A Wine Journey With Chef Rick Bayless
90 miles south of San Diego, Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, Mexico, is home to a burgeoning wine and restaurant scene. Executive wine editor Ray Isle tags along with Chef Rick Bayless—and his staff—for a wine- and taco-fueled tour of Mexico’s thrilling new wine region.
It's a bright morning in Valle de Guadalupe, and we’re all on the bus. In the front seat, chef Rick Bayless is saying, “OK, let’s do a quick postmortem on last night’s dinner. So, we all know the difference between moritas and chiles pasillas oaxaqueños …”
Actually, we all do not. Specifically, I do not. But the rest of the group, a bleary-but-functional gang of cooks and staff from Bayless’ Chicago-based restaurant group, certainly does. This is day two of a dive-bombing trip through the Valle de Guadalupe wine region, and we’re already slightly fried.
It should be added that “bleary but functional” applies to everyone except Bayless himself. Kneeling on the seat, animated and hyper-articulate, he is dissecting the (I thought very impressive) dinner we had last night at Animalón, chef Javier Plascencia’s outdoor restaurant. He goes at it course by course: “That clam, chopped up, with the aguachile. The sugar in there softens it. But I think an aguachile should be—” he punches his right fist into the palm of his left hand “—like that. And it had shiso in it! But you get that in Baja cooking right now. That Asian influence. And what about the wine?”
If you ever want a safe bet in life, this is it: Rick Bayless knows more about Mexican cuisine than you do. An Oklahoma kid who grew up helping in his family’s barbecue restaurant, he visited Mexico for the first time at age 14, “and I knew, instantly, it was where I wanted to be.” The route initially was anthropology, but just short of writing his PhD dissertation, Bayless moved with his wife and business partner, Deann, to Mexico for five years to research his first cookbook. He opened Frontera Grill in Chicago in 1987, following that with James Beard Awards, cookbooks, TV shows, more restaurants (most recently Leña Brava, in 2016), even Mexico’s Order of the Aztec Eagle, the nation’s highest honor given to foreigners.
Some people use expertise to impress. Bayless instead seems driven by passion—it’s as if he wants everyone he meets to be as inspired by Mexico as he is. That’s part of why he’s such an effective presence on TV, and it helps explain why he and Deann organize these Mexico trips for their restaurant teams several times a year. “We were open for a year and a half when Rick came to me and suggested it,” Deann says. “So they could feel what we do, experience what we’ve experienced.”
Here’s how that goes. After arriving, we zoom to Ensenada for fish tacos (seriously great fish tacos) and seafood tostadas, pop over the craggy hills to Valle de Guadalupe proper, hit two wineries (Bodegas Henri Lurton, owned by the French Lurton family but with wines made by Ensenada native Lulú Martinez Ojeda, and Adobe Guadalupe), check in to our very-nice-but-still-a-tent glamping accomodations at Cuatro Cuatros, then head to Animalón for an eight-course dinner that lasts till midnight. Hence, bleary. (Bayless was up at 6 a.m. doing yoga.)
Now, as we pull into Villa Montefiori, home of vintner Paolo Paoloni, the chef cheerfully wraps up his Animalón disquisition: “Doing a mayo with chicatanas, those little nutty-flavored ants, that’s all the rage now. It’s actually a good way to sequester insects—you’re not asking people to eat a lot of straight-up bugs. Even the squeamish will go for it.”
Tuck that away for future reference, right?
In Valle de Guadalupe, Paoloni tells us, wine is all about water. Or, actually, the lack thereof. We’re in his not-quite-finished new tasting room with crisp, green apple–scented Chardonnay in hand. The wind whips through the still-empty window frames to ruffle our hair. That wind, plus irrigation, is key: Valle is fenced in from the Pacific but cooled by it, which is why the region can grow top-quality wine grapes rather than sun-roasted raisins. “It’s a semidesert here,” Paoloni says. “We’re not Brazil. We need water.” Average rainfall in Valle de Guadalupe is 10 inches per year, we learn. “In Napa, they get 50. If they get 30, oh my God, it’s a drought. Last year? We got four.”
Twenty years ago, when Paoloni opened his doors, there were 10 wineries in the valley. Now there are over 100. Tourism growth is even more profound—there are now dozens of hotels, dozens of restaurants. But don’t expect Northern California’s gloss. People like to call Valle “the new Napa,” but here the side roads are still mostly dirt, and many locals would like to keep it that way.
Wine isn’t remotely new here. Jesuit priests from Spain planted the valley’s first vines in 1701. But the recent profusion of new wine ventures builds on a culinary revolution that began in 2001 when local chef Jair Téllez, whose first cooking job was at the Tijuana racetrack when he was a teenager and who later progressed to stints at Daniel in New York City and La Folie in San Francisco, opened his restaurant Laja. It seemed a lunatic venture in a dusty nowhereland, but it inspired a wave of ambitious fellow chefs and, later, winemakers.
