Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"With bread and wine you can walk your road." -Spanish proverb

Judging my life solely on my past few blog entries, it seems I do my share of traveling. This actually only reflects my life lately, and not as a whole, but I do hope the trend continues. My most recent trip was to Mexico, my first over night stay, and it was pretty much the most luxurious vacation I've ever had. This will be a long post, but I pretty much can't bring myself to leave anything out.

Matt and I spent two nights in Guadalupe Valley, Baja California's wine county. I'm actually a novice wine drinker; while I've seen Sideways and French Kiss my knowledge of wine and wine culture stops there. In hearing the names of wines, I haven't been good at distinguishing between reds and whites, unless the name includes "noir," or "blanc." Not so with my boyfriend, who isn't the wine snob that Miles (of Sideways) is but does enjoy tastings and employs the appropriate terminology in describing wine. Having been to Guadalupe Valley on numerous occasions, Matt appreciates the region because it is so close (around two hours from our home) and because it is tourist-friendly without being overrun with visitors. So this trip was designed to expose me to the joys of both Mexico and wine.

We left Friday afternoon and took Federal Highway 1D down to Ensenada.  Because it's a toll road, it was actually quite a smooth and pleasant drive, although there are a few military checkpoints, and you get a great view of the Pacific.

Approaching Ensenada

In Ensenada, we had an early dinner at Muelle Tres, apparently run by chef Benito Molina and, like Molina's two other restaurants, much exalted by the Masa Assassin. As a port town, Ensenada is known for its seafood. Now, like Mexico and wine, seafood is something Matt is constantly trying to sell me on. I'm not a huge fan of fish. I like shrimp, crab, and calamari well enough, and I can go for a tuna sandwich now and then. While sushi leaves me tepid, I admit I really enjoy ceviche. But fish served as a fillet, or worse, all scaly and with the head intact, is not for me, and I don't dig clams or oysters. However, I try to be a good sport, and in my experience being adventurous about food can lead to some delightful discoveries. And my meal at Muelle Tres did not disappoint.

The restaurant offers casual dining and is right on the port; in the fact the name translates roughly to "Pier Three." We put ourselves completely in the hands of our waiter and consequently feasted on the "Pescado - Estilo Tartara" (ceviche), the Arroz de Mar (seafood and rice), and the mango mousse, the latter being a contender in the Best-Thing-I-Had-in-My-Mouth-This-Weekend competition. All were delicious, even the Arroz de Mar with its many chunks of mystery seafood. I even tried one of the oysters served with the rice.

From there we headed to our destination: the Villa de la Valle, a six bedroom boutique hotel featuring spectacular views of the valley, landscaping that feels both precise and natural, a serene atmosphere, a totally sweet swimming pool and hot tub, and warm, welcoming staff. Words cannot describe this place, and to be honest, pictures can't either, but I'll try:

Each of the rooms has a woman's name. Ours was Monica.

From our window.

The evening's botana and wine.

The bath products are made with lavender grown on site.

On arriving, we were greeted by the manager, Alejandro, who showed us to our room and offered each of us a complimentary glass of wine and botana (snack). We tried the house red and explored the grounds as the sun set. As the other guests were still dining when dusk arrived, we took advantage of having the hot tub to ourselves and finished our wine in warm, bubbly bliss. I had known that the digs would be fancy, but there was really no way I could be prepared for the experience. I went to sleep in awe of the total specialness of the both the villa and the valley.

We woke the next morning to the crows of a rooster, the valley still clouded in fog. There's a labyrinth at the villa, and after some tea we walked through it and then played a game of boules. I won, which warranted a picture, because I nearly never beat Matt at anything.

It's hard to tell, but this is me winning.

Breakfast was unbelievably delicious. First, there was a buffet of sorts with fruit, yogurt, and the villa's own homemade granola, as well as some small muffins and cookie-like scones. To drink: seedless raspberry juice. I'm pretty sure there's nothing more decadent. But that's not even breakfast. Next came eggs (from the villa, of course), bacon, beans, mushrooms, tortillas, and bread.

Raspberry juice: non-alcoholic beverage of the gods

The hearty breakfast was good, because our itinerary now called for us to fill our bellies with wine. With a little help from a charming and incredibly knowledgeable employee of the villa, Agnes, we devised a loose plan for our day. Our first stop was Mogor Badan, founded by a Swiss family. Another group from the villa was there for a tasting and we basically tagged along, which was nice because otherwise we would not have had an opportunity to visit the winery. Natalia, the proprietress, poured the samples of the two wines they offer, one white, one red. The white was a Chesselas (a varietal), and really nice--very crisp and different, even to my untrained palate. The red was also very good. Although I've been to several breweries, this was my first time in a wine cave, and it was pretty neat. There was also something wonderful about tasting wine with the person who made it. There was also a nice, very small little market with fresh cheese, vegetables, and spreads on the property. I bought some apricot preserves.

Before our trip, Matt made reservations for us at Adobe Guadalupe, one of his favorite wineries in the region. This winery is bigger, with more employees and more wine, and also serves as an inn. Unlike at Mogor Badan, our tasting was not hosted by the wine-maker. However, the woman who served us was very knowledgeable and passionate about the wines, and she even let us taste the new wine, still in the making, from one of the barrels. Not including the one that was unreleased, we tried six wines (one rose and five reds), all named for angels, and a mezcal, called Lucifer. Mezcal is far too strong for me, but I really liked all of their wines, and found the rose to be particularly refreshing on the warm June day, so we bought a bottle for that night, and we also purchased some olives. To Matt's delight, two of the Adobe Guadalupe wines are now available at two locations in San Diego, so I expect we'll be drinking more of it in the near future.

