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.

Do You Know About This Mediterranean Island in Australia?

Until recently, my awareness of Tasmania was limited to the Hollywood movie – Lion. I envisioned it to be a cold, remote wet and dark place, with rough seas and bare mountains, leading on to Antarctica.

But I was absolutely wrong!

Tasmania feels a lot like the Mediterranean, because of its climate, scenery and produce.

Light lunch made with local ingredients at Prospect House

Located 150 miles south of mainland Australia, the state of Tasmania is similar in size to Ireland or Sri Lanka, and there are countless offshore islands. It’s true that Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

At first glance, Hobart looks like a smaller version of Auckland, New Zealand. There are Victorian houses, English cottages with wrought iron balconies, a downtown with modern buildings overlooking the harbor, neat looking shops and restaurants along brick roads.

View of Hobart from my room at MACq01

There are lots of unique places to stay in Hobart. In the historic Hobart waterfront, MACq01 is a luxury hotel that looks like a shipyard from the outside, and a museum on the inside. Throughout the halls and across the walls of the hotel you’ll find engaging pieces of history, tales and fables that make up the remarkable history of Tasmania.

The Maylands Lodge is a 12-room heritage home located in the suburbs of Hobart, converted into an upscale hotel, with large suites overlooking a stunning garden. If you want the feeling of staying at an aristocratic home, where you can sit by the fireplace in a gorgeous living room, play a game of chess, or have a glass of whiskey after dinner, book yourself at Maylands.

View from my cabin at Freycinet Lodge

Freycinet Lodge was one of the most unique places I have stayed at. My wood cabin located inside the National Park, had amazing views of Richardson’s Beach, forest and wildlife. With all glass on the sides and roof, indoor fireplace, outdoor tub, it felt like a private and upscale log cabin. On a clear night, you can see some of the best starry skies in the world, right from Freycinet Lodge.

The food scene in Hobart is trendy. Because there’s a big university, you will find students packed in bakeries, ramen, kebab and dessert shops. Even the hotels serve excellent quality farm-fresh food. Tasmania is a small island, yet everyone has a backyard garden or a farm producing their own olives, fruits, nuts, wines and more. The waters are abundant in seafood, and Tasmanian wines and gins are rated some of the finest in the world.

Tasmanian Wild Seafood Adventures

I had quite a few unique experiences in Tasmania, one of which was a half-day tour on a catamaran to catch my own seafood. It was just me and two guys from Tasmanian Wild Seafood Adventures who dove in the ocean to catch mussels, oysters, periwinkles and more. They cooked a feast for me onboard!

Par Avion: Wineglass and Wildlife tour

Another adventure was flying on a 6-seater air plane over the breathtaking Freycinet Peninsula, Wineglass Bay, the seal colony of Ile Des Phoques, to Maria Island, where we landed among wild kangaroos and wombats. There was wine and seafood picnic spread in the national park, as well as free time to walk around and explore.

Lorraine and I taking a break at Pooley Wines

I also visited a couple of wineries and drove past a dozen of them in Tasmania. There are regular wine tours and tastings at Moorilla Estate, adjacent to

Outdoor art at MONA

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), one of the oldest vineyards on the island. I also made a stop at Pooley Wines to taste their light and refreshing Riesling and Chardonnay.

Lunch at The Agrarian Kitchen

One of the best meals I had in Tasmania was at The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery. The chef, who was teaching cooking classes from his home until recently, sources ingredients from a community of local growers, farmers and fishermen, as well as grows himself.

Fall colors in April

In April, leaves were turning colors and daytime temperature was in the 60Fs. Tasmania looked a lot like Tuscany in the Fall time.

A Secret Way to the Top of Table Mountain

Table Mountain is possibly the number one destination for travelers visiting Cape Town, South Africa. The prominent landmark consisting of approx. 500 million year old rocks, forms a dramatic backdrop to the city.

Most people take the aerial cableway to the top of Table Mountain, which offers spectacular views of jagged rocks, bare vegetation, and the city below. Once you reach the viewpoint, plan to spend an hour walking around to see as far out as Cape of Good Hope in the south, Devil’s Peak in the east, and Lion’s Head to the west. Buy tickets in advance, though also note that the aerial cableway is closed when there’s adverse weather, high winds or needs maintenance. On busy summer days, the lines can be very long and the visit may take an entire day, if not a better part of it.

Sunset is the best time to be on top of Table Mountain and local residents can get tickets for half off.

