Uncorking bouquets for millennials in Mexico's wine country

Tear yourself away from the picture-postcard Pacific views on Route 1, south of the border between California and Mexico, and you see Valle de Guadalupe undulating to the east, its Mars-like boulders and vast stretches of rose-gold-colored dirt belying the fact that there is some pretty great wine being grown here.

Valle is not a new wine region — some vineyards date from the 1920s — but this Mexican wine country is calling to millennials, with modern, design-y wineries and grit that can’t be found in Napa or Sonoma. It’s also cheaper than those areas and less likely to be trodden by tour bus crowds — more “Choose Your Own Adventure” than Club Med. The valley is also relatively easy to reach, and services have cropped up to let visitors imbibe while someone else takes the wheel. Club Tengo Hambre and Turista Libre offer guided food and wine tours; Uber Valle allows Uber users to hail a wine country chauffeur for a day.

SUVs line the parking lot of Lomita, a funky winery with murals by the Mexico City artist Jorge Tellaeche and offbeat knickknacks like an orange chandelier. With his trucker hat, the proprietor Fernando Pérez Castro, 39, fits right in with his trendy, tattooed clientele. The property started as a retirement home for his parents; he opened the winery in 2009, in love with a woman (now his wife) who lived nearby and wanting a reason to linger.

“Ten years ago, there weren’t any roads,” he said. “I thought, ‘How do I make a place where I will hang out, where I will feel good, where people will think the way I think?’ What happened was a lot of people my age came here. It wasn’t like I did focus groups.”

Lights in the barrel room glow neon red; the restaurant out back serves fish tacos in the shade. There is a white wine whose name translates to a Taylor Swift song (Espacio en Blanco, or “Blank Space”).

One of the most endearing things about this wine country is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“This is the junk that didn’t work out,” joked Phil Gregory, an owner of Vena Cava, as he poured flutes of cantaloupe-hued sparkling wine.

Next to him, a group of women on a yoga retreat threw back their glasses.

“What used to happen in this part of the world was that no one had anything to do and now everyone has appointments every hour,” Gregory said.

A native of Manchester, England, who owned a recording studio in Los Angeles, he and his wife, Eileen, first came to Valle de Guadalupe to try the restaurant Laja. Four weeks later, they bought a hillside property that is now home to a winery, bed-and-breakfast and Corazón de Tierra, whose tasting menu of farm-to-table Mexican fare clocks in at under $50 per person. Tables book up fast.

Not all of the area’s culinary delights demand reservations. Next to Lomita, La Cocina de Doña Esthela serves hangover-curing heaps of diner food like machaca con huevo (eggs scrambled with beef, onions and green peppers), chilaquiles and lamb tacos. Most entrees are under 100 pesos (about $5), and the cinnamon-infused coffee, served steaming in ceramic mugs, tastes like magic.

Food trucks are a thing here. The one parked at Adobe Guadalupe, a hacienda-style winery that rears horses as well as grapes, actually takes reservations because the ceviche, duck tortes and marinated mushrooms trounce the reputation of things cooked on four wheels. The eating experience is also upgraded: Instead of a curb to perch on, there are a dozen tables on the picturesque patio surrounding the truck. 

Scrappiness pervades the valley.

“It used to have a very stinky, particular smell; the wine was very bad,” said Hans Backhoff, founder of Monte Xanic, a large, polished winery that opened in 1988. “That was part of the challenge.”

Now, each year brings more visitors than the last, many of whom used to associate Mexico only with beaches and umbrella drinks.

“It’s been a continuous fight against ignorance,” Backhoff said.

Night life in the valley consists of gazing at the riot of stars in the sky, made visible because of the lack of streetlights and skyscrapers. Encuentro Guadalupe, a collection of modernist cube-shape hotel suites built into boulders, offers dozens of viewing perches, some with telescopes.

Although its accommodations are costly — around $500 per night depending on room size — the hotel, like the rest of the region, knows how to appeal to pop-culture-savvy travelers. Shortly after Encuentro opened in 2012, a celebrity and her entourage booked the property for a birthday party. During a tour, a hotel staff member dropped her name with all the weight of a boulder: “Do you know Rihanna?”

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