Baron Balche is a large winery located next to Adobe Guadalupe and because of its size, they are open for tastings without a reservation. While this was clearly a substantially larger operation, and was the only place we had to pay for a tasting, it was also the only place we had difficulty communicating in English. While none of their wines impressed me greatly, the young man that served us was very kind and friendly, although any conversation was a challenge given that we don't know the language.

Next, it was time for food. We tried to find a place recommended to us by the staff at the villa, but our map was no help, so we took the turn for Laja, where Matt had been before. Since his last visit, the restaurant opened an outdoor grill with a different menu, so we ate there, under a big beautiful tree. We shared gazpacho and bread and, after asking for a translation of just about everything on the menu, an order of ribs, which were served on a bed of spinach. Both were fantastic. It was nice because we were eating just across the parking lot from their garden, where many of their ingredients are grown. I picked the bones clean.

Afterwards, we decided to try to visit one more winery, and Matt managed to remember how to get to Tres Mujeres, a winery he'd visited during his last visit two years ago. I was pretty excited because we'd recently had the bottle that he purchased last time, and I really liked it. However, as we hadn't called ahead, we had no idea if anyone would be available for a tasting. Luckily, as we pulled up, one of the "three women" came out of the building (a home?) and asked if we wanted a tasting, we confirmed, and a moment later another of the women, Ivette, emerged and led us to an out of use cave, now their tasting room. She was a delightful person, and seemed to remember Matt from his last visit. The three women, Eva, Laura, and Ivette, make one wine each, all reds, and we sampled all three. They were each very good, but in the end we purchased Ivette's wine, a blend, and she labeled the bottle for us with a pen.

A photo of the grounds at Tres Mujeres from Matt's prior visit

We returned to the villa, full and happy, and cooled off with a swim in the pool, where we chatted with a few of the other guests--small talk mostly, but we also discussed the animals that call the property their home. This was actually a very special aspect of the villa, in my opinion. In addition to the birds that nest in the trees and under the tiles of the roof, and the chickens that provide eggs, there are a number of cats and dogs that have adopted the villa and their guests. Another guest explained that only one of the dogs, a black one we rarely saw, actually "belongs" there. However, they all have collars, and they all share the food that is put out for them, and they are all pretty well behaved. The presence of these animals eased our pining for our own cat (although not our guilt for leaving her for the weekend).

That evening we had another botana and tried the house white, then spent a while relaxing in our room before heading down for dinner. While breakfast and the afternoon botana are included in the price of the room, reservations are required for dinner at the villa (48 hours in advance) and there is an extra charge of $45 per person, not including wine. The villa's wine label is Vena Cava, and we bought a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon for dinner, and while the meal was pricey, I found the four course dinner, served by Alejandro, to be oh-so-worth it. We started with a ceviche-type dish: halibut in a sesame oil marinade on a bed of avocado and seaweed, topped with fruit and basil. Next we moved to a salad of greens, mango, and pumpkin seeds topped with duck, followed by ostrich in a red wine sauce and Mexican squash for the main course. Finally (and my mouth is watering just thinking about this), we finished with lavender creme brulee.

Evening botana

Lighting in the dining room

Drinking the Vena Cava Cabernet


Salad with duck

Ostrich in red wine

Lavender Creme Brulee

The meal was as decadent as it sounds, and I really enjoyed it all, although the first and last course really stood out to me. The halibut was marinated so nicely, with the sesame seeds adding a nice crunch, balanced by the sweetness of the fruit and the richness of the avocado . . . such a wonderful medley of flavors. And the creme brulee! The perfectly crisp top, with its aroma reminiscent of a burning marshmallow, cracked under a gentle nudge from my spoon, revealing the smooth custard beneath. The lavender was just right, not so strong that it detracted from the richness of the dessert. Yes, the mango mouse has some fine competition indeed.

After killing the bottle purchased with dinner, we opened the rose we purchased at Adobe Guadalupe, although it turned out that was a little ambitious, as I was ready for bed shortly after. We shared the rose with the group that had the appointment at Mogor Badan, as a kind of thanks for letting us crash their tasting. I slept very well that night. Sunday, we devoured another delicious breakfast and then said goodbye to the villa, the wonderful staff, and then the valley itself, this time taking the free road, Federal Highway 3, through the hills, past a number of slightly more intimidating military check points, and to Tecate. In Tecate, we made a stop at El Mejor Pan de Tecate for some flan and pastries, because when they call themselves "the best," I'm pretty sure they're right.

Our haul for the weekend
(made smaller by California regulation for wine)

I don't know if anyone will actually suffer through this whole entry (perhaps I should have made a couple separate posts), but even though it was only a few days ago I've had fun reflecting on my trip as I write. It was an incredible experience, and while we'll have to tighten our purse strings for while after this splurge, I am really glad we did it. If anyone is still reading and is thinking of visiting Mexico, I highly recommend you consider Guadalupe Valley.


  1. That looks amazing! And now I am starving =) Glad you had such a fab time.

  2. Amazing post - I could taste the lavender creme brulee. Thanks! Mary Kate

  3. Looks like you had an amazing time. Can't wait to get together and hear all about it.

  4. The whole trip sounds just terrific. What a great travel opportunity so close to home! You are, by the way, a good writer. Sue