Friday, March 7, 2008

Wine Tasting in Baja

We just got back from a lovely 4 day vacation in San Diego and Baja California. We had a fabulous time. The theme of this trip was family, good food, and lots of wine. The in-laws had planned a trip to Baja for some Mexican wine tasting. They were kind enough to let us tag along.

Our first stop was Coronado, a cute island off San Diego. The weather was comfortable but cloudy and even misty at times. After we wandered around the island and checked out the old Hotel del Coronado, we went over to Tomaso’s Italian Restaurant. My uncle owns the restaurant and we had planned on meeting up with my parents and uncle for dinner. Ok, so your asking, what is a Mexican guy doing with an Italian restaurant? While I did consider the question, I’m too big a fan of Italian food to complain. Tomaso’s is an established restaurant by an Italian chef (the flagship restaurant is in Phoenix). When my uncle bought the restaurant, he was able to keep the chef. Plus, it will be neat to see if he’ll work towards a Mexican/Italian fusion menu. I had the prix fixe menu and enjoyed my four courses: bruschetta, linguini with a white wine sauce, a clam with a white wine sauce pasta, and cheese cake. The brushcetta was the best I’ve ever had and their secret was the super fresh tomatoes (and not the balsamic vinegar). I’ve had a clam pasta before but didn’t like it very much. Since this was the only non-meat dish on the prix fixe menu, I decided to give the dish another try. I loved it! Being surrounded by family as we all stuffed ourselves with Italian food and three bottles of wine made for a very memorable dinner. Thank you, Tio Mundo!

Here we are taking a picture under the Dragon Tree, which was featured in Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe.

Our next stop on the trip was the Valle de Guadalupe, just east of Ensenada, in Baja California. We took the scenic route and stopped in Rosarito and Puerto Nuevo. The Rosarito Beach Hotel is the birthplace of the margarita, according to one story. The margarita was born when a bartender made a drink for Rita (Margarita) Hayward so that she could tolerate the taste of tequila. So we all sat at he bar and enjoyed a margarita, even though it was only 10 am. We then moved on to Puerto Nuevo for more drinks and a lobster lunch. The lobster was tasty, although not as good as you would find in the Northeast.

We reached our destination in late afternoon, the Rancho Maria Teresa in the Valle de Guadalupe. Our goal was to go wine tasting on Monday and hit as many wineries as we could. The Valle de Guadalupe is Mexico’s main wine country. It probably looks the way Napa used to look about 50-80 years ago. It is free of all the commercialization you will find if you tour Napa or even Sonoma. And, as we were happy to discover, the wine is very good (and can be expensive). We were the only people staying at our hotel and during our tour of 5 wineries, we only encountered one other couple. How great is that?! We had the whole Valle all to ourselves. The food and wine at the Rancho Maria Teresa was pretty good. The hotel doubled as a winery and pool resort and the rooms were clean and pleasant. My only complaints are that the beds were quite firm, the walls were super thin, and since it was on the main road it was quite noisy even at night. After a nice dinner and a couple of bottles of wine we all headed off to bed. Despite the fact that we slept with the lights on (in case of scorpions) and we woke up many times during the night, in the morning we all felt refreshed and ready for our wine tasting tour.

Here is the husband wearing his Morelia shirt. The shirt was very popular and generated a lot of conversation, mostly because people were rooting for Chivas (imagine wearing a Yankees shirt in Boston). The husband ended up giving the shirt to our waiter at the hotel restaurant since he rooted for Chivas while his son rooted for Morelia.

We decided to book a taxi to take us around the wineries since we all wanted to enjoy the wine. However, getting a taxi was a bit complicated. It was a foreign idea to the hotel staff that we wanted a taxi to take us around the Valle and after much explanation they finally agreed to call some taxi agencies in Ensenada, about 25 minutes away. Why would we want to rent a taxi if we had a car with us? It cost us $100 with a generous tip to rent a minivan and driver. Well worth the cost!

The Valle de Guadalupe

Our first stop was the winery and bed and breakfast at the Adobe Guadalupe. I am glad we started with this place because this winery had the best wine and hospitality of all the places we visited. We had considered staying at the bed and breakfast but it was a little expensive. But now that we know how beautiful the place is and how good the wine is, we definitely will stay there next time. It’s $175/night and they have a maximum capacity for 12 guests. Anyone want to join us? We tried a non-sweet rosé, 4 reds all named after archangels, and a mescal named Lucifer (without the worm). We also tried their olive oil and olives. Most of the wineries we visited also sold olive oil. Olive trees are often planted in the perimeter of the vineyards to protect the grape plants from high winds, dust, etc.

Yummy wine at the Adobe Guadalupe.

Our next stop was Monte Xanic. This is definitely a larger production winery and I think they even ship outside of Mexico, while most other wineries only sell within Mexico. I was most excited about this place but ended up disappointed. The facility was very nice and impressive but the wine was only so-so.

We then stopped at La Casa de Doña Lupe. We had a light lunch of fresh cheese, bread, and chips. The husband smoked a Cuban cigar and we all sipped wine. It was perfect. By then we were all quite tipsy so most everything we discussed was funny. I'm not going to name names, but everyone was drunk. We also sampled a homemade hot sauce and we loved it so much we brought some back with us.

Smoking a Cuban.

Our fourth stop was L.A. Cetto. This is one of the biggest wineries in Mexico and the commercialization was evident. We actually encountered another couple wine tasting (they looked like total American hippies and had Colorado plates). The wines were quite tasty but the service wasn’t impressive. They certainly didn’t treat us like we were family or like they were happy to see us. But we were drunk by this time so we didn’t care too much.

Our final stop was Casa Pedro Domecq. This place had the best view from their wine tasting room. The wine lady was fluent in English and had a California accent as the husband easily identified. Again the wine was fantastic. We also sampled their brandy, Don Pedro, liked it, and bought a bottle.

When we got back to hotel, we all lounged by the pool and had more animated conversations as we waited for dinner time. We again had a lovely dinner with beer, margaritas, and wine. Did I mention that the theme of this trip was eating and drinking?

Lounging at the pool.

Our drive back to San Diego was mostly uneventful. It took us 1.25 hours to cross the border. That’s the fastest time I can remember. My father-in-law did a great job navigating the Tijuana traffic. The guard at the border looked into the car through the windows a couple of times, scanned our passports, asked us what we were importing (2 bottles of wine and 2 bottles of brandy), and waved us through. We forgot to mention the Cuban cigar.

We spent our last remaining hours of vacation in San Diego's Old Town, which is a working replica of the 1800’s San Diego (where “California was born”). It obviously resembles Mexico with its courtyards and adobe buildings. But after being in real Mexico for a few days, it wasn’t that great. It reminded me of the ghost towns at Knott’s Berry Farm. There were some gigantic cacti plants which were really cool – dinosaur plants as my husband likes to call them.

Old Town

Dinosaur plant

What a great vacation!


Pablo said...

Margaritas at 10 AM, I'm proud of you both!! Also, it would have been nice to know about your uncle's restaurant 6 months ago.

Sounds like you guys had a lot of fun.

Cleaty said...

Thank you! We do what we can in the name of tequila. The husband actually asked for the tequila by name. I can't remember which one it was but it was Coralejo, Don Julio, or Centenario. I was proud of him.

chas said...

My wife and I did a similar wine tasting trip in baja using Adobe Guafalupe as our vase for three nights before heading further down into the Baja peninsula.
The food, wine and hospitality was beyond explanation.although expensive, by some standards,
It s a bargain when you look at the beauty and the friendships you can find n a short stay.