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Baja California Wiine Country
South of the Border Wine Country
Story and photos by John Blanchette

farming equipment on a winery in Baja California

t was 2 a.m. my last night in Baja. Standing on the veranda of my hotel room on Rosarito Beach, the full moon illuminated the slate gray ocean and a phosphorescent white glow in the foaming waves as they ebbed and receded from the shore.

Millions of years ago these salt waters covered the peninsula, layering in shell that would become limestone. When the tectonic plates rose and forced the waters back they cracked the granite that lined the earth's crust into boulders, which later mixed with the illuvial soils of clay, sand, and other minerals to form the land that would so influence the vineyards.

I last visited the Baja Peninsula in 1986, about the time that the first modern plantings of vines were occurring in the northern valleys. Now about 70 mostly small family run wineries dot the landscapes in the Valle de Guadalupe, Santo Tomás, Vicente, San Antonio de las Minas and Valle de las Palmas regions, where 90 percent of Mexico's wine is produced within a 100 mile radius and less than a two hour drive from the American border south of San Diego.

vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe. Baja California
Vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe

The Spanish were the first to plant grapes in the region during the 16th century, primarily to use as sacramental wine. In the 1860s Russian immigrants escaping Czarist persecution started settling in the Valle de Guadalupe and also planted grapes. To this day you can occasionally see a blond or red head descendant in the valley.

The oldest surviving vineyard is Bodega de Santo Tomas, founded in 1888. Aside from its Reserva Unico, It is best known for having joined California’s Wente Vineyard to produce Duetto, a 50-50 Santo Tomas/Wente blend. They also produce exceptional olive oil and last year shocked the Italians when it won first prize at a blind tasting in Milan.

virgin olive oil from Baja California

Best known of the Baja wine areas is Valle de Guadalupe. Situated off the coast in a rising plane between Rosarita and Ensenada, most of the vineyards are planted between 1,000 and 1,300 feet elevation, beginning about twelve miles up the incline from the ocean, the wine growing area stretches about 20 miles. Warning to acrophobes, don't look down when you're driving along this wine country road.

The stone and boulder strewn land is a reminder that it once dwelt below the sea, and its austere landscape has a major influence on the quality of the wine. The off-shore flow of cool air in the evenings mitigates the warm days and contributes to the development of the grape in similar ways that California coastal vineyards experience, but harvest begins a bit earlier, in August. Thirty-five varieties of wine grapes are cultivated including Italian and Spanish varietals which do well here, especially Tempranilo and Nebbiolo, which is usually the last grape to be harvested.

grapes before harvest at the La Cetto Vineyards, Tecata
Nebbiolo Grapes Days Before Harvest in the La Cetto Vineyards

Other grapes which adapt to the warmer climate and make up the largest plantings include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.

In Tecata, the northeast area of the Valle de Guadalupe, lies the second largest vineyard in Mexico, La Cetto (La Khet-toe), with a volume of 800,000 cases a year selling between $7 and $50 depending on the wine. The tasting room receives about 200,000 visitors a year and the wine has won numerous international gold medals. Next door is the La Casa de Dona Lupe vineyard where you can sample local cheese and olives with your wine.

Monte Xanic vineyards at the Valle de Guadalupe with cacti in the foreground
Monte Xanic vineyards

Other outstanding wineries with tasting rooms include Monte Xanic, founded in 1987 by Hans Backhoff and regarded as one of the top produces in the area. Domecq, which used to be known for its Sherry and Brandy, now concentrates on non-fortified wines. Tres Valles, which as the name implies, features bold reds from the Guadalupe, Santo Tomás and San Vicente valleys. The beautiful Hacienda La Lomita and Pijoan wineries produces some nice whites. Many consider that Viñas de Garza produces the finest wines in the area and his Cabernet reflects that in its price of $54. Also try the wines at Casa de Piedra, Vinisterra and Rincón de Guadalupe vineyards. In Ensenada visit Fernando Martain at Cavas Valmar, one of the pioneers of the modern Baja wine region.

My favorite winemaker, Monica Palafox of Palafox winery, delivers across the board, from whites to reds. Located in Valle de la Grulla, south of Ensenada and abutting the Santo Tomás Valley, you need to make a reservation to taste,

Other Vineyards with tasting rooms include Baron Balche, Bibayoff, Sol de Media Noche, Vinas de Liceaga and Vinos Fuentes.

