Most tourists go to Mexico planning to sip some smoky mezcal, throw back a few rounds of tequila, or order a Corona by the pool. But in Baja California, a few miles from the fishing town of Ensenada, there’s another option: great wine. Tucked into the arid Sierra de San Pedro Mártir mountains, the Valle de Guadalupe is like the south-of-the-border Sonoma—if you rewind some 20 years. It's not exactly undiscovered—plenty of gringos have visited the picturesque Ruta del Vino ("wine route") since the winemakers began arriving in ‘90s—but it’s still being explored and developed. And in addition to lots of excellent wine, the valley is also home to some of Mexico's most innovative chefs.
The best meal around is at Corazón de Tierra, a beautiful restaurant situated next to the La Villa del Valle hotel. For about $100 you can have six courses (and a couple extra surprises from the kitchen) paired with wines, most of which come from small local wineries and are not available to purchase or taste anywhere else.
Expect imaginative dishes that are bursting with flavor and made from extremely local ingredients—as in cod caught just off the coast, partridge raised down the road, and beets, tomatoes, and cantaloupe grown in the garden you can see from your table. The dishes are plated so beautifully that they beg to be Instagrammed. You might get a tamale with suckling pig and yellow molé, smoked swordfish with avocado and uni dust, or a dessert incorporating black radish, caramel and chlorophyll—it depends on the day. And the food is so good it's almost guaranteed to be one of the top five meals of your life.
If committing three to four hours for a meal isn’t your thing, the same property is also home to Vena Cava winery (in an innovative space built from reclaimed fishing boats, with skylights made of wine bottles) and the pond-side Troika food truck. It’s a great place for casual street-food inspired tacos, tostadas and sliders stuffed with pulpo, lengua, or lechon. (Food truck aficionados should also hit the Adobe Guadalupe winery, up the road, for flavorful bites served at the wheeled kitchen outside the tasting room.)
, is entirely outdoors, with bare wooden tables shaded by leafy trees and an outdoor kitchen. Chef Drew Deckman serves Mexican-inspired lunches and dinners made with only local and artisanal products—many grown and produced right on site. While the staff all over the valley is friendly, those behind the tasting bar at el Mogor are particularly passionate about their products, and they are likely to give you an impromptu tour of the facilities and the cool stone cave where the bottles are stored.
If you’d like to keep it light, head to Viñas de Garza. Make your way up the bougainvillea–dotted driveway and past vintage harvest equipment to the large wooden deck, where you can grab a fresh loaf of olive bread, a hunk of cheese, and rasher of prosciutto di parma to nibble on while you try their wines. (Their tasting start at just 100 pesos, or about $6.) The view is fantastic, as is the slightly juicy Amado IV red blend.
Another panorama worth catching, though at a cost, is the view from Encuentro Guadalupe “antiresort,” a collection of 20 boxcar-like villas on stilts arranged along a rocky hillside. While the site looks rugged (and walkie-talkies are the mode of communication) the rooms themselves are spare and modern, with shiny white interiors, dreamy beds, and chimineas on private patios. Like most hotels here, Encuentro has its own vineyard and winery, as well as a tasting room that serves up savory unfiltered reds.
Another option for sustainably designed cabins—but with a pet-and-kid-friendly atmosphere—try Casa Mayoral. This boutique B&B, with just a handful of private wood and stone cabins, is one of the valley’s newest properties and offers the services of a private chef.
With all the wonderful restaurants in the region, northern Baja has actually become Mexico's hottest food destination, the area now has its share of celebrity chefs. One of these, Javier Plascencia, has multiple restaurants in Tijuana and one north of the border in San Diego. His Valle de Guadalupe restaurant, Finca Altozano, is the perfect place to try his Baja-style food, which mixes Mexican, American, and Italian influences to make use of local ingredients. The menu at this outdoor restaurant is large and enticing, the meat expertly cooked. It’s the ideal place to settle in under the stars for a laid-back night with some local wine and a slew of shareable plates—including dishes with flavors unlike any you've had before, like marlin carpaccio or beef tounge in tuna sauce. Which, of course, is one of the beautiful things about the Ruta del Vino: there’s always something new to discover.