Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Aceitunas y Uvas en la Valle de Guadalupe

Adobe Tower
Our trip the Baja Wine Country started with a pleasant drive through the rural back country of San Diego early on a Friday afternoon. We crossed through the town of Tecate and traveled about two hours on the two lane Highway 3, turning off at a small town named Francisco Zarco - just thirty minutes north of Ensenada. Here the pavement ends, and the last two to three miles to the Adobe must be traveled on dirt roads.
Adobe Gates
The Adobe Guadalupe is a six-room inn, winery and stables owned by Don and Tru Miller, an American couple who retired to the valley in the late nineties. Don is a former Orange County banker and long-time wine connoisseur whose focus is clearly on the grapes, while Tru spends much of her time caring for the horses they keep in their beautiful stables. In 1998, they bought the land on which the Adobe now stands, and built everything you see there today. In 2000, they planted their first grapes.

Today, the winery produces four red wines - Serafiel, Kerubiel, Miguel and Gabriel, and one rose, named Uriel. (The wines are named for the Archangels in Spanish, in honor of their son who died in a car accident at a young age.) They focus on reds and red blends, because the grapes seem to do better in the intense heat.
Adobe Rose
The hotel itself is built in a courtyard formation, with the living rooms and the owner's home at one end, along with the dining room, kitchen and office. It was designed and built by a Persian architect, and the design is very Moorish. On the other side of the courtyard are the six guestrooms.
Adobe  Courtyard Fountain
Dinner is available for an additional $50. or so per person, including wine. It was served in a dining room off the kitchen decorated with silver and crystal and lit solely by candlelight. The food was delicious.
Dinner
We were served a cream of mushroom soup, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with a sprig of cilantro, a green salad with oranges, tomatoes, local cheese and avocado, pan-grilled salmon with a curry sauce served with basmati rice, and a strawberry mousse dessert served with a caramelized slice of banana, a crisp chocolate cookie and a maraschino cherry. With the meal, they served us a Vina de Liceaga Sauvignon Blanc, and the house Kerubiel red. After dinner, we were offered shots of the smoky housemade "Lucifer" mezcal and espresso. We were amused that the owner's three Weimaraners joined us during the meal to snooze on the sofa and chair facing the giant fireplace that dominates the room.

After dinner, headed out to the jacuzzi for some stargazing. We could see the milky way and several shooting stars, and all of the stars and planets burned far brighter than they do at home. We also had some Kalyra Port that I had brought with me in my bag - and a few bites of Vosges and Valrhona chocolate that I had toted down as well.
Fruit and Avocados
The next day started with breakfast in the Adobe's beautiful kitchen. The enormous room features a long farmhouse table which looks to seat about fourteen people. Bowls of fresh fruit and vegetables heap the counters. Breakfast included wonderful coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh cut fruit, and a choice of huevos rancheros or cheese and eggs on the first day, and huevos rancheros or pancakes on the next. After two days, it was clear that the huevos rancheros are definitely the way to go.
Huevos Rancheros
After breakfast, we went for a walk around the grounds - having planned a private wine tasting with Don at 11 AM. I walked around and took some pictures of the grounds and the stables.
Black Stallion
Their horses were beautiful, and as horses are wont to do - they greeted me looking for treats. I wished I had some apples or carrots to make friends with them, but I hadn't planned that far ahead. By the time I got back, it was time for the wine tasting.
View from the Tasting Room
The private wine tasting in their cellar is fantastic, and I recommend a visit for anyone in the valley - whether you stay at the hotel or not. They throw open the giant double doors onto the vineyards, and the bar is just inside. Past that is the cellar where their barrels and bottles are aging. It's really a beautiful room.
Winetasting with Jack
The wines are fruity and rich - we chose the Kerubiel as our favorite, and brought back as many bottles as we were allowed - well, actually one extra, since we thought we were allowed 1.5 bottles per person. It turns out that U.S. Customs adheres to the Federal guideline of one bottle per person, but they let us off since we were only one over. The others were also very good, but we were smitten with the Kerubiel. As much as I like rose, I wasn't in love with their Uriel. I found it a bit strawberry-ish for my taste. I didn't mind drinking it by the pool, but I didn't feel a need to bring any home with me.
Looking back, the cellar
After the tasting, we set out to do a little wine tasting in the area, armed with recommendations from Don to stop at Liceaga and a small town called San Antonio de Tomas. If we were looking for a bite to eat he recommended a restaurant called the Hacienda. We drove all the way to Ensenada before realizing that we must have missed our destination - and backtracked until we found the little town. We found the Hacienda restaurant which was really a nursery, with a restaurant attached. It was lovely, with each table in sort of a private alcove surrounded by plants, and sheltered by several ancient oak trees.
Hacienda Restaurant
The ice cold beer served in frozen mugs really took the edge off of a headache I had been nursing all morning (something about the previous night's mixture of red wine, mezcal and port no doubt) and the chips with two kinds of salsa and guacamole were fantastic. We tried to keep it light because of our upcoming reservation at Laja, but realized we had utterly failed when we saw the plates come out.

