ARTICLE: Valle de Guadalupe: Of Wine and Russians in Baja California

VALLE DE GUADALUPE, BAJA CALIFORNIA – In the 90’s and much of the 2000’s, your Gringo loved nothing more than a day spent with family and/or friends just south of the border in Baja California. The drive from San Diego was quick and transporting…taking an hour or two to arrive at a family-owned restaurant in Puerto Nuevo to dine on inexpensive lobster lunches (complete with homemade tortillas, cervezas and margaritas), shop the Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana, snack on fish tacos on the malecon in Ensenada, or enjoy La Fonda Hotel in La Mision’s famous Mexican brunch atop a high, rocky seacliff overlooking the vast and tranquil Pacific. It was a quick Mexican fix with little effort.

The birth of our son in 2008 put a temporary halt to our travels due south and we were overdue for a trip to neighboring Baja California. Our 15th wedding anniversary was approaching, so we took the opportunity to get back to some of our former stomping grounds. The Las Rocas Resort (an old favorite of ours) was offering a special in an attempt to lure visitors back that we just couldn’t pass up…$250 for 2 nights in an ocean view room, a lobster feast in Puerto Nuevo, and a full day of touring around Ensenada’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe.

Las Rocas Resort, Rosarito Beach
Welcome to the Las Rocas Resort, Rosarito Beach.
Giant Jesus, Baja Norte
The Las Rocas Resort is right off the Toll Road across the street from Giant Jesus.

When we arrived, Las Rocas hadn’t changed too much in the five years since we last visited. The grounds perhaps were a touch more unruly, and one of the two jacuzzis was shut off and blockaded, but the staff were still friendly, the view of the Pacific Ocean from our balcony amazing and we settled quickly into our typical Baja state of easy relaxation.

Tequila y Cerveza, Baja Norte
Tequila y Cerveza, at Las Rocas Resort.

Our Valle de Guadalupe winery tour guide Ferndando arrived promptly the next morning at 10AM in front of Las Rocas to pick us up, along with our fellow guests — a family of self-proclaimed “Chilangos” (Mexicans who live in Mexico City, or “El De-effe” as I knowingly and amusingly intoned to them). The family consisted of three sisters and their husbands, including “Pepe Bimbo”, a very affable guy who is an executive at the multinational Bimbo food empire based in Mexico, thus earning his nickname. Visitors from Mexico City, as well as other populated Mexican mainland areas, seem to be filling the Baja tourism gap that we in the US left over the past decade. Fernando stated that his tours used to be 80% US and 20% Mexican visitors, but now has flipped to 80% Mexican and 20% US. We were happy to be part of the 20%.

L.A. Cetto Winery, Guadalupe Valley, Baja Norte
Hangin’ with Pepe Bimbo at the L.A. Cetto Winery, Guadalupe Valley.

We’ve had Valle de Guadalupe wines all over Mexico in the past. The region supplies most of Mexico’s wine as well as exports to other countries, the US being a noted exclusion due to high tariffs attached to importing. I’d made a brief stopover with friends on the way back from San Felipe at Viña de Liceaga earlier in the year, and Fernando’s tour would take us to three very different wineries: Baron Balche, a very small boutique winery complete with a tasting cave, L.A. Cetto, Mexico’s largest wine producer and the largest vineyard in Valle de Guadalupe, and La Hacienda Restaurant and Winery, a beautiful spot with historic structures, sprawling gardens and an array of unusual fruit-flavored wines (mango, guava, etc.).

The area was established as a wine and agricultural region after an unsuccessful founding of the valley by Jesuit missionaries from 1834-1836 (they were chased out and their mission destroyed by local Amerindians). In 1905, 105 Russian families fleeing religious persecution in czarist Russia purchased 13,000 acres from the Mexican government and began growing grapes and wheat as well as keeping bees and raising geese. In 1938, Mexican president Cardenas seized all foreign-owned lands, including that owned by the Russians. Ultimately, Mexican “squatters” moved in to take over the valley and it’s vineyards, which are owned largely by Mexican interests to this day. Of the original 105 families only 4 of pure Russian lineage remain and some of their original Russian-style homes still stand.

