For most of my life, I have lived 20 minutes from the Mexican border. But it wasn't until recently that I drove down to visit Baja's increasingly famous Valle de Guadalupe wine region. My parents beat me to it a half-century ago. They married in Ensenada after my Romanian father spent four years in Mexico learning Spanish and poking around abandoned gold mines. "I was wearing a white shift dress and a little bolero top when your father drove me through the wine country near Ensenada," remembers my mother of her honeymoon. "It was lovely. Everything was lovely. I was so in love with your father."
The wine country my love-struck mother saw 50 years ago consisted mostly of vineyards planted in 1905 by a group of Russian pacifists. The Guadalupe Valley now has more than 50 large and boutique wineries and produces 85 percent of all wine made in Mexico, around a million cases a year. The wines, created from Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Carignane and Malbec, are mainly New World in style, with high alcohol and assertive fruit. But some of the finest bottlings, such as Mogor-Badan and Barón Balch'é, are more Old World–like and now appear on the wine lists of such places as the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún.
For the time being, Baja wines are hard to find outside Mexico, so a trip to the valley is the best—and often only—way to taste them. The area is in the midst of huge changes, with millions of dollars worth of riotous construction along the coast between Ensenada and Tijuana. I went to the Valle de Guadalupe wondering if it was still as laid-back as it was when my parents visited. I went unprepared for ziggurats or talking gorillas.