By the end of the meal we realized that we would need to push back our reservation to a later time, so we decided to stop by the restaurant on our way back and pay them a visit. On our way back toward Francisco Zarco, we passed two wineries we wanted to visit - one was Casa Piedra, the winery owned by Hugo d'Acosta, who is also the winemaker at Adobe Guadalupe. Unfortunately, they were closed, but we saw their interesting modern facility. Next, we stopped at Vinas de Liceaga. Liceaga is an Ensenada construction mogul known for his Merlots, which are produced in the winery attached to his residence. It looked like they also had a large construction project underway, which we later learned was a hotel. At Liceaga, we tasted their sauvignon blanc (which we had been served the night before) and Merlots. We liked the reserve Merlot enough to buy a bottle. The sauvignon blanc was also good, but we were saving room in our suitcase (and our import allowance) for the Adobe's wines. They also sold a couple of ouzos, which were interesting. One had a very whiskey-like taste and was far more palatable than the other. They also sell a cake made with the ouzo - which they had samples of out for tasting. It reminded me of a whiskey cake my dad used to make when I was a kid, around the holidays.
Laja interior
After the tasting at Liceaga, we headed out in search of Laja. We found it not too far from Hwy 3, off of a side road that led directly to the Adobe - cutting across a large swath of farmland. We walked into the peaceful room furnished with natural wood and asked about changing the reservation. Oddly, without asking our names and without canceling our earlier reservation, they told us to come back at 7:30. Perfect. As we were leaving, we saw an employee in their garden picking vegetables for the evening's meal.

We had time for more pool lounging when we returned, and we were refreshed and relaxed when we walked into Laja for our reservation. Unfortunately, the sun-drenched peaceful room was now starkly lit and noisy, dominated by a huge party of fourteen at one long table in the middle. The din was deafening. We took our seats and surveyed the situation, trying to figure out where the group came from. My guess was that they were all employees on some sort of company sponsored trip, but it turned out that they had journeyed to the restaurant from a cruise ship docked in Ensenada. We assumed they would be there forever, since they had just been seated when we arrived, but it turned out that they had to get back to their boat and left about forty five minutes after we arrived.
Butternut Squash Soup
Making the best of it, we ordered the seven course tasting (the other choice is a four course) and some cocktails and wine to take the edge off. The first course was a butternut squash veloute soup with local olive oil, which was very creamy and rich. The second was a nice salad with herbs and arugula, tomatoes and viniagrette. It needed salt, which they brought in a small dish upon request. The third course was a bluefin tuna tartare with cucumber and preserved lemon. I normally really like tuna tartare - but I didn't love their version for some reason. I think it may have been the variety of fish used. It wasn't the super mild ahi I'm used to. The seasoning also wasn't balanced quite right - it simply tasted of lemon and oil with no sweetness to smooth it out.
Garden Lettuce Salad
After the third course, we wised up and moved outside to the flagstone patio, following the party of four which had left before us. The weather was nice and mild, and we had a long wood table lit by tea lights they placed on the table for us. They lit lanterns on the steps and a fair amount of light filtered through the glass doors and windows onto the patio from the dining room. It was very dark (I couldn't see the food until the flash went off!) but much more pleasant than the din of the dining room.
Corn Gnocchi
The fourth course was by far my favorite, a sweet corn gnocchi, served with eggplant and squash blossoms. The gnocchi were sort of caramelized, and the components of the dish were perfect complimentary. The fifth course was a seabass served with some baby vegetables. This was fine but unremarkable.
LambThe sixth course however was fantastic - oven roasted local lamb with shallots and mustard greens. It actually tasted almost like pulled pork, but with a hint of lamb flavor.
Yellow Watermelon Soup
Though the menu boasted of seven courses - we actually received eight. I had assumed they would ask us to choose between the two desserts listed, or the two main courses, but they never did, which was just fine with us. The first dessert was a cold yellow watermelon soup, with prickly pear and lemon balm sorbets. This was certainly the most visually dazzling course of the evening, with the contrasting colors. It was refreshing and cool, but didn't really satisfy my chocolate-and butter-centric sweet tooth.
Almond FinancierThe second choice did however - though it didn't contain any chocolate. It was an almond financier, served with butternut squash ice cream and green apple. Though it looks half eaten in the photo, this is how they brought it out, with the financier broken into pieces and interspersed with the apple. It was rich and delicious, and again - interesting.
We had two wines with our meal, an un-oaked Casa Piedra Chardonnay recommended by Don, called Piedra del Sol. We drank two bottles of that, and one of a Tempranillo Cabernet blend from Baron Balche - one of the wineries near the Adobe that we did not get a chance to visit. The Tempranillo Cabernet was not my favorite, but the Piedra del Sol was fantastic.
All in all, the visit to Laja did not disappoint. The service was excellent, the price was excellent (about $60.00 for the seven course meal, not including wine) and the food was interesting and delicious - though we enjoyed some courses more than others. I will definitely go back - perhaps for a late lunch. They serve from 1 PM to 8 PM (at least during the time of year we were there) and I think a day visit might afford a better opportunity to see the grounds, stroll the gardens, and enjoy the atmosphere.
The next day, we hopped in the car to return to the States shortly after breakfast, thinking we would make it home by mid-afternoon at the latest. Instead, we encountered an ungodly wait at the border - about two and a half hours total. I think we would have been better off had we made it there a bit earlier, but it's hard to tell. I'm sure it didn't help that Customs only had a few lanes open.
Adobe Sky
Overall, I highly recommend a visit to the area if you live in Southern California - I'm not sure it's worth traveling from a longer distance because there isn't really enough to keep you busy down there for more than a few days. It would really depend on your mood and what you are interested in. I found it fascinating - like visiting California fifty years ago, and I am sure we will be going back. I would also like to try some of the taco stands along the way (if anyone reading this has been to any of them, please send some recommendations!) When I asked Don about them he scoffed - clearly taco stands are not his thing- though I am sure there are some good ones out there.