Early Russian Immigrants, Valle de Guadalupe
Early Russian Immigrants, circa 1905, Valle de Guadalupe

Our first stop was at one of these Russian homes, which has been turned into a Museum, restaurant and bakery. We enjoyed goat empenadas, fresh-baked bread (Pan Ruso), honey and cheese and toured the small home which houses the actual artifacts, tools and artwork used by one of the early Russian settler families. Eerily, one of the young Russian girls in the restaurant bore a STRIKING resemblance to a painting of an early settler in the museum. We found out that she was the great, great granddaughter of the woman in the painting.

Russian Museum, Valle de Guadalupe
Russian Museum. We met this woman’s great, great granddaughter.
Russian Museum, Valle de Guadalupe
Russian Museum, Valle de Guadalupe.
Pan Ruso, Guadalupe Valley
Pan Ruso, Guadalupe Valley, Baja California.

Our first winery was Baron Balche, a small, boutique winery. We winded up a dirt road in the conversion van and were greeted lazily (in a great way) by several elderly gentlemen enjoying a glass of afternoon wine in the shade of the vineyard’s front porch. We proceeded into the winery and down a flight of stairs to the subterranean wine cave…which houses the vineyard’s barrels as well as their tasting room. Sampling several excellent wines, Fernando had let me know that one of their bottles was $150, their top of the line. Winking, he conspiratorially handed me a glass of said wine as the owner passed him another. It’s good to have connections. Salud Fernando!

Baron Balche, Valle de Guadalupe
Baron Balche’s wine cork sign, Valle de Guadalupe.

Our next stop was L.A. Cetto, Mexico’s largest wine-producing vineyard. After conferring with a few of the gate guards, Fernando was waved through the parking lot to a long dusty road that led straight up the vineyard hillside to a custom bullfighting ring and huge (concert-size) entertainment patio. The view from the patio was amazing, affording a vista of the entire Valle de Guadalupe to the south.

L.A. Cetto, Valle de Guadalupe
The view from the patio. L.A. Cetto, Valle de Guadalupe.

We drove back to the main visitor’s area, parked and were led on a path that winded beneath a large and amazing arbor overflowing with vines and ripening grapes above our heads to the vineyard’s vast tasting room. Dozens of mostly Mexican families and visitors were enjoying this sunny Saturday at L.A. Cetto. Hundreds of bottles of wine ranging from very inexpensive to premium line the walls, and tasters stand casually around small tables as they are poured samples from one of L.A. Cetto’s myriad, friendly and helpful staff.

L.A. Cetto Vineyard, Valle de Guadalupe
An overhead arbor awash in vines and grapes, L.A. Cetto Vineyard.
L.A. Cetto Vineyard, Valle de Guadalupe
Ursula enjoys a glass at the L.A. Cetto Vineyard.

We ended the day at the La Hacienda Restaurant and Winery, where after enjoying their fruity mango, guava and pomegranate wines, we wandered around the sprawling property through lush gardens scattered with amazing artwork, crumbling statuary and bird cages. We thanked the friendly owners and staff and headed back to Las Rocas and our lobster feast in Puerto Nuevo (amazing, BTW. Although the lobster is not typically from the region now, we were served two each with full sides of tortillas, rice and beans with a Pacific view).

La Hacienda, Valle de Guadalupe
The fruity wines at La Hacienda.
La Hacienda, Valle de Guadalupe
Part of La Hacienda’s sprawling grounds.

Las Rocas is still running the $250 deal at last check and your Gringo plans on returning with more of his family soon. You should too!

Your Gringo in Mexico,
Scott

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve says:

    Fantastic piece! That Pinot Noir I bought at L.A. Cetto on our way back from San Felipe was amazing. Fantastic hospitality too. Jealous of your deep dive in the valley!

  2. Caliyat says:

    Just found you as I research where to retire/refire from high cost of living in southern CA. yet still be close to work & children & grandchildren…Everyone thinks we are poco loco to look into the real Mexican small town (Tecate) area so it was good to find some encouraging voices.
    Read Catherine Stribling’s quick visit to the wine region via Tecate, then was happy to find your work. Appreciating & enjoying your passion for the area. Thanks for your insights which are so helpful as we plan our own exploratory trip from Tecate through the Ruta de Vino.
    Never stop exploring.

