Before COVID-19 became a thing in March, we took what would be our last wine trip.
My husband had a conference in San Diego, so we decided to visit Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe and a bit of Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Given the time we had, we needed a good plan for a great wine experience. See our results below.
We flew from Atlanta, our home base, to San Diego, arriving at 10 am. Dragging our luggage along, we Uber-ed to meet Greg Martellotto for lunch at Waterbar overlooking the beach.
Because we were talking business, we weren’t wine tasting, but the tacos and lobster rolls were just what we needed. Come here for the view, cold drinks, and fresh food.
Greg gave us a quick rundown of what to expect in Mexico and offered a few recommendations. Then we headed to San Ysidro to spend a couple of days with friends.
Valle de Guadalupe
We headed to Valle de Guadalupe the next morning, taking the streetcar to the border to simplify the journey into Tijuana. Our friends, who are from Mexico, arranged a private driver.
The drive took about an hour and a half down Highway 10. When we lived in L.A. years ago, we spent time south of the border. We had many memories as we drove through Tijuana, Rosarito Beach, and into Ensenada.
With wine on the mind, we drove to Villa Montefiori. Wow! Billed as “Mexican Wines with an Italian Heart,” we could imagine we were in southern Italy from the landscape.
Owner Paolo Paoloni hails from Le Marche region, near Tuscany, where his father built a winery and vineyard. Paolo, a professional agronomist, traveled to Mexico in 1985 as director for a leading wine company.
A quality winemaking pioneer, he founded Villa Montefiori in 1997. Not wanting to leave Italy behind, he planted a vineyard the next year with its noble grapes: Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Nebbiolo, Brunello, Aglianico.
We chose the full Italo-Mexico experience, The Winemaker’s Tasting ($24) which included:
- Sangiovese Rosato (rosé)
- Sangiovese Grosso (red)
- Nebbiolo (red)
- Neroni (100% Aglianico – red)
All were delicious, expressing varietal character. The wines seemed darker and richer than those of Italy because of the local terroir. The Nebbiolo shines.
Sandy soils mixed with some granite and clay, depending on location, must be irrigated. The water comes from nearby mountains.
You might find Villa Montefiori wines in the U.S. They range in price from around $20 - $45.
The Lunch Experience
After Montefiori, we needed lunch. Following Greg’s recommendation, we drove to Fauna Restaurante. Reservations are required because it is so popular.
Talk about an experience. You couldn’t find a better Mexican almuerzo. The atmosphere was relaxed yet energized with seating at communal tables. The outgoing and adorably cute waiter took care of our every need.
Head chef David Castro Hussong presents an experimental menu daily. Each party orders the same multi-course menu. We ordered the seafood option.
David creates more than he cooks. He uses only the freshest ingredients available. Each dish reveals beauty, rich scents, and deep flavors. From shellfish appetizers to exquisitely grilled fish, we ate like Mexican royalty.
Wines we enjoyed during our more than three-hour lunch:
- Bodegas Henri Lurton Naranja Reserva 2018 (we love Lurton wines)
- Legado Sais Don Renato Tinto 2012 (recommended by our waiter)
- Paoloni Brunello 2015
One More Wine Stop
Since we had just one day in Valle de Guadalupe, we wanted one more stop.
Another Italian, Camillo Magoni, grew up in Morbegno, Italy, near the Swiss border. He moved to Baja at the invitation of Angelo Cetto, head of one of Mexico’s most famous wine companies.
Another pioneer, he was recognized by both countries for his contributions to the wine industry. In 2009, he published a book called “History of Vine and Wine in the Baja California Peninsula.”
The reserve tasting (650 Mexican Pesos) included Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Nebbiolo. All were appealing but lighter in style and body than the wines of Paolo Paoloni.
Rest, Rest, Rest
After our fun-filled day, we needed rest. Our lovely travel companions made reservations at the gorgeous La Cima B&B. This perfect little place offered peace and quiet, privacy, and good food.
Modern and nicely decorated, the great location above the valley lights up with brilliant sunsets. Very clean with free parking and wi-fi, it has it all. After a great sleep, we feasted on a fresh and tasty breakfast.
