A grape escape south of the border

We’re bundled up against the crisp air of an early morning in Baja, riding in a van toward Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley), about 40 minutes east of Ensenada. I’ve heard about this valley for years — Baja California’s wine country — but this is my first visit. Our half-day field trip is part of a four-day wellness program offered several times a year by the Hotel Coral in Ensenada. I’m glad to know that the program considers wine a part of a healthy lifestyle.

Eventually we turn off the paved road and for about 10 minutes, rumble along a wide dirt road past some of the more than 90 wineries in this valley. Most are family owned; some are boutique wineries and there are a few commercial operations.

The chill in the air persists, but I prefer it to the hot, dry conditions during August when the harvest and crush are in full swing. We drive through the welcoming arch at Quinta Monasterio Winery, an operation that belongs to the Reynaldo Rodriquez Jr. family. He and his father, Reynaldo Sr., farmed this land for years and grew grapes for other bottlers. In 2006, they began producing their own label — 4,000 cases a year that include an apricot-peach-pear Chardonnay (Natal), a Merlot, Cabernet Franc and several red blends.

The family also runs a small spa and produces body products from grape residue after they have given up all their juice. I like this part — the fact that they have created a way to use all of the grape and the vines. There is even a merlot-colored “grape gravel” that crunches beneath our feet as we tour the property. The byproduct has replaced stone and cinders to create parking areas and minimize the dust.

We begin our stay with a walk along a nearby dirt road that takes us past a landscape that is amazingly similar to Northern California’s pastoral wine country but sleepier and less commercial. Dramatic mountains provide a backdrop for olive groves, wildflowers, naked grapevines and picturesque farm homes. When we return to Quinta Monasterio, guide Mara Panentel explains the process that takes the grapes from the field to the bottle, then leads us down to the cava (cave) where large wooden barrels hold the aging wine.

Unlike wine, however, we humans do not get better with age, and that’s where the Viniphera brand beauty products come in.
I’m not sure how the connection between grape sludge and cosmetics was initially discovered, but thanks to the Rodriquez women, we now have luxurious exfoliates, soap, moisturizers, scrubs and lotions. I sample a few of the lotions and they are — to use a worn-out comparison — as smooth as silk. No grease. Pleasantly scented. Quite scrumptious, actually.

“Everything is done by hand,” explains Alejandra Correa, wife of winery owner Reynaldo Rodriquez. “The products are … high in antioxidants. All of the ingredients come from our winery, including the grape vines when they are pruned in January.”
Correa also tells us that she began developing the body products in her kitchen eight years ago, and that her grandmother makes the soap used in the spa.
The finale of our visit is a “real Mexican breakfast” of eggs-over-easy smothered in a dark, mildly spicy chili sauce and topped with perfectly ripe avocados, rice and black beans on the side, and tortillas made moments before on the premises. And there is just enough time for a visit to the wine-tasting room. (It’s five o’clock somewhere, right?)

When it is time to return to the Hotel Coral, I don’t think I’m imagining that our group seems considerably more mellow than upon our arrival a few hours ago.
For more information on Quinta Monasterio, visit bajabound.com/destinations/bajawinecountry/quintamonasterio.php. For information on the four-day Wellness Program at Hotel Coral, visit hotelcoral.com or call (800) 862-9020.



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