    1. Hello Caliyat!

      Thanks for your feedback! Always great to get comments from north of the border on our adventures 🙂

      Personally, I could visualize living in Tecate. It is small, friendly, clean, and has some great food from the street on up to the top of the hill at Asao. And did I mention they make a great beer?

      Thanks again and let me know if you end up landing in Tecate…sounds like a GREAT adventure and I don’t think you’re poco loco at all!

      Your Gringo,
      Scott

  3. Caliyat says:

    Taking your advice and just booked your recommended deal at Las Rocas Resort & Spa to celebrate a big birthday & enjoy the wine tour that you so wonderfully illustrated in your article. Happy to have found gringo in mexico : > ) Muchos Gracias …

    1. Gracias Caliyat! I think you will enjoy Las Rocas, as well as the wine tour. If your driver/tour guide is Fernando, please tell him A Gringo In Mexico says “HOLA!”.

      Your Gringo,
      Scott

  4. RJ Scott says:

    I’m curious how much your wine tour guide, Fernando, costs for the day? I imagine it’s a per person rate? How did you get in touch with him? Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi RJ,

      Fernando’s tour was part of a $250/total package at Las Rocas Hotel that also included two nights lodging and a Lobster Dinner in Puerto Nuevo (GREAT deal. They may still have it going on). I did contact Fernando on a separate occasion regarding a private tour for which he quoted $45/person, which seemed like an amazing price given his connections throughout the Valle de Guadalupe. If you want to get in touch with him, his email address is: fernando.toursinbaja@gmail.com. If you hook up with him, please tell him A Gringo In Mexico said “HOLA!”.

      Gracias,
      Scott

    2. RJ Scott says:

      Thanks for the reply. $250 for 2 nights, lobster dinner AND wine tour is an amazing deal! I’ll definitely have to look into it. Thanks again.

      -RJ

  5. What kind of Russian religious persecution by the Tsar? Were they the Molokans from the time of Tolstoy who had to leave for USA and Canada and Mexico to avoid death? They had to pick up those wine grape rootstocks somewhere, ostensibly in Germany before boarding the ships from Hamburg.
    Also curious was that their religion forbid them to drink alcohol yet they produce the grapes for the others to make wine. Or at least that is how it started… the Mennonites and other German speakers got the whole wine business going in early Baja California. That is the big risk however: The Mexican government in 1938 confiscated their lands and vineyards!! Nationalism and communism are ever present in these corrupt places.

    Incidentally the native amerindians did not drive the Jesuits out. The Franciscans of Majorca were sent by the Pope in 1760’s to imprison and kill Jesuit priests and to confiscate their lands and buildings. The Franciscans took over the hot and dry sparsely settled Baja mission lands.
    They then proceeded north to Alta California, started the 21 missions and subjugated many more tribes to mission slavery. This was to block Russian takeover from the Russian fur traders and small colonies on the California coast.

    Ok 👍! It’s all history now!! Funny that your tourguide Fernando said that the “Amerindian” groups threw out the Jesuits. Perhaps they just were the cannon fodder doing the Franciscan job of getting rid of the Jesuits, in the hopes of a better life under new management. One can’t blame them for believing in “hope and change”, but Franciscans were very very tough and strict. Almost brutal!

    1. Hi Tourbusoverthehill! Thanks for your comment, and for filling in the blanks on some of my history of the Molokans in the Valle de Guadalupe. The Molokans were pacifists and emigrated initially to Turkey, then later other areas including the Valle de Guadalupe to escape mandatory military service as war between Russian and Japan loomed in the early 20th century. I did not know that they sourced vines from Germany. Very interesting and I’ll have to dig deeper!

      Wine was first produced in the region by the Spaniards for communal-use only. The Molokans definitely grew grapes for the production of vino, so I imagine the wine they produced was for similar, religious purposes, and not for pleasure.

      The local native population did revolt against and ultimately drove out the Jesuits in La Misión, just north of the Valle de Guadalupe. The Fransiscans took over from the Jesuits in Baja California ultimately, and I should have been more specific in my article (I’ll look at updating that soon…thanks!). My guide, friend and now colleague Feranando has been running tours in this region for years and knows his stuff. Any omissions or mis-representation of historical accuracy is definitely on the author’s part 😉

      Scott

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