary numero uno of clean water from those same hills, keeping his Italian varietals completely salt-free. Paoloni admits this happened by chance and chalks it up to fate with a tip of his signature Panama Jack hat, a shrug, and a smile.

“It would be shortsighted to call the Valle the “next Napa.” It isn’t—the Valle is something all its own.”

So while the future is bright for everyone’s new favorite wine region, there are still some hurdles for the Valle de Guadalupe. Apart from salty wine, there is no signature grape, which causes producers to be overly blend-happy—which, in turn, lessens the impact of the area's more expertly blended wines. The wineries also suffer from poor brand recognition, import hurdles, a stigma against Mexican wine, and high prices. Finally, there’s an ongoing argument about whether or not the roads—so iconic of the area—should be paved, and even if the “yes” camp wins, there’s no guarantee the government will actually follow through.

Still, it would be shortsighted to call the Valle the “next Napa,” as many have. It isn’t—the Valle is something all its own. It is still raw and uncertain with more to lose financially, and more to lose in reputation. It’s something that could crash before it ever soars. What is certain, though, is that the Valle de Guadalupe is stunningly beautiful and filled with driven and forward-looking wine producers. Plenty of excellent restaurants support the wine region, like Corazón de Tierra and Deckman’s, both producing food that rivals that of the best restaurants in San Diego. And besides, there’s a certain magic to getting away from it all while being just 90 minutes down the road. Selfishly, I want to keep the Valle’s secret to myself, but it isn’t mine to keep. It’s Jorge’s, it’s Paolo’s, and they want you to come down and figure it out for yourself.

>>Next: Where To Eat, Sleep, and Drink Wine in Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico