By: Katy McLaughlin
WE WERE WATCHING the kids swim in his backyard pool in Los Angeles when my friend Juan Carlos, who grew up in Tijuana, began raving about a life-altering bowl of chicken soup he'd recently eaten.
"It was at the Mexican version of the French Laundry," he said. "You know—a fancy, farm-to-table place in the middle of Mexican wine country."
I had no idea, I sheepishly admitted, there was wine country in Mexico, nor anything resembling the French Laundry. But Valle de Guadalupe is a Mediterranean microclimate in Baja California where wine has been produced for more than a century, and it's in the midst of the kind of winemaking and tourism renaissance that Napa Valley experienced in the 1970s.
A decade ago, the area was mostly known in the wine scene for being home to L.A. Cetto, a huge maker of mid-market wines—the Mexican version of E. & J. Gallo. Today Valle de Guadalupe boasts scores of artisanal wineries; the region's wine has improved and become trendy enough to be served in fashionable Mexico City restaurants. Top chefs are opening eateries in the area, and several stylish boutique hotels have been built in the past few years.
It sounded irresistible, so a few months later, I found myself caravanning, with Juan Carlos, his wife and my husband in one car, another couple of friends in theirs, across the Mexican border and south on the Tijuana-Ensenada Cuota toward Valle de Guadalupe, a 3½-hour ride from L.A.
We ditched our plan to drive directly to the valley when Juan Carlos pointed out Bar Villa Ortega, his favorite spot in Puerto Nuevo, for Pacific lobster, placemat-size flour tortillas and micheladas—pressed lemon over ice with beer in a salt-rimmed glass. We sat on a spacious covered patio built on a bluff, making us feel like we were eating on the middle of the Pacific Ocean.