Nothing like crawling out of bed bright and early on a Saturday to delve into a full day of wine tasting in what's being heralded as the Napa Valley of Mexico, which lies a mere 80 miles or so from San Diego. Just shy of 25 turistas turned out for our inaugural trek into the Valle de Guadalupe, a cluster of some 60 vineyards scattered between the hills between Ensenada and Tecate that's increasingly perking the curiosity of enophiles from near and far.
A 9:30 a.m. departure from Tijuana put us just south of Rosarito around 11, where we stopped across the street from the set of "Titanic" (really) for roadside tamales at Tamales Liz. Doña Liz was happy to see us lined up outside her door, and happier to see the gringo herd happily gnawing through her corn logs of various flavors. Options included chicken, rajas and cheese, nut, pineapple and beef. But replacing my previous favorite of spicy pork were her strawberry variety.
Stomachs sufficiently padded with homemade masa, we pulled into the valley around noon and headed to Monte Xanic (sha-neek), the first of three wineries on our itinerary. The name comes from Nayarit's Cora tribe and means flower that blooms after the first rain. Some 25 years in the business, it was definitely the largest and most-commercial of the day's trio, and makes for a decent starting point on a tour like this because of the size of both the place and the menu. Over the course of an hour we worked through eight 1 oz. tastings of chardonnay, chenin colombard, a late-harvest chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc (the apparent winner of the white bunch, while the general consensus regarding the rest was that they too sweet), merlot, cabernet-merlot, cabernet-sauvignon and cabernet-syrah (my personal fave).
Next up was Hacienda La Lomita, the group favorite of the day in terms of both wine and overall aesthetics. A newer setup that's been in operation for about five years, the architecture and interior decor are on par with a dream lair of Condesa trust-funded hipsters. The cellar looks like something out of "Tron." They sell olive oil in aluminum tins usually used for turpentine and Sea of Cortez salt-chipotle grinders. Even the oversized iMac and even more oversized dog snoozing on his plot of astroturf alongside the tasting room fall into play in assembling the place's rustic-chic appeal. La Lomita produces four wines: a rich grenache that gives off hints of tobacco and cacao, two cabernet sauvignon-merlots (one of which Mexican wine mag Catadores awarded a 94, the highest apparently among 200 Mexican wines), and a chardonnay.
Onward to the third and final vino sampling of the day. If Hacienda La Lomita is a Condesa hipster (and it really is), then Liceaga is a Rancho Bernardo housewife who serves her guests plates of Ritz crackers. (This actually happened, although we've heard they usually serve bread from Hogaza Hogaza, a Euro-style bakery in Ensenada; and furthermore, I have no problem eating Ritz crackers. Especially when famished, which by this point I was. As most of us were.) Over swigs of Liceaga's rose, Melvin (a cab, named after the founder's son), Sofía (merlot-cab, named after the founder's wife), and the 43/60 Reserva (cab-merlot-syrah, a reference to the birth years of the founder and his significantly younger wife), it was time to decant some gossip.
Why was the cava door locked when we first pulled up, despite the fact we'd made reservations weeks ago? What's up with the private garden party going on around back, complete with full band and hundreds of guests? Was or was Rick Bayless not in the area (one foodie turista vouched that he was)? And did we or did we not just crash what may or may not have been his personal Valle de Guadalupe barbecue? Lydia, be a dear and pass me another Ritz cracker, would you? Make it two.
A visit to a place like the Guadalupe Valley usually consists of a well-researched list of required stops, something that's highly personalized and may vary greatly from wino to wino. But sometimes I wonder if coming to guzzle a questionably excessive amount of aged grape juice is just an excuse to work up an abominable appetite for dinner on the patio at Ochentos. Hidden at the end of a dirt road that backs up directly into the hills, the "pizzeria rustica" serves woodfired slabs of absolute heaven, i.e. the Colombiana (grilled chicken, bacon, fresh tomato, basil and garlic), the Minera (grilled chicken and garlic, caramelized red onions and a butter-white wine sauce) and the Triple (salami, Canadian bacon and pepperoni).
And while it's indubitably a cornerstone of the Turista Libre experience, we'll work out a different mode of transportation for our next run into Baja wine country. Cameon 156 -- a deported 1999 model year school bus, essentially -- is tried and true, but those deflated, narrow seats just aren't meant for lengthy country drives. It's either that, or hemorrhoid pillows for all.