Like the Led Zeppelin song, Americans can come to California to smoke their stuff.
But they would be wise to try going to Baja California to drink the wine.
Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe has been quietly producing superb wine for decades. Valle de Guadalupe is a region an hour and a half drive south of the border.
A steep road lined by endemic flora and the ocean’s rolling swell is breathtaking.
It eventually gives way to a sinuous countryside that, due to rains early in the year, is verdant and sweet smelling.
Upon arrival to Valle de Guadalupe, the main road is lined with houses, small businesses and stands selling fat olives, olive oil and honey. Eventually it branches off to give entry to more than 70 wineries with rows upon rows of grapevines lined with wild-looking rosebushes or olive trees.
All the wineries share but one thing: rocky soil riddled with granite and clay.
“It’s a miracle how the grapevines can grow and extract nutrients from soil filled with rocks,” said César Esparza, who manages La Lomita, a celebrated decade-old valley winery.
“Here, the grapes develop great character and resistance because the soil makes them have to struggle and fight,” he said.
Shiraz, Merlot, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Chardonnay are some of the main varietals of grapes grown in the valley.
At Finca la Carrodilla, a relatively new project from the Pérez Castro family, who also created La Lomita, the winemaking process is taken from the traditional to the celestial.
“In addition to being a certified organic winery, we also use biodynamic processes,” said Andrea García, who is in charge of tastings at Finca la Carrodilla.
Bio-dynamism is an alternative form of holistic agriculture based on principles of balance, regeneration and harmony.
“The processes follow a lunar calendar that tells us exactly when to water and harvest,” she said.
Whatever qualities the moon’s cosmic powers may bestow upon the wine, the results are excellent.
For 180 pesos, approximately $9.50, visitors can taste generous portions of three wines.
Canto de Luna (Moonsong), an equal mix of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo is medium-bodied and fruity. Its name pays homage to the finca’s bio-dynamism. García said it is placed in barrels made of French or American oak for three to nine months to fully develop.
Their Chenin Blanc, on the contrary is a light and refreshing choice when chilled, requires no barrel time, but it is kept in the bottle for a full year before it is deemed ready for consumption, García said.
Velvety and full-bodied, the Cabernet Sauvignon also requires a year in its barrel to develop woody undertones.
Like any good wine, Valle de Guadalupe has matured, and in the last few years the rest of the world has begun to notice.
“We are starting to make ourselves known in Europe and people there ask things like ‘what is Valle de Guadalupe?’ and ‘they have wine in Mexico? Isn’t Mexico all about tequila?’ Well no, we have very good wine here too,” said Esparza. “Mexico has been making wines for more than 100 years, which is something a lot of people don’t know about.”
Around 60 percent of Valle de Guadalupe’s tourists are international and he has hosted people from every state in the U.S., he said.
“Before they come to the valley, they think it’s still a little one-acre farm,” he said. “Once they get here, they are amazed because it is not what they expected.”
A dusty, rural valley is exactly what Chanel Smith and Justin Brown, visiting from Los Angeles, said they expected to see.
Brown said he and Smith had visited Baja California as kids but got the idea to come to the valley after a co-worker mentioned it.
“I told people at work I was coming here and they were like ‘oh, you’re just driving across to Tijuana, whatever,’” Brown said. “I think people just don’t have a good sense of what it is like down here.”
Smith agreed and said the valley’s ambiance leaned more towards cosmopolitan and refined rather than touristy or rural.
“When I think about Tijuana, I definitely think about it being, I don’t know, more rural,” she said. “Just sitting here, I feel like I’m at a winery in Malibu. This is a lot more like Napa or Santa Barbara than I thought it was going to be.”
Valle de Guadalupe’s allure goes beyond its excellent wines.
“It’s affordable, amazing and the food is spectacular,” Smith said. “Given the price, it is better than most places I’ve ever been to in LA Most really high-end places in LA are not as good. It’s insane!”
The two Americans experienced culture shock when interacting with Mexican visitors who were also staying at their hotel.
“We went to breakfast and all of the Americans are wearing sloppy t-shirts and flip flops and looked like Americans on vacation,” Brown said. “But all the Mexicans that were there, even at breakfast, were all very well-dressed in long pants and long-sleeved shirts.”
“It is definitely a cultural difference that we have noticed,” Smith said. “They don’t treat us badly because we look like slobs, but maybe they should.”
Brown said many Americans have the wrong idea about what life south of the border is like.
“I think it’s just a misconception a lot of people have about Mexico and Mexicans,” he said. “They think that it’s a guy who mows their lawn and you come down here and everyone is very welcoming and well-dressed and cosmopolitan. A lot of people do not understand that.”
Smith said she initially thought about coming back with friends, but ultimately found the idea unappealing.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It makes no sense. I can’t understand it but I want it to stay that way, so I kind of want to keep other people out. This is an amazing place.”