The relaxing veranda at Villa del Valle looks out across the hills.
Baja's wine growing region, the Valle de Guadalupe, is beautiful and relatively undiscovered -- like Paso Robles maybe 15 years ago. While we only stopped at one winery on our Baja marathon tour, we tasted wines from several others and visited a lovely, luxurious bed and breakfast inn and a rustic chic outdoor restaurant. The wines seemed to be a significant cut above the ones from other dry hot areas like Temecula, for example, and chefs are really concentrating on local products from cheese to quail to bluefin tuna to kale.
Here's a few recommended places to visit; a full list of wineries is available here.
Vina de Liceaga is a winery with a spacious tasting room and cave; they're also one of the few producers of grappa outside of Italy. On the way to the winery, Bill picked up some local Real del Castillo cheese for us to try at a small market; the fresh, white cheese was springy and mild.
Eileen and Phil Gregory opened La Villa del Valle inn about four years ago in the hills of the wine country. Only about 20 minutes drive from Ensenada, the Southwest-meets-Italy inn features wines made by Phil, as well as a chef who uses the wonderful vegetables grown in their huge organic garden in dishes like ostrich wrapped in kale, a beautiful pool (above), spa and yoga classes. Rates are $175 on weekdays and $195 on weekends. Eileen keeps things cool with herbed iced lemonade, but it does get pretty toasty out in the valley in summer -- a fall, winter or spring visit would be idyillic, and romantic.The path to rustic outdoor restaurant Silvestre in Valle del Guadelupe.
Pulling up to the discreet Silvestre, we weren't sure what to expect. The outdoor-only restaurant is tucked into the rocky hills of wine country and is only open on weekends during the summer months. It's the third of "rockstar chef" Benito Molina's restaurants we visited after Ensenada's Manzanilla and Muelle Tres. (I can't really find an address or phone -- it's across from LA Cetto winery -- I would recommend calling Manzanilla and asking them.)
Gourmet's "Diary of a Foodie" filmed here, calling it "the new Provence," and while it has a Mexican flavor all its own, I can certainly see the comparison. The restaurant has only an outdoor kitchen, with mesquite-fueled grills, and a large covered patio with long tables overlooking the valley. La Casita Mexicana chef Ramiro Arvizu, left, Silvestre owner Benito Molina and Baja guru Bill Esparza.
Despite the rustic flavor, patrons were dressed as nicely as if they were eating on a Barcelona terrace, and everyone stays drinking Benito's zinfandel and other local wines until darkness falls.
We started with batons of jicama and cucumber sprinkled with chili; moved on to bluefin tuna sashimi from the nearby coastal beds that tasted like it was practically still alive, abalone ceviche (right), grilled ocean perch with nopales salad and lamb shank Yucatan style. A rare, sudden rain shower was the perfect cooling end to an amazing day in Baja's wine country.
A restaurant patron, left, and Bricia Lopez, owner of Pal Cabron Cemitas and daughter of the Guelaguetza family, right, dance in the rain.