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Syrah and Siesta in Baja's Wine Country

"At the stop sign adjacent to the Unidad Médica Familiar, turn right," I read aloud, grateful for directions in the absence of street signs.

My husband, Steve, steered down a rutted dirt road, turned right at Family Medical Unit, passed a church and a tiny grocery store, then traversed a hill. Suddenly Adobe Guadalupe appeared, an oasis among vineyards.

A long driveway led towarda beautiful Mediterranean-style courtyard graced with an enormous fountain, the winery's six guest rooms somewhere beyond. We wandered into the large kitchen and found the staff awaiting us--with two glasses of wine.

The liquid refreshment was our reward for making the long, hot drive into the Valle de Guadalupe, or Guadalupe Valley, a wine region in Baja California about half an hour northeast of Ensenada. The sunny, dry Mediterranean climate--similar to that of Southern California's inland valleys--is ideal for grapes, and the vineyards here have earned the respect of wine aficionados, though they're overlooked as a tourist destination.

Valle de Guadalupe is big--about two-thirds the size of Napa Valley--though during our visit last month we never worried about long lines, overdevelopment or snooty people. This place feels smaller and more personal. Many tours are conducted by the winemakers, with tastings in their homes or offices.

But before we could indulge in the rough, unspoiled charm of the valley, we had to get there.

The low point of our Saturday morning drive came near La Jolla, where the crawl on southbound Interstate 5 slowed to a stop. By the time we reached the border, bought mandatory Mexican car insurance and followed Mexico Toll Route 1 to Ensenada, it was after 2 p.m. A cruise ship was in port, and hot spots such as Hussong's Cantina and Papas & Beer were thronged, so we walked to El Palmar and enjoyed a quiet lunch of fish tacos and fresh halibut filet.

Two-lane Highway 3 led northeast over rocky hills and into the Guadalupe Valley, where the glasses of Merlot welcomed us to the Adobe. After we were shown to our lovely guest room, Steve cranked up the air-conditioning and settled down for a siesta. (The nightly room rate was $125 plus tax and an unexpected 10% credit-card processing fee.)

More hot than tired, I left for the pool, whose tile design includes an octopus holding a wineglass. I found similar whimsical touches all around the property. A water tank in the vineyard is painted in swirls of maroon and gold and festooned with angel wings.

Co-owner Don Miller and his two Weimaraners greeted me by the pool. He and wife Tru built the Adobe in 1998 and moved here from Orange County, harvesting grapes for the first time in 2000.

When Steve came out for a swim, Don told us that our fellow guests were part of a group celebrating a birthday that night. We had made reservations for dinner at the Adobe ($50 per person, tip included, but still subject to the 10% credit-card fee). Rather than crash the party, we tried nearby Restaurante Laja, where the food would be "five star," Miller said.

"Be on time, and don't wear T-shirts," he warned.

Steve and I set out on the bumpy, unmarked roads again, jostling along a winding path lined with garbage and tree branches strung with barbed wire to deter roaming horses. At a nondescript adobe house, a hand-scrawled sign announced: Restaurante Laja. Two scruffy dogs trotted across a tiled porch to greet us on the dirt lot.

"This place serves five-star cuisine?" I asked with a laugh. Steve shrugged.

An hour later we were eating more than crow: fat, buttery sea scallops with caramelized lemon peel; fresh tomato and basil salad with sheep's milk ricotta; lamb grilled rare with mushrooms; and a crostata topped with fresh peaches and honey-vanilla bean ice cream. The food was incredible. The airy, wood-beamed interior was as pleasant a setting as I've experienced anywhere.

Laura Reinert (the "La" in the restaurant's name) and her husband, chef Jair Tellez ("Ja"), mentioned during our three-hour prix fixe dinner that they always dreamed of opening a place near Jair's hometown, Tijuana. (Jair trained at Daniel in New York and cooked at the Four Seasons in Mexico City.) Laja is only a year old, but already it draws tourists and well-heeled residents from all over Baja, and we understood why.

The next morning we had our choice of omelets, huevos rancheros or pancakes in the Adobe dining room. Then we strolled through the Millers' rows of merlot, syrah and grenache vines and hiked to a chapel at the edge of the property that is a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The rest of the day we toured vineyards and tasted wines. At Monte Xanic, which led the area's wine renaissance with its first production in 1988, UC Davis-trained winemaker Hans Backoff pipes classical music into the plant, explaining that the workers like it.

At Viña de Liceaga, the tasting room is part of owner Eduardo Liceaga-Campos' home. Between pourings of his Merlot Gran Reserva, he chatted about plans to open a wine store and a 40-room inn.

Our favorite stop of the day was the winery called Casa de Piedra. Winemaker Hugo D'Acosta walked us through the vineyard and down into his wine cave, where dirt floors and stone walls provide the right humidity and temperature for French oak barrels. There he gave us a taste of his signature wine.

The largest winemaker in the area, L.A. Cetto, operates more like a typical California winery, with guided tours and tastings daily. L.A. Cetto produces 800,000 cases annually, more than all the boutique wineries in the valley combined. The tour at Cetto was in Spanish, however, and Steve soon tired of my halting translation.

We ducked out early and enjoyed a lunch of burritos and quesadillas at Campestre los Naranjos, a restaurant and picnic ground off Highway 3.

By the time we returned to Adobe Guadalupe, a siesta was in order. Later in the afternoon, the temperature reached 104, so we lounged on rafts in the cool pool, reading and chatting. Don brought out a pitcher of margaritas and local olives and nuts.

The birthday party guests had departed, but a San Diego couple and their 6-year-old daughter joined us at 7 in the dining room. Dinner wasn't quite as good as at Laja, but the corn and cauliflower soup, salad, chicken mole and chocolate cake were tasty, and we were treated to a different Mexican wine with each course. The conversation at the table extended long after the dishes were cleared and coffee was served. Sometime after 10, Steve and I finally drifted outside for a walk in the warm night, brilliantly lighted by stars and silent except for a mooing cow.

The next morning I went early to Rancho Cucapa, about 10 minutes away, for a horseback ride. The ranch, which offers lessons and trail rides, soon will relocate its rental operation to new stables at Adobe Guadalupe.

During my hourlong ride, I practiced my Spanish and my riding technique with a teacher and her student. We ended with a thrilling gallop up a hill behind the stables.

The Adobe staff advised us to take Highway 3 north and cross the U.S. border at Tecate rather than in Tijuana. This time we hit no traffic. The drive home provided a rare chance to talk about our plans for the fall--and how our relaxing weekend had proved to be exactly what we needed.

Karen E. Klein is a freelance writer based in Temple City.

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