Monioca Palafox with a bottle of wine at her vineyard, Valle de Grulla
Monica Palafox and my favorite wine in Baja

In August, 2012, Mexican President Felipe Calderón dedicated the new wine museum in the Valle de Guadalupe, built with $5.3 million in state and federal funds, and announced the establishment of a $3.8-million fund aimed at supporting Mexico’s wine industry. Its facilities highlight the history and tradition of wine-making in the region through interactive displays.

new wine museum at the Valle de Guadalupe
Wine museum

Many of those working in the Mexican wine industry have trained in California, Oregon and Washington, especially the field workers, and many of the wine makers have experience in Europe as well as the Western United States. Whether the Mexican wines will ever rival those remains to be seen, but there is a lot of optimism and European and American wineries are sharing in the interest as well.

America laws restrict the amount of alcohol that can be brought across the border to one liter, which is one of the reasons that only about 20 percent of tasting room guests are from outside of Mexico. The other is that Mexicans are developing a taste for wine and an appreciation of the vineyards in Baja.

When You Go:

Until recently, Baja wines had little to no commercial presence in the United States because of the small production and low importer interest. However the wines mentioned here can be purchased directly from the vineyards or from the San Diego firm

Some of the larger vineyards have tasting rooms open daily to the public, but for many others you need to make reservations. Brochures available through the Baja Tourist Office provide contact information. English is spoken at all the tasting rooms.

The peso is worth about 80 cents to the dollar and in Baja you get more for your money if you deal in dollars and don't convert to pesos.

elegant cabanas at the Cuarto Cuartos, Valle de Guadalupe

lobster at the Puerto Nuevo restaurant, Rosarito

There are a number of housing and dining options. In wine country I did some "glamping" at Cuarto Cuartos vineyards, elegant cabanas set in the middle of an expansive vineyard with magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean from the hilltops on the property. In Rosarito I stayed at the New Port Beach Hotel, where the water laps against the shore, day and night.

When dinning in Rosarito try the obligatory lobster dinner at Puerto Nuevo restaurant and enjoy a Mexican breakfast at the eccentric El Nido. In the Valle de Guadalupe enjoy the local cuisine at Meson Leonardo and be sure to try the apple pie. In Ensenada, try the upscale oceanside dinning at Belio and Nigori Sushi for a change of pace.

Whenever you're in Ensenada you must visit the historic watering hole Hussong's for margaritas and mariachis. Founded in 1892 by German immigrant John Hussong, it is the oldest cantina in Mexico.

the port of Ensenada, Baja California
Port of Ensenada

For brochures, the Ruta del Vino map, tasting room reservations, housing, restaurant information and lists of events and festivals, contact the Baja Tourist Office.

Related Articles:
La Paz, Baja Sur; Images of La Paz, Baja California Sur; Las Alamandas; Yountville: The Culinary Center of the Napa Valley; Playa del Carmen, Yucatan; Riviera Maya; Inside Cozumel; The People of Guadalajara

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Let John know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for South of the Border Wine Country

Hello John – I enjoyed reading your article. I live in La Bufadora and have friends visiting next week, so you have given me some good tips on where to go in our wine country. We have always called Cetto – L.A. (like Los Angeles) Chet-o and it might have been worth mentioning that it is actually Italian in origin. Also, I don't know about when visiting the Valle, but when in town, it is better to have pesos than dollars. Right now the rate is approx. 11.70 for each dollar. Just sayin' and like I said good article!

--- Ella O'Bryan, La Bufadora, Baja, MX

Hi, We here at Country Living Magazine are working on a story about hotels around the US. We would like to feature the Paso Robles Inn. I have to find photos to go along with the story. I was wondering if you could please send me any images of the hotel. This can be anything from the rooms to the food! All images can be submitted low res and if selected I will ask for hi rez later. Also, if you know of any photographers that have photographed the hotel can you please give me the contact info? Thank you so much!

--- Will Morel, Assistant Photo Editor, Country Living Magazine, New York, NY

I am looking forward to my "silver" years, which in my case, will be the years (if fate is good to me) that I will finally be traveling. New Zealand is at the top of the list - I have always been drawn to it.

--- Sandra Mines, Seattle, WA

Yes, was a fun city. Bad wine though.

--- Bo, Portland, OR

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