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When I was in Cape Town in late December, I was stuck in traffic to get to the entrance of the park, it took about an hour in the line to get to the cable car (with advance tickets), and 2 hours to get back down. There was one restaurant on top, but I couldn’t get anything to eat or drink, because the lines took forever.

Another way to explore Table Mountain is by hiking, and the Platteklip Gorge trail is the most direct and popular trail up the mountain. It normally takes 2 hours each way. Some areas can be slippery and steep. In summer, this may be strenuous as the sun is quite strong and there aren’t many trees. You must carry lots of water, walking poles, some granola bars, hat and sunscreen.

The best way to see Table Mountain is a private wine safari. I met with my Durbanville Hills Table Mountain Wine Safari Guide, Henri Bruce, at the SANParks Table Mountain office, and we rode in his open safari jeep straight past the lines, unlocking barriers marked as no private entry, and driving through the winding rugged paths through the mountain. On the scenic drive, Henri pointed out the different shrubs and flowers indigenous to the mountain, and shared interesting stories of his many hikes. We stopped to take photos of sparkling fynbos trees and vibrant protea flowers, as well as False Bay, and the beaches dotting Cape Town below us.

Once we reached Devil’s Peak, we got off the vehicle and went for a walk around the block house and historic cannons. Meanwhile, Henri set up a picnic table with different kinds of cheese, fresh fruits, and cold cuts, accompanied by a selection of Durbanville Hills wines.

We spent about 3 hours wine tasting, talking about travel, and enjoying the infinite scenery, while an occasional hiker or two would walk past, perhaps a little jealous of how relaxed we were, while they still had the afternoon sun ahead. It also gets quite windy midday on top of the mountain, so make sure to bring a jacket.

After a beautiful day, Henri dropped us at the Cape Grace Hotel for a wine tasting at the bar, and a scrumptious dinner at Signal restaurant.

The experience can be booked through the concierge desk at Cape Grace Hotel, a charming family-owned boutique hotel located at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, or directly through Durbanville Hills.

Ten percent of all proceeds are donated to South African National Parks (SANParks) for the conservation and general upkeep of South Africa’s national parks.

Georgia’s wine highways

Who knew rolling hills, open grasslands and beautiful vineyards exist right here in the south, in Georgia? A two hours drive from metro Atlanta, landed me in the midst of the Blue Ridge mountains, home to some of Georgia’s finest winegrowers. For an instant, I felt like I was in Napa Valley. But no, I had only driven a few miles on highway 400 North on a crisp clear spring morning.

The Georgia Wine Highway weekend in March hosted the perfect opportunity to spend a day outdoors, exploring the bounties of the peach state. A $25 passport gave me access to 10 vineyards spread out in a wide area across the cities of Helen, Dohlonega, Jasper, Clarkesville and Clayton.

My first stop was at Frogtown Cellars, the most awarded winery in the United States located outside the state of California. An extensive deck full of wine lovers overlooked a scenic vineyard with a backdrop of the mountains at Frogtown. Here I tasted a unique 2008 Frogtown Touche, which was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Tannat grapes. It was the Gold Medal winner at the 2011 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition.

Next stop was at the Blackstone Vineyards, a fairly larger facility that probably holds private events at their indoor pavilion, outside deck and yard. My favorite here was the Viognier Reserve, a rich, full-bodied voluptuous white wine with more complexity from riper fruit, barrel fermentation and less aging. Perhaps I generally prefer red wines, and this one is aptly named red wine drinker’s white wine” because of its ripe viscosity. For a promotion of only $10, you could buy the perfect bottle to serve at spring brunches or summer dinners.

After about 8-10 tasting, I was feeling a little lightheaded. So I headed over to downtown Helen to the famous German Bakery, Hofers for some fresh sandwiches before going on the rest of the wine tasting tour.

North Georgia wine country is the perfect place for a day long picnic where you can hop around one vineyard to another, enjoy the pristine natural beauty and break away from the city life. My one advise is to pack your own snacks (cheese, crackers, grapes, etc.) for the way. Some of the vineyards also have food available for purchase but selection is limited. Most vineyards are open year round but check the opening times online.

If you want to spend a weekend in the wine country, there are a number of bed and breakfasts and country inns where southern hospitality awaits you. There are also plenty of dining options, antique stores and activities such as mountain biking, golfing, camping and rafting in the area. You could even hire a tennis instructor Atlanta way for a great work out session.

For more information, visit The Winegrowers Association of Georgia.

