Vino Divino

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By Joy Hepp

Ask any sommelier worth the title to recommend the best wine to pair with Spaghetti Bolognese or New York steak, and you will get an easy answer; a good crisp Chianti and a nice firm-bodied cabernet sauvignon, respectively. But what about something more likely to be found on a street corner than at a corner bistro, like Baja-style fish tacos?

If you’re anywhere near Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley, the trendy new wine-country spot in the seaside state of Baja California, it’s a no-brainer, says Steve Dryden, a wine writer who hosts a monthly wine-tasting dinner for expatriates in Rosarito, Mexico.

“Definitely go with an L.A. Cetto Chardonnay,” he says during a telephone interview. “It’s a world-class blend and you can get a bottle for seven dollars.”

The gorgeous Guadalupe Valley wine country is about an hour’s drive from the California border, a road trip marked by craggy brown cliffs dropping to a sparkling blue pacific, reminiscent of Malibu to the north.

You’ll find the narrow wine-rich valley nestled beyond the inland hills on the Ruta del Vino, or “wine route”. The valley, dotted with olive orchards and picturesque farmhouses, is a 14-mile stretch of fertile land bordered by misty mountains, where Dominican priests began harvesting grapes in 1834. It is now home to more than a dozen boutique wineries, and is fast gaining visibility in the international wine community as Mexico’s own little Napa Valley.

Depending on how much time you want to spend sipping and sampling, it is possible to visit all seven of the tourist-friendly wineries in one weekend. Make sure you’re paying close attention, though, because that pinot you’re sipping might just be the next star of the international wine community.

“It reminds me of the days when Napa just started,” says Dryden, who started out as a vineyard manager 20 years ago. He says the area only produces about two million cases of wine per year, but adds that the quality is improving all the time. “Today’s ugly duckling could be the next year’s swan,” he says of the fast-changing wine industry here.

Alejandro Aviles is a sommelier at Las Ventanas in the Mexican city of Los Cabos, a five-star hotel in Los Cabos costs about $1000 per room per night, and presents select international wines on its dinner menu. Extremely picky about the wine he serves his clientele, with a preference for those from the Napa Valley, Aviles says he is nonetheless proud to include wines from at least one winery in the Guadalupe Valley – L.A. Cetto, founded in 1930 by Italian Angelo Cetto.

(Interestingly, Aviles says many Mexican wines are still a few years behind their northern cousins for reasons unfortunately beyond the vintners’ control: the California wineries have access to more advanced technology and better equipment, more nutrient-rich soil and access to cleaner groundwater.)

Dreyden describes an $11 a bottle Nebbiolo as having “an intense ruby red color with flashes of garnet, concentrated red and black fruits with undertones of prune, vanilla, spices and wood.”

With 30 different wines and hundreds of international awards, its no wonder wine-lovers have taken notice. And with notice comes a new concern: crowds.

“It used to be where you could just drive into any winery and talk to any owner and chat with them at their kitchen table,” Dryden says. “Now you go to L.A. Cetto and there are 14 different buses and 1000 people walking around.” Still, no matter how crowded L.A. Cetto, tours include a close look at the wine-making process, led by an expert guide who can wax poetic about everything from acidity to Zinfandel.

While the major vineyards can be crowded during the peak season (from late March through Labor Day) some of the vineyards – like Three Sisters, which is located towards the eastern end of the route – are still small enough to seem homey.

On a drizzly day in February, Jaime Pomares, an engineer from Tijuana, is visiting L.A. Cetto winery with a date. He is among a group of ten Spanish-speakers who enjoy a tour of the vineyards and a tasting afterwards.

“I’ve had the opportunity to try many California wines,” he says. “The quality here is very comparable.”

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