For the photo album, click here.
Where we went:
Adobe Guadalupe - http://www.adobeguadalupe.com/
Laja - http://www.lajamexico.com/
Also recommended by Jay - http://www.lasbrisasdelvalle.com/
the Hacienda restaurant - near San Antonio de Tomas -about 1/4 mile East of Hwy 3. Follow the signs.
Vinas de Liceaga - winery speciazing in Merlot on the East side of Hwy 3 near San Antonio de Tomas

Other recommended wineries to visit:
Casa Piedra - on Hwy 3 just North of San Antonio de Tomas, on the west side of the L.A. Cetto - on the East side of Hwy 3 toward the North end of the valley (has a hot springs you can hike to)
Monte Xanic (pronounced Cha-neek) (on the road to the Adobe)
Baron Balche (also on the road to the Adobe)

7 comments:

  1. This post could not have come at a better time, heading down weekend after next. Thanks so much, can't wait to read an updated post.

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  2. Amy Kennedy10/4/06, 8:06 AM

    ooh, ooh, ooh! I have been wanting to go to Laja for forever! Can't wait to hear all about it!

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  3. I haven't yet visited Adobe de Guadalupe, but there is actually another B&B in the valley, called Las Brisas Del Valle. I have stayed there and enjoyed it immensely.

    As I'm sure you know, I think the world of Laja. It sounds like you may not have gotten to experience the best of what they do, between the late hour and the crowds. I really can't recommend enough going back.

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  4. I haven't yet visited Adobe de Guadalupe, but there is actually another B&B in the valley, called Las Brisas Del Valle. I have stayed there and enjoyed it immensely.

    As I'm sure you know, I think the world of Laja. It sounds like you may not have gotten to experience the best of what they do, between the late hour and the crowds. I really can't recommend enough going back.

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  5. I haven't yet visited Adobe de Guadalupe, but there is actually another B&B in the valley, called Las Brisas Del Valle. I have stayed there and enjoyed it immensely.

    As I'm sure you know, I think the world of Laja. It sounds like you may not have gotten to experience the best of what they do, between the late hour and the crowds. I really can't recommend enough going back.

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  6. Thanks for pointing that out Jay! I definitely plan to go back to Laja - again and again as a matter of fact! I also checked out the website for the Las Brisas place, and it looks very interesting - maybe a bit more luxurious than the Adobe Guadalupe. Maybe we will check it out on our next visit and compare. I will also update the post and include this this information since I hadn't heard about it yet.

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  7. Thanks a bunch for all the info. Heading down tomorrow. Glad you got this post up. Been searching around for recs. We are staying at Rancho El Parral, small 4 bedroom ranch in the Valle, web site below. Adobe was booked but we will stop by for tasting.

    www.ranchoelparral.com

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