When we first visited the Valle de Guadalupe – Baja California’s wine country – in 2012, the region was a little-known, quaint getaway frequented by locals and curious wine and food enthusiasts primarily from Mexico and Southern California. One of five wine-producing valleys in the region, the Valle de Guadalupe’s vines were first cultivated by Dominican missionaries and later, Russian immigrants.
Around the time of our initiation, a winemaking renaissance – led by pioneers Hugo D’Acosta and others – had just begun to take root. A handful of boutique wineries had since sprouted in the area alongside long-time wine producers such as Santo Tomas, Domeq and L.A. Cetto — who had grown their commercial operations to provide nearly 90% of the wine produced in Mexico.
Restaurant Laja opened its doors in the Valle in 2001, igniting a farm-to-table culture that captured the attention of chefs such as Javier Plascencia, Drew Deckman and others, eager to serve dishes of local, organic ingredients to adventurous foodies in campestre-style eateries. Lodging was scarce in 2012 and ranged from homey haciendas to upscale eco-resorts such as Endemico (now Encuentro Gudadalupe).
The Mexican and international wine, food and travel media were just discovering Mexico’s largest wine region and began touting it as “The Next Napa Valley”, a sensational designation that fell short in its accuracy given the area’s decidedly Mexican culture, scarcity of natural resources, desert environment and hardscrabble terroir.
But the world began to take notice and tourism to the area increased as international media exposure proliferated. Today, the Valle boasts hundreds of wineries and restaurants, several exclusive resorts and a growing number of AirBnBs – unburdened by licensing and municipal taxation – to accommodate high-season crowds. A season that expands every year as the Valle becomes more and more popular.
As a result of the last decade’s boom, the Valle de Guadalupe has outgrown the capacity of its natural resources and infrastructure. To exacerbate the situation, more and more developers see the opportunity to profit from the “buzzy” region and threaten the fragile Valle ecosystem with rampant, unlicensed and unregulated projects.
The traditional agra-tourism model of the region is also beginning to experience an unsettling shift toward late-night entertainment as the area’s appeal has spread to more mainstream visitors. According to chef Roberto Alcocer of Restaurant Malva, “Years ago, it was all about good food and wine and nights full of stars. Now it’s all about the party, fueled by hard spirits and no concern about the quality of the cuisine.”
The Valle de Guadalupe has outgrown the capacity of its natural resources and infrastructure.
The noise and light pollution from nightclubs, late-night festivals and weddings are giving the Valle a massive headache. Eileen Gregory, owner of winery Vena Cava and B&B La Villa del Valle shares, “This is an agricultural area. 90% of the people who live in the Valle work in the fields. They have to get up at 5AM and be at work by 7. There are nightclubs now open and blaring music until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
Alcocer adds, “If you want to party, go to Ensenada. But not in the Valle right next to a farm. With all the noise and lights, predatorial animals are stressed and stay away, so farmers have a lot of problems with rats and moles destroying their vines and crops.”
“There’s a beautiful night sky here, “Gregory concludes. “You can see the galaxy. But not with the light pollution coming from all of the parties.”
An URGENT Need for Regulation
These issues and others have prompted a group of concerned winemakers, restaurateurs, hoteliers and other businesses to stress the urgent need for regulation before it’s too late and the essence of the region collapses under the weight of unchecked development and wasteful practices.
As early as 2007, Valle stakeholders recognized the region’s potential and worked with Ensenada’s municipal government to create a set of land-use regulations that encouraged sustainable growth. Gregory recalls, “We helped draft that document. This was long before there was a threat of large-scale development or late-night cantinas. Unfortunately, it’s been sitting, unsigned, on the government’s desk ever since.”
“The current congress’ term ends this month. If they don’t sign the regulations into law, it may be too late.”
– Eileen Gregory
She continues, “The regulations we drafted are reviewed by the municipality. Once changes are made and it’s approved, it needs to be signed, published in a Mexican legal journal and only then does it become law. The administration in 2007 didn’t sign it. The next set of politicians didn’t sign it either. In fact, they came up with a new land management scheme in direct opposition to what we had put together.” This included the proposed construction of 30,000 low-income homes which local stakeholders protested and ultimately shut down.
“The current congress’ term ends this month. If they don’t sign the regulations into law by then, we’ll have to start all over again. The new government will take a long time to consider the document, conduct studies and make revisions. With some of the current development threats the Valle is facing, time is running out. It’s like climate change. There’s a finite amount of time to do something before it’s too late.”
Campaigning for Change
The latest regulations draft takes steps to thwart rampant development and maintain the area as an agricultural region. ProVino Baja California, a private organization of over 60 winemakers, is helping to spearhead the acceptance of the ordinances and have spent the past two weeks building awareness via an aggressive social media campaign.
“It’s a broad undertaking,” says Gregory. “We’ve divided regulations into four areas: conservation, mixed-use, urban and agricultural sectors. And each sector has its own set of rules. We’re doing this now because Valle is being threatened with developments that are the antithesis of what the area is supposed to be.”
She continues, “The way of the Valle was that it’s a small community of people who love it here. We’re stakeholders and stewards of the region who realize that there is no infrastructure and no government support. There’s no regulation or oversight to protect this place. If there’s going to be more development, let’s have some regulations like Napa or Sonoma. Those places are protected because the government works with the citizenry to ensure they have rules.”
“We’ve divided regulations into four areas: conservation, mixed-use, urban and agricultural sectors.”
