Baja is California’s Most Affordable Wine Country

You may have heard of Napa Valley Wine Train or the upscale Sonoma Valley in California. But what if I told you that you can get a similar wine country and fine dining experience at a fraction of the price just south of the border?

“Valle De Guadalupe” is an affordable upcoming wine valley of Mexico, located in the state of Baja California. It is hardly a 2-hour drive from San Diego, California, so you don’t need to pay for an international flight. The region’s 1000 foot elevation and Mediterranean microclimate create ideal conditions for growing red wine grapes, particularly varietals that don’t fare well in Alta California. There are fine dining restaurants with sophisticated ambiance and farm to table cuisine, at a fraction of what you’d pay in the US. Here you won’t find the large crowds, overpriced inns or expensive tasting fees either.

Rent a car or book a tour with one of the local guides, who can take you on a drive through the scenic Highway 1. Once you get away from the busy cities of Rosarito and Ensenada, you will find rolling hills, dry mountains and vineyards, as far as your eyes can see.

Ensenada south of California
Ensenada is an affordable beach destination just south of California.

The Wine Route

La Ruta del Vino or The Wine Route, is the collection of wineries and restaurants in the Valle de Guadalupe that draw visitors mainly from Mexico and US. There are over 120 wineries in Valle de Guadalupe, ranging in size from small micro wineries to large commercial wineries. Baja California produces nearly 90% of Mexico’s wine, most of which is consumed at high-end restaurants within the country. Because the production is relatively small, very few Mexican wines make it to retail stores abroad.

wine region in Baja California
List of wineries in Baja that are open with COVID-19 safety measures.

Wine Varieties

Though relatively young and small, Mexico’s wine country is quite advanced. Many of the wineries are organic and biodynamic, grown sustainably and with a minimum of chemicals. They also have casual and quirky tasting rooms.

Because there is no strict regulation on Mexican wine makers, they have the creative freedom to mix grape varieties. As a result, you can taste unique blends that are unheard of in other parts of the world. What’s more interesting is that you won’t even find the same blends year after year. Depending on climate and availability, the winemakers will create a completely new wine each time.

wine museum Baja California
Museo De La Vid Y El Vino is a small museum on the Wine Route.

If you want to learn more about the history of wine making in Mexico, there’s a small wine museum/ event venue called Museo De La Vid Y El Vino. Plan to spend an hour going through the displays and make sure take a look out in the back. There is a small cafe with outdoor seating overlooking the vineyards, where you can get local cheeses, wine and coffee.

Tasting Rooms

The largest winery in Guadalupe is Cetto, single-handedly making more than half of all Mexican wine, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc. But there are countless other small, family-owned wineries producing great Nebbiolo, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc too. Here are some of the wineries I really liked…

Casa Magoni

The Magoni family came to Mexico from Italy and helped set up the wine region, before opening their own public vineyard in 2013. Today, the second generation Enologist – Camillo Magoni, grows Barbera, Nebbiolo and Pignola grape varieties, as well as 70 others. You can sit outside under a canopy of shaded trees, walk through rows of olive and lemon trees, and feel transported to a farm in Tuscany.

A flight of 3 tastings at Casa Magoni start at $8 and they also sell some of the best aged balsamic vinegars for as much as $100!

affordable wine tasting Baja California
The tasting room in Vena Cava under an inverted ship.

Vena Cava

It is not easy to find Vena Cava. You will first need to go through dirt roads and remote farms to get to this funky boutique winery run by a former English sailor – Phil Gregory. Nicknamed “one of the hippest wineries in Mexico,” Vena Cava is all about the experience. An upside down boat makes the roof of the wooded tasting room, while picnic tables, live music and a food truck next to a pond set the scene for a hippy wine experience. Plan to spend a few hours here, drinking and tasting the local fare.

Bruma wine country
The art installation at Bruma’s wine cellar.

Bruma

If you are by now blown away by the artsy quality in Mexico’s wineries, Bruma will take your senses to another level. The vinocola is located inside a large gated estate that houses their vineyards, an award-winning restaurant, and one of the best boutique hotels in Baja. Walk through an art installation and literally go underground to the base of a tree to enter this super sleek cellar. The wines, made by a female Mexican winemaker, Lourdes “Lulu” Martinez Ojeda, are also phenomenal! Bruma produces just 3,000 cases of wine each year, but you’ll find their bottles at The French Laundry and Wynn Las Vegas. 