Back on the road, we retraced our steps to San Diego and the conference.
After the conference, we left ultra-early for the Amtrak station. We did not want to drive because our last experience was excruciating.
Few shuffled with us onto the train for the 5:55 am departure. We found our business class seats and sat back to enjoy the ride, arriving in Santa Barbara at 11:41 pm.
No driving, no hassle, worth every bit of the $131 for our two tickets.
Santa Barbara Wine Country
Walking to the car rental agency, we dropped our bags in the trunk and drove the 33 beautiful miles to Sunstone Winery in Santa Ynez. I had written about Sunstone for Greg because it stood in for Chateau Picard on the TV series, Star-Trek: Picard.
Known as a “destination winery,” the winery building housing the tasting room was quite impressive. We did not see the villa, but it should be equally impressive.
You can imagine Jean-Luc Picard sipping a Bordeaux blend while gazing over the vineyards.
Founded in 1994 by Fred and Linda Rice, their daughter, Brittany, is the current winemaker. They produce red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines, single varietals and blends.
RUSACK, located in Ballard Canyon, was established in 1995 by Geoff and Alison Rusack. Known for their Bordeaux-style blend, Anacapa, they offer a quirky wine made from the Mission grape.
Mission is the original grape of California. RUSACK took cuttings from their winery on Santa Catalina Island, planting them in Ballard Canyon.
Our hunger drove us into Buellton for dinner at the famous Hitching Post 2 restaurant made famous by the film, Sideways.
At Greg’s suggestion, we stopped by The Wandering Dog wine bar in Solvang to check it out. It has since changed hands and is now called Arrowsmith’s.
Brits Tim and Anna Arrowsmith continue featuring local and international wines and small plates at this dog-friendly bar.
After a glass of wine, we strolled down the street and stopped in at Casa Cassara Winery and Vineyard tasting room. The place was buzzing even though it closed soon. A quick tasting prepared us for dinner.
The Hitching Post 2 conjures up old west images, and the steaks filled us up. After the long day and late dinner, we were ready for sleep.
Back to Santa Barbara
Luckily enough, we got tickets to the Alto Adige Pinot Noir seminar and luncheon in downtown Santa Barbara. The event was part of the 20th Anniversary World of Pinot Noir.
We were so excited about it because we went to northern Italy last November. Even at $95/person, the event was beyond extraordinary.
Titled “Exploring the Elegance of Alto Adige Pinot Noir,” an Italian wine trade group presented 14 wines from different producers. Most attendees were from the industry.
Those who love New World Pinot Noir wouldn’t recognize these wines as the same grape. They are much higher in acidity, lighter-bodied, and earthier.
Wine Cask restaurant, where the event took place, served a delectable and generous lunch of fresh dishes served family-style.
The area surrounding the restaurant features several tasting rooms and restaurants, making it a great place to visit.
After lunch, we met a friend at Happy Canyon Vineyard nearby, tasting a few wines from their Piocho label.
Back to Wine Country
We popped our friend’s suitcase in the trunk and zoomed off for the hour drive to Spear Winery in the Sta. Rita Hills.
The new tasting room was empty except for us. We had a lovely, lingering tasting of elegant Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir wines.
Ofer Shepher is a well-known and respected winemaker who believes in terroir and organic viticulture. Greg sources his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from here.
We went back to the hotel and off to dinner at Industrial Eats, a casual fun place with great, fresh food and wine on tap.
A Second Date with Amtrak
The morning came with the drive back to Santa Barbara, the walk to the Amtrak Station, the (late) train to LA, and the bus to the airport.
An excellent Mexican breakfast at Santo Mezcal at the Hotel Indigo near the train station held us over.
Due to the train’s delay, we didn’t have time to stop in at Angelo Wine Company in downtown L.A. They are reviving winemaking there.
Martellotto Wines are Santa Barbara
Martellotto Winery, located in Buellton in Santa Barbara County, produces award-winning Bordeaux-style wines from grapes grown in Happy Canyon.
He features single varietal wines of the five noble Bordeaux grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.
His Chardonnay and Pinot Noir come from the finest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.
All wines are handcrafted, beautiful, and exciting. Order some Martellotto Wines today!