– Eileen Gregory
Gregory concludes, “It’s exasperating. The laws that exist are draconian. You could never comply. No one knows what they mean, including those parties that are supposed to be enforcing them. If we can get these revised ordinances passed quickly, it might help maintain the spirit of the Valle.”
Sign Removal for Solidarity
Part of ProVino’s campaign has been the removal of roadside directional signage. Gregory explains, “Some wineries and restaurants have been removing their signs. They’re horrible. It’s sign pollution.” Indeed, the blue signs, useful and fairly unobtrusive when there were fewer destinations, are now a blight on the landscape as more are erected. Some corners in the Valle have up to twenty signs of different sizes, colors, placement and design.
“Winemakers Hugo D’Acosta and Jorge Maciel and chef Drew Deckman are doing this as a gesture of solidarity and to demonstrate that we’re putting our money where our mouths are,” Gregory says. “Photos of the sign removals have been posted to social media, along with one-minute testimonials about the need for regulations from our winemakers and chefs.
Protecting Natural Resources
Water is the primary concern as a deleted aquifer has been stretched to its limit by the demands of vineyard irrigation in an arid environment. According to Gregory. “Right now, there’s no water in the Valle, especially for the local population. Their municipal water is turned on for two hours once a week. These people, who are already poor, are forced to buy from water trucks.”
“You can’t open a big hotel, winery or restaurant if there’s no water,” adds Alcocer. “You have to do it the correct way if you’re going to develop here. If you take something, you have to give something back.”
“You can’t open a big hotel, winery or restaurant if there’s no water.”
– Roberto Alcocer.
Regulations for land management and use address another concern. Established laws state that no more than four hectares of property can be sold to an individual development and that only a single structure can be built on those four hectares. This helps ensure that a majority of the land will continued be preserved and used for agricultural purposes.
But a small army of developers with battalions of lawyers are beginning to encroach these agricultural zones in order to build bigger resorts, splashier entertainment complexes, larger-capacity wineries and restaurants that can cater to a disproportionate number of diners.
“Developments are changing the use of the soil,” says Alcocer. “To accomplish this, some landowners want to shift parcels that are split for mixed agriculture and development to 100% development. Others want to build into mountainsides which will disrupt the indigenous plants and wildlife.”
An Infrastructure Nightmare
“There’s zero infrastructure here,” Gregory shares. “There are no medical services. You can’t count on an ambulance to come. We recently had an elderly guest who just had her medication changed and went into cardiac arrest while she was at our B&B. We ended up driving her to the hospital in Ensenada. The Red Cross has one ambulance, but there’s no (EMT) equipment onboard.”
“There’s zero infrastructure here.”
– Eileen Gregory
El Porvenir, one of the three townships in the Valle de Guadalupe, is home to the area’s only fire department — underfunded, understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the growing number of brushfires in the area. “We had fires here every week this summer,” Gregory recalls. “We can’t wait for the fire department, so we fend for ourselves and form bucket brigades. There’s no money for garbage collection either, which is a big part of why we’ve had so many fires. People have to burn rubbish because no one comes to collect it.”
Gregory concludes, “These shortfalls make no sense. Taxes are high here. Wine is taxed at nearly 50%. Hotels pay 19%. Imagine how much Vena Cava and La Villa del Valle pay in taxes to the municipality every year. They could give everyone here water just on what we pay alone! And we’re small fry.”
Maintaining Baja’s Wine Country Culture
The shift of the visitor demographic from food and wine enthusiasts to a younger generation of party-inclined revelers is threatening the Valle’s traditional wine country culture. According to Alcocer, “What we want here are developers who respect that this is a wine country. The first thing that matters are the plants, then the people that work in the fields, then the wineries, then the restaurants and finally the tourists. Tourists are really the last part of the equation, not the other way around.”
“I think it’s important that the Valle is a little boring, “Alcocer says. “As a visitor, you go to bed early so that you’re ready to go to breakfast at 9AM. Then you start your tastings when the wineries open at 11AM. When the wineries close at 7PM, you go out for a nice dinner at one of the restaurants. And you’ve bought a bottle of wine during the day, so you go back to your hotel, open the windows, look at the stars and make love.”
“If you’re going to go to a wine country, why would you not drink wine?”
– Roberto Alcocer
He continues, “If you go to some of the new places, you won’t be in bed until 2AM. You’ll probably miss your first tasting reservation, which affects that winery’s business. Then, no matter how good the wines are, you’ll say they are awful because you have a dry mouth, a hangover and a headache. Then you will come to Malva to try my food, but you’re not going to like it because you’re craving a michelada and ceviche to cure your hangover, and I don’t serve either one.”
“If you’re going to go to a wine country, why would you not drink wine?” Alcocer asks. “A lot of places now are serving gin and tonics and shots of tequila until late at night. If you want tequila, go to Guadalajara. My restaurant and others are here to support the local wines.”
Gregory adds, “There are places that force people to drink a lot because if you want to go there’s a $500 peso minimum. A lot of people selling wine, beer and spirits don’t even have the proper permits, which range from $500/US for beer and wine to $20,000/US for distilled spirits. There are only four of those licenses in the Valle right now because they’re so expensive. But the government doesn’t have the money to monitor any of this, regardless.”
“You also can’t have klieg lights that are facing up because there’s a regulation about light pollution. We’ve crafted regulations for outdoor events. Until 10 o’clock, there’s a certain limit on decibel levels. After 10, the volume has to be turned down and then the party’s over by midnight,” Gregory states.
Respecting the Locals
Regulations also help the local population. Gregory opines, “The current lack