The Valle is dust. It sets in the air starting in late morning, like a marine layer of silt, after the first trucks and cars and rental cars wake up the series of dirt roads leading from one attraction to the next. It is Mexico’s wine country, just a 90-minute drive south of the San Diego-Mexico border. And it’s beautiful precisely because it thrives on the edge of certain death. Whether at El Mogor or Monte Xamic or El Cielo, it looks like they’re growing grapes on the moon.
Where there is wine, there is food. Some of Mexico’s greatest chefs are in Mexico City, or in corrugated huts in Puebla, or on fishing docks in Sinaloa. But many of them are in Valle de Guadalupe. Every chef, or person who loves food, eventually comes to the Valle. And some of them, like two-star Michelin chef Drew Deckman, never leave. There’s a ghostly beauty to it. A sparseness and tranquility and survival instinct that you can’t get anywhere else. The most common material used for kitchen walls is the wide open, desert air. This is the land of olive oil and salt, of goats and sheep, of wild game often hunted and killed by the chefs themselves. Of wood-smoke and coal, of chiles and spicy stews. And of wine. Very promising, and slightly salty, wine.
American Scott Koenig has been traveling through the area for years, documenting the people, places, thrills, and problems that the area faces. His new book is a short, digestible portrait of seven notable Valle chefs, from Deckman and Baja-Med originator Miguel Angel Guerrero, to farm-worker matriarch Blanca Estela Martínez Bueno (best known as Doña Esthela) and the fresh, young talent of Sheila Alvarado at Taslomita.
Seven Days in the Valle has beautiful photos. It has great nuggets of insight from the chefs (Guerrero: "We don’t want it to be like Napa Valley, like Disneyland. We don’t want Mickey Mouse here"). At 55 pages it’s easily digestible on your drive down there, which you should be making soon. And a percentage of the profits are going to fund the Valle fire department, which needs all the help it can get.
I asked Koenig for three major lessons he’s learned about the region while writing the book, and while living it. Here’s what he had to say:
1. One man’s waste is another man’s wine.
Although the Valle de Guadalupe provides 90% of the vino in Mexico and has grown exponentially in recent years to accommodate an increasing number of visitors, there’s one big reason why the wine producing region won’t be the "Next Napa Valley", as many travel and culinary journos have enthused: water. There’s barely enough of it in this drought-stricken region to support current winemaking operations and tourism infrastructure, let alone the number of new undertakings that seem to appear in the Valle virtually overnight.
In April, Tijuana water authorities announced a plan to construct an aqueduct to route treated wastewater from Tijuana to Valle de Guadalupe—where it could be used for irrigation. One might say that area winemakers are downright effusive about the effluent. The piped-in agua would also relieve Tijuana’s overburdened San Antonio de los Buenos treatment plant just six miles from the US border, which often discharges into the Pacific Ocean. TJ’s 1.3 million residents could just end up saving Baja California’s wine industry. One flush at a time.
Encroaching wildfires are also a threat to the Valle de Guadalupe. In an effort to help support firefighting and emergency services there, a percentage of the profits from sales of the book Seven Days in the Valle will benefit the El Porvenir Volunteer Fire Department in the Valle de Guadalupe.
2. Many of the Valle’s restaurants couldn’t exist in San Diego.
"Why aren’t there restaurants like Deckman’s en El Mogor in San Diego?" a friend recently queried on social media. Well, to start, there’s Michelin-starred chef Drew Deckman’s outdoor kitchen—essentially a rustic fire-breathing hearth with built-in wood-burning grills ringed by a pitch-black array of oak-laden, flame-belching Santa Maria rigs. And just twenty feet from all this incendiary potential lies the al fresco "dining room", constructed primarily of extremely flammable hay bales. That works in Mexico, but San Diego inspectors would never approve.
Practices at other Valle de Guadalupe restaurants—such as La Esperanza Baja Med—would be verboten in the north as well. Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero is an avid hunter and fisherman and often serves his catch at La Esperanza and his restaurants in Tijuana. It’s not surprising to find plates of hunted quail or collars of spearfished halibut on the menu. Here in San Diego as elsewhere in the states, the USDA wouldn’t allow a side of just-shot venison into the kitchen.
The author had the privilege of joining chef Miguel Angel Guerrero on a hunting trip in the vineyards behind L.A. Cetto one morning, where he caught a jackrabbit, two rabbits, and fifteen quail. Later that day, Miguel Angel served the jackrabbit’s seared loin atop beef tongue and an ahi medallion. The hunt and resulting dish is photo-documented in the book Seven Days in The Valle.
3. Female chefs are beginning to represent in the Valle.
Valle de Guadalupe has its fair share of macho men—chefs who toil over fires in goggles grilling large slabs of red meat from livestock they assisted in sacrificing. But in the grand tradition of women cocineras in Mexico, female chefs are also taking root in the Valle. There’s Esthela Martínez of La Cocina de Doña Esthela, the beloved cook who prepares hearty Sinaloan style breakfasts to her home-adjacent dining room full of adoring customers. Her machaca (dried, shredded beef) and eggs were deemed "Best Breakfast in the World" by FoodieHub in 2015.
There’s more "girl power" in the Valle than one might think. Young chef Sheyla Alvarado, originally from Sonora, follows in the footsteps of her male counterparts — many of whom she considers mentors. At restaurant Traslomita, she serves family-style dishes of roasted chicken, shredded lamb, and an aguachile negro that incorporates the ashes of burnt vegetables in its sauce. Chef Sandra Vasquez, a graduate of Tijuana’s Culinary Art School, recently debuted at restaurant Once Pueblos where she offers cuisine based on the traditions of her home state of Michoacán.
For more information or to purchase the book, please visit SevenDaysInTheValle.com.