Our last wine at Villa Montefiori, the 2014 Paoloni Nebbiolo de Guadalupe, smells of roses and blueberries. Abundantly fruity, it is, as Bayless comments to the gang, “like a big hug of all these glorious flavors.” One thing about Rick Bayless: He’s just as invested in Mexican wine as he is in Mexican food. From here we head back over the hills to the Aguamala brewery in Ensenada—craft brewing has hit Baja, too—swing by Vena Cava winery, down a sunset cocktail at Cuatro Cuatros’ bar overlooking the Pacific, and wrap up our day with another multicourse meal, this time at Deckman’s en el Mogor. We’re dining Valle-style—outdoors, a cool breeze off the Pacific, local snapper roasted over live fire, and flan for dessert. The latter prompts a lively discussion of the pros and cons of jiggly food: “Oh, it so creeps me out,” Kimberly Olson, one of the chefs, says. “Flan, panna cotta, any of that stuff.” “Seriously?” “Seriously.” “Personally, I’m fine with jiggly food,” Bayless says, and somehow this results in him being dubbed “Mister Jiggly” for the rest of the trip.
Then—bang!—it’s morning. Breakfast is at La Cocina de Doña Esthela: dried beef pounded with tomatoes, onions, and peppers (machaca); lamb braised for hours, roasted, and shredded (borrego tatemado); beans (Bayless: “The beans northerners prefer in Mexico are the lighter colored beans. In southern Mexico, people prefer black beans.”); spectacular homemade tortillas; gorditas with chorizo; corn pancakes with honey ... We hit the bus in a total food coma, and it’s time to taste more wine.
And to ask the question, what about this “new Napa” comparison? Camillo Magoni, head winemaker at L.A. Cetto for 49 years and now proprietor of his own eponymous winery, shrugs. “Why do we have to compare to something? We have enough strengths on our own! There’s no region that’s similar to Valle.”
That distinctiveness shows through in the wines, like his peppery red Cabernet-Sangiovese blend, which sommelier Leslie LaRue Lamont pours by the glass at Leña Brava. It’s emphatically in the Valle style: fruit-forward reds and lively, mostly unoaked whites, made from a free-for-all of different grape varieties. “So many things grow here,” Magoni says. “I started experimenting with new varieties in 1967, and I still am. We’re still evolving.”
It's high noon, and outside at TrasLomita restaurant, black lizards on the rocks are doing push-ups in the heat. Up-down, up-down, up-down. If you can’t sweat—e.g., if you’re a lizard—it’s a great way to keep your body temperature down. To my mind, the better option is ours: sitting under big umbrellas at long wooden tables amidst lavender and rosemary bushes, drinking cold Sauvignon Blanc and, for our last meal in Valle, playing the “What wine are you right now?” game.
Deann Bayless kicks it off: “I’m feeling super-relaxed. I’d be an unoaked Chardonnay.” Lisa Carlson, red-haired manager of Bayless’ Cruz Blanca brewery, opts for a Sauvignon Blanc “just like this one.” Matt Morin, Leña Brava’s manager: “I’ll take a different direction and say natural wine.” There’s a chorus of outraged “no’s,” and he gets a napkin thrown at him. “What? What’d I say?” he asks, all innocence. Lamont, the sommelier, picks it up again: “Sangiovese rosé. That one we had at Paoloni’s. Because there’s something going on under the surface—like me. I’m not just a dirty blonde!”
When chef Sheyla Alvarado’s food arrives, it’s sublime: insanely fresh shrimp and scallops in a habanero-tomatillo aguachile; crisp tortas filled with crunchy fried squid and lemon mayo; the chef’s signature roast chicken, air-dried overnight so the skin is ultra-crisp; grilled corn with an herbal epazote mayo, dusted with crumbs of Cotija cheese.
TrasLomita is on the same property as the Lomita winery, and owner Fernando Pérez Castro opens bottles, passing them around. The winery’s luscious, strawberry-scented Pagano Grenache proves one of the best we’ve tried on the trip. The whole meal—outdoors, the air clean, the wine flowing, and the food both ambitious and deeply traditional—sums up the allure of Valle. Even if it’s the one time Bayless actually doesn’t have an answer to a question. That happens over a crisp tostada with grilled curvina and cauliflower. Someone asks, “Curvina? What’s that?”
“Corvina is what I know it as,” Bayless says. “I’m not sure it has another name.”
“Is there something you’d compare it to?”
Bayless pauses, thinks. Everyone waits. Then he shrugs. “Um, a really delicious fish?”
Even when stumped, the man has great timing.