Mexico is famous for its tequila, but its wine is almost completely unknown. So it's hardly surprising that one of the newest and most interesting wine regions in the Americas has escaped mainstream notice. Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe, only a two-hour drive south of San Diego, has nearly 100 wineries hidden in a valley that enjoys a climate similar to the Mediterranean.

It shouldn’t be news that Mexico-based vineyards produce exciting artisan wines. The first winery in the Americas was established in the late 16th century in what is now the state of Coahuila in northern Mexico. In the next 100 years, the industry took off. Spain, fearing competition from its colonies, eventually outlawed vine planting in Central America. Catholic monks continued to tend vineyards and produce high-quality wine secretly until they were stripped of their lands by Mexican authorities in the 1800s. The country’s wine industry all but died out when the monks abandoned their vines.

Winemaking in Valle de Guadalupe was not begun by local Mexicans (or by anyone from the Americas, for that matter). Early in the 20th century, Russian refugees, fleeing the czarist regime, settled in the valley. These people belonged to an obscure pacifist religious sect called the Molokans. The new residents purchased modest plots of land and began farming. Many of the families dedicated large portions of their acreage to vineyards. Some of the winemakers active in Guadalupe today are directly descended from these Russian immigrants.

The climate in this section of Baja is ideal for grapes. Summers are hot, sunny and dry; winters are wet and cool. During the warmer months, the breezes from the nearby Pacific Ocean help moderate temperatures. The porous soil retains moisture as well as a sponge. These perfect conditions caught the attention of a French-trained winemaker from Mexico City. Hugo d’Acosta set up a modern winery on the slopes of the valley and produced his first bottles in 1997. The unique terroir of the area and d’Acosta’s experimental outlook on winemaking and blending drew a lot of attention from wine aficionados and fellow vintners.

Carignan grape vineyard

Carignan grapes are among the varieties grown in the region. (Photo: Tomascastelazo/Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the valley has an eclectic mix of wineries. Small mom-and-pop vineyards produce a modest amount of bottles each year, but larger operations have launched in the past decade. Resort and winery Encuentro Guadalupe has 20 modern, eco-friendly bungalows called “pods” spaced out along the hillside. Hacienda la Lomita, a neighboring winery with a hip tasting room, is run by Fernando Perez Castro, who came to winemaking after a career as one of Mexico City’s most famous stage actors. The off-beat architecture of Vena Cava, a winery that produces small batches of blended wines, is the perfect example of the low-key whimsy and the vaguely alternative vibe that define the Guadalupe’s wine scene. The buildings at Vena Cava were constructed using recycled materials. Ship hulls were repurposed as rooftops.

People are starting to come to Valle de Guadalupe as a less expensive alternative to Napa, Sonoma and other north-of-the-border wine destinations. But something interesting is happening as the valley’s profile grows. The increase in income has brought tourism dollars and led to upgrades like new roads. However, local culture has changed little. Cowboys and shepherds can still be seen traveling on horseback next to gleaming new highways. Local bodegas — some of which are open only in the daytime because they are not connected to the electrical grid — are still in business, even though new wineries and resorts are being built nearby.

And the artisan products of Guadalupe have spread beyond wine. Olives, cheeses, free-range meats and other products are on the menu for people who make the trip. Many of these products are used by a crop of newly opened Guadalupe gourmet restaurants.

Thanks to its moderate climate, Guadalupe is a year-round destination. Only once each year do the crowds reach levels like Napa. At least 20,000 visitors descend on the valley each August for Fiestas de la Vendimia, the annual harvest celebration that most area vineyards and artisan producers participate in.

Valle de Guadalupe offers more than an alternative to Napa and Sonoma. It provides an interesting, down-to-earth wine vacation as well as a chance to stay in the Baja countryside and enjoy the laid-back pace of local life.

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