 

Living it up at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival

After years of hosting Food and Wine festivals around the country, Food & Wine Magazine finally found it’s way to Atlanta. Sourced to the duo, Dominique Love and Elizabeth Feichter at Corporate Community Outsourcing, this is the first year of the Atlanta Food and Wine festival. With it’s growing popularity of the dining scene, perhaps the only city in the Southeast (after Miami), it was about time!

The broad theme of the event was “southern.” Represented by local growers, farms, suppliers, authors, restaurants and chefs, the festival drew attention of the foodies around the country.

Over the course of the three-day weekend, you could participate as much as your appetite can hold.  There are street cars and tasting tents that are open till late in the night. A tour of the Buford Highway’s ecletic scene or a day at the Wonderland gardens. And if that wasn’t enough, you can attend one of the private dinners at various restaurants and chef homes. I attended some of the learning experiences and connoisseurs lounge yesterday (day 1 of the event) and here are some of the highlights.

The Bloody-Mary breakfast was perhaps one of the best in class. Top Flr and the Bakeshop joined forces to start your day with a healthy (umm…not really) breakfast that was sure to brighten up your mood. (If you start your day with vodka, how many things could possibly go wrong?)

 

If you happened to miss the breakfast of champions, you could still get your fill at the 9:30am Argentinian wine tasting with Susana Balbo, a prominent female winemaker.

 

If drinking early in the morning is not your thing, you could actually get a grilled breakfast by Delia Champion, owner of Delia’s Chicken Sausage, a popular unconventional sausage stand in East Atlanta. She demonstrated a Krispy Kreme chicken sausage on her grill at the terrace of the Lowe’s hotel. Yummy!

 

I then explored some exotic fruits such as white sapote and sapodilla with the Van Aken’s. They shared recipes that combined fruits and meats into interesting creations – ham and guava, passion fruit snapper ceviche, etc.

 

It was already mid morning, when I decided an “Escape to Greece” is just what I needed. Chef Pano Karatossas of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group explored the fine wines of Greece while pairing it with a rich piece of lamb. There are different grapa varieties found in the islands of Greece, but all of them have a similar sweet acidic nature to them. I went wine tasting at a vineyard in Santorini a few years ago and was intrigued to see how low the grape vines were to the ground. (So that the strong ocean breeze doesn’t blow the grapes away).

 

Tennessee Truffle growers attempted to solve the mystery of growing truffles in their workshop, “Truffles: Much Mystery, Little Mastery.” Clearly, you don’t need a degree in agriculture to either grow, cook or eat truffles. (See my recipe of cooking with truffles.) What I did learn was that were over 60 varieties of truffles found around the world, not just white and black (duh!). Truffle grits pie and a Manhattan with shaved truffle anyone?

 

Renowned chef Mark Abernathytook the heat up while grilling vegetables and a pizza margherita under the hot summer sun of Atlanta. He was very approachable and interacted with the audience, answering all their questions about grilling. “I am not rich but if I was, each day I would eat and drink well and hang out with my kids” he exclaimed.

Me too chef. That’s exactly what I am doing at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival all this weekend!

La Fete Internationale

This weekend, I attended the annually held Dogwood Festival in Atlanta, GA. It’s the time of the year when all the dogwood trees are in full bloom, the spring season is kicking in and people want to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather. The festival is held at Piedmont Park, Atlanta’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park, located in midtown Atlanta. The entire park is covered with booths, bands and festivities. Artists from all over the U.S. come to display and sell their artwork, ranging from photos, paintings, woodwork, metal, jewelry, etc.

The opening night of the Dogwood Festival was a special event called, La Fete. For $35, you got private access to wine and food tasting pavilion, including entertainment and silent auction. Despite the tornado warnings, I attending the event on Friday night and really enjoyed it.

There were four broad regions of wine, with a hundred bottles to taste from! Food was sponsored by local restaurants and included Indian, Moroccan, Spanish, Lebanese, Mexican, American and many others. I tried everything! The most memorable was the chocolate BBQ sauce prepared by 3 Brothers Catering. The dessert of rolled nuts and chocolate in phyllo by Imperial Fez was also unique. Desi Spice is a new Indian restaurant and was serving juicy and tender tandoori chicken. Apres Diem European bistro served stylish chicken liver pâté.

Also met some interesting people, made friends and checked out the silent auction. Overall, it was a good event, much better than it was last year where they ran out of food before I got there and there was no entertainment.

This was a great international food and wine festival for Atlanta. I hope there are more of these throughout the year.

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