Tip: You need to pay the entry fee and tour the cellar with an appointed guide, even if you don’t want to drink.

affordable wine country Baja California
The gardens at Finca La Carrodilla are worth a visit.

Finca La Carrodilla

I also stopped by Finca La Carrodilla, Guadalupe Valley’s first organic winery, specializing in estate grown single-varietal wines. There is a beautiful garden, chapel, farm shop and terrace restaurant on the property. But plan to go early, as they stop serving at 4pm.

A Place To Stay: Rancho Encuentro

When I am on a wine tour, there are two things I look for when deciding where to stay. First, is the proximity to wineries so I don’t have to drink and drive. Second, is the view. I want to feel like I am in the wine country and see rolling hills filled with grape wines from my window.

lodging Baja wine country
Modern lodging in the wine valley.

Rancho Encuentero in Guadalupe is a unique Eco Resort that blends in with the landscape of the valley. There are 22 standalone lofts, plus a spacious eco-villa compound so you can easily socially distance. In fact, you walk through dirt paths, wildlife and natural bushes to get to your room!

The rooms are rustic, in a European contemporary cabin sort of way. They boast floor-to-ceiling windows so you can watch the beautiful sunrise from your comfortable king size bed. With sustainably-minded industrial design, the construction incorporates lots of granite and recycled wood while eliminating plastic.

Baja California wine country
Enjoy breakfast with a view at Rancho Encuentro.

The best part at Rancho Encuentro Guadalupe is the infinity pool and outdoor jacuzzi that overlooks the wine country. Enjoy your breakfast and meals poolside and under the sky.

Lastly, celebrity frequented Rancho Encuentero had the best wine that I tasted in Guadalupe! Their deep reds were bold, dry and spicy, and the local sommelier was highly knowledgeable. The rock and cave carved cellar are also worth checking out.

Tip: Some wineries are only open on weekends, so make sure to check their schedule and make reservations.

affordable wine and food
Fresh local ingredients make Baja California cuisine healthy and delicious.

Baja Cuisine

One of the biggest attractions in Baja is the local, sustainable and organic food prepared by celebrity chefs. Like California, there is a big push toward sourcing the best quality ingredients and creating modern California-Mexican fusion dishes.

Most restaurants in Mexico’s wine country are designed in a contemporary fashion, centered around nature and outdoors. So, you will likely dine under a big tree, overlooking a valley, or while resting your feet in the sand. Accompanied by ambient lighting, good music, and great wine, of course!

One of the best meals I ate on this trip was under a 200-year-old oak tree at Animalón. The tapas style menu by Chef Javier Plascencia, had some of the best prepared kanpachi (amberjack) tostadas, shrimp fritters and fiery aguachile. Note a-la-carte menu is only offered on casual Wednesdays.

affordable dining Baja California
Fauna is no 1 rated restaurant in Baja!

My favorite meal in the wine country was at Fauna, a vibrant restaurant at Bruma that has rightfully won many accolades for its food and design. Chef David Castro Hussong is also the author of The Baja California Cookbook, which has stories of his growing up in the region. I tried tetela (Mexican hummus empanada), charred cauliflower, tender whole filet of bass, and warm fresh churros. A vegan tasting menu is also available.

Tip: Dress in layers and carry a blanket as it tends to get chilly at night in the valley. Not all restaurants have outdoor heaters.

shopping Baja California
Do your souvenir shopping on the way to La Bufadora.

Other Than Wine

Located an hour away from the wine country, is the beachside port town of Ensenada. It is a cute place with a walkable promenade filled with cafes, tequila tasting rooms, restaurants and souvenir shops. No trip to Ensenada is complete without a meal at La Guerretense, the world famous street seafood stand selling octopus, shrimp and fish tostadas. There is a sit down restaurant called Restaurant Sabina across the stand where you can get the same food with service.

There is reminisce of old Spanish architecture at some hotels and galleries, as well as gardens and cultural sites.

gardens Baja California
Entry to Tara Gardens is free.

An unusual site is the giant statute of Buddhist princess Tara at the Tara Gardens, where you can also get a nice view of the city. Walk around the Riviera de Ensenada cultural center, and drive further south to see La Bufadora, one of the largest blow holes in the world. This part of Baja also has beautiful beaches, private homes and a few resorts.

Driving Into Mexico, by Accident!

