Friday, September 4, 2009

Valle de Guadalupe, Part One

As I sit in the living room of my gorgeous boutique inn, La Villa de Valle, I reflect on the this beautiful, gentle and quiet valley. There are not many sounds save for a distant rooster sounding off well into the day and the bustle of sweet Mexican girls with their small children, making coffee across the way in the kitchen. I gaze out to the terraces surrounding this lovely oasis, the olive grove and gardens beyond, and the many dogs that run around the property, taking dips in the pool, and happily wag their tails when one approaches.

It took about 3 hours to get into the valley from San Clemente; two of which were spent navigating small border highways in San Diego County. Entering through Tecate was a breeze, they didn’t even glance at us as we readied our passports etc. We were waved on through, but I wanted to talk to the border patrol to assure I could bring wine back across (for a price of course), so I pulled over and stepped out of the very air-conditioned rental car into the hot Mexican desert, California just steps away through the fence. I was very surprised to find little if no English spoken even at this proximity to the border. I was able to verify that I could bring wine back and would have to pay duty. Mission accomplished (I was about to be foolish and try to write that in Spanish…)

The road to Valle de Guadalupe was well paved, practically empty, and super easy to navigate across dry mountains with some small valleys in between. We saw two federales guarding either side of the road in a small pueblo along the way, having set up a “speed bump” (made of I don’t know what). No issues whatsoever. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves rounding a corner with vineyards flanking each side of the road – aahhh, we had arrived. Valle de Guadalupe begins with the very commercial L.A. Cetto winery and a town called Francisco Zarco to the Northeast, and ends with the town, San Antonio de Las Minas to the south, nearer to coast and Ensenada. We were eager to stop for lunch before tasting any wines.
I had noticed from my crude map that Francisco Zarco had several streets. I thought perhaps we could get out and walk around until we actually saw the town, consisting of a dirt “main street”, with periodic signs announcing Ruta del Vino, which as far as we could tell, was the only street of town. Splitting off periodically were dusty roads leading to dilapidated buildings, homes etc. but no other businesses save for a few small grocery stores, a couple of one room “museums”, 3 or 4 “restaurants” that were basically small shacks boasting items I didn’t recognize on their hand painted signs. We pulled over at a clean looking place that had a parking lot. Little boys ran about in their underwear, chickens and a large white duck were hiding out in the shade. The patio was clean with beautiful rough hewn tables as we passed through the back door to the store in front to let La Senora know that we would like to eat something. Spiced vinegars, jams and cheeses were sparingly displayed. Nothing on the menu looked familiar, so we chose brochetas de queso y tomate (brochettes of cheese and tomatoes) and a plato containing pastries that held frijoles y queso, queso, y carne (3). It also came with pure papas (mashed potatoes) and some salad.

After a little bit (too long but we were in Mexico now…) some julienned cucumbers dressed in herb flecked vinegar and olive oil were placed before us. There was a hint of chile in the mix and the cucumbers were a welcoming beginning to our time here. The brochettes appeared, containing large chunks of goat cheese, spongy and mild, alternating with chunks of tomatoes and a similar vinaigrette drizzled over the top. We thought twice about whether we should consume the tomatoes, as it is a tough thing to eat uncooked vegetables in this country known for “Montezuma’s revenge” striking unsuspecting travelers. But then again, we had already consumed the cucumbers, so…

Our main dish appeared, three ample empanada style turnovers, served with potato puree and a salad for which the dressing was on the side. We avoided the lettuce and concentrated on the fried goodness of the three varieties before us. I happily ate the one with carne, containing potatoes and olives in a mild sauce, as my sister doesn’t eat meat. The dough was chewy and flavorful, with enough flake to give it texture but not too much so that it would fall apart.

We were now primed to visit a few wineries on the way to the inn.

We started at Monte Xanic, one of the biggest in the valley, and the first and only Mexican wine I had tasted to date. 10 years ago a Mexican tapas restaurant in Albany called “Fonda” had their Cabernet/Merlot blend. That marked the beginning of my curiousity about Mexican wines and this little known (yet I predict, soon to be discovered) wine region 45 miles south of the border. I have wanted to visit ever since, so it was symbolic for us to start our tasting tour there. The coolness of the tasting room, high on the second floor overlooking the stainless fermentation tanks, was a welcome respite from the heat wave overtaking the valley this week.

We tasted several whites: a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Colombard and late harvest Chenin Blanc. The reds were a blend of Merlot and Cab, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 100% Merlot. I have the (sometimes) bad habit of buying at least one bottle from the wineries I visit (even in the states), and left Monte Xanic with a bottle of the crisp and lemony Sauvignon Blanc, and 2 bottles of the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. She had been boasting about the 2005 cab, and when I tasted it, the finish was odd and unpleasant. I urged her to taste what she had been pouring from the large temperature controlled, high tech pouring unit behind her. She did taste it and realized it was “off”. Once I got her to open a fresh bottle, I was happy she did, as the rich, chocolate and dark fruit tones with firm tannins seemed like a perfect wine to lay down for a couple of years.

It was already 3:00, as the tasting at Monte Xanic had gone on way too long. I was anxious to get to the hotel, clearly having to adjust to the slower way of life here. We still had one more stop to make in this part of the valley: a visit to Baron Balche’e, the oldest winery in the area and one highly recommended for its boutique Spanish blends. I had crude directions to turn right at the health clinic, which we did. After what seemed miles on a very dusty and potted dirt road, we thought we had missed it and turned into Adobe Guadalupe, another winery and boutique hotel. The groundskeeper assured us we had to keep going. A few minutes more up the dusty road, we saw the sign and entered a large brick building that was under construction. We motioned to the young man that we wanted to taste, and he led us 2 flights down into the cellar/tasting room. It was cool and smelled of must which was no surprise since one wall was raw, untampered earth. It was very mine-like. There were several elderly men talking animatedly, sipping wine poured from decanters. They had a few different tiers of tasting to choose from, starting at $5 (u.s.) on up to $50. This made sense as this winery boasts some of the finest wines in the valley, the higher end blends fetching $350/bottle. We chose a mid range tasting and took several pictures, chatting with some restaurateurs from Mexicali and sipping on a very tasty Tempranillo/Cabernet Blend. I was hoping the restaurateurs would stop talking long enough for the old men to take notice of us, and share some sips of the high end bottles, as they were the owners and winemakers; We weren’t so lucky, and my Spanish is bad anyway; we did manage to muster a posed photograph of them and a few bottles of the Tempranillo/Cab blend to share with friends back in San Francisco.

We made our way back to the Ruta de Vino and decided to cross the valley back to the main, paved road to find the way to our hotel. Crossing over involved a long and very dry, dusty/sandy road that held the possibility of spinning tires if one wasn’t driving fast enough. The valley is set up like Napa, with roads going up and down the north and south sides, and a few going across, but not similar to napa as nothing is paved and we had to cross a dry river wash to get to the other side. We laughed a lot at how rustic the valley is, and how the dry and dusty cloud that grew behind our car obliterated everything in the rear view window.

I must take a break now and go for a swim. Later this afternoon, I will share more about our beautiful inn, the log, windy and dusty road leading up to it, and the incredible dinner last night at Laja.

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