The beautiful city of San Diego, California is located only a few miles north of the Mexico border. In fact, I was driving on Interstate 5 and noticed highway signs that read “Mexico exit is coming up.” My plan was to drive to the end of the US border, park my car at San Ysidro and walk over to Mexico. It is much faster and convenient to go this way especially if you are doing a day trip. There is a pedestrian bridge that one can take into Tijuana, the first town, an important financial and industrial center of Mexico, and the largest city on the Baja California Peninsula. After arrival, buses and taxis are available that take you into the center of town which is bustling with shops and restaurants.

Unfortunately, the exit on I-5 that I was suppose to take had no sign stating that “this is where you need to get off to park your car if you are going to Mexico” so, I accidently drove into the border. If you’ve ever driven to Mexico or you’re planning on visiting, click here to learn about driving in Mexico. I could’ve done with that guide whilst I was stuck there!!

I thought there must be a place to park at the border crossing, or at least I can turn around somewhere. But no, an unmanned check post said “Welcome to Mexico!” and there I was. Nobody checked for identification or stamped my passport but I’m sure there were cameras all around.

crossing US border into Mexico

The moment I crossed international borders, my GPS went out of service and cell phone switched to roaming. I didn’t bother to print any maps of Tijuana beforehand since I wasn’t planning to arrive there by car. I had not notified my car rental company that I was going to take it to Mexico. Neither did I have a phone number to call in case of an emergency.

Here I was in Tijuana, supposedly one of the most dangerous places in North America. People later warned me that its famous for kidnappings, gangs and drugs.

There were well maintained highways and people seemed to be following some laws. Exit names were nicely labelled, although very confusing and inconsistent. I wasn’t sure where I was suppose to go even though I wanted to see the city. So I just kept on driving wherever the roads took me, which in this case was to Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico.

Rosarito, located only 30 minutes south of Tijuana, seemed like a quiet beach town with lots of newly developed homes. There were margarita and taco shacks dotted all along the ocean which was waiting to alive once the sun went down. A few tacky souvenir shops sold shot-glasses, sombreros and t-shirts. It didn’t take very long to drive through the stretch of the main street, which was also heavily guarded by Mexican police.

Rosarito beach Baja California

I stopped at a gas station to pick up a map, only to realize I didn’t have any Mexican Pesos. The lady at the cash register accepted my US Dollars but returned the change back in Pesos. There was no prior understanding of the prevailing currency exchange rate as I got the “take it or leave it” look from her.

Thankfully, I was able to find my way back into the city (mostly through trial and error) and see the main attractions of Tijuana. By this time, I gained enough confidence to park my car and step out. I visited Tijuana Cultural Center, Avenida Revolucion, Amigos del Artes, churches, food markets, shops and plazas. Downtown area was overwhelming with lots of cars, pedestrians, street hawkers and everyone trying to sell me something. It didn’t feel unsafe, although someone who is not use to traveling in third world countries may perceive otherwise. In any case, Tijuana was not the sort of place I would like to spend more than a couple of hours at.

Amigos del Artes Tijuana

After paying the parking attendant with the rest of the Pesos I had, I made my way back north towards USA. The 6-lans drive-through immigration was perhaps the most chaotic border patrol I have ever seen. Separate lines for US citizens, permanent residents and visitors were non existent. There were no signs for wait times, documentation or anything whatsoever. The lanes kept shrinking, so we had to merge every few minutes. Then there were street hawkers who set up shop in the middle of the highway, making it a marketplace. It was easy to do so since we were virtually in a “parking lot” situation for many hours.

Mexico immigration crossing

The Mexican vendors walked around selling everything from souvenirs, furnishings, cold drinks, fast food to puppies and medicines. There were men wearing t-shirts identifying themselves as “pharmacy” who sold antibiotics without prescriptions, ladies taking orders for fresh tacos and burritos, handicapped citizens begging for money, young men washing cars without permission hoping for tips, and kids running around collecting anything American tourists would give them. It was a grave sight while I waited 2.5 hours in line to cross the border.

puppies sold at Mexico immigration crossing

 

medication sold at Mexico immigration crossing

Once I reached the immigration counter, the office asked me what I went to Mexico for, and I explained the whole situation of “driving there by accident.” He didn’t seem amused, as if this happens all the time. Truly, next time I will be careful not to blink while driving, or end up in Tijuana. The officer looked at my passport, inspected my car, asked a few questions and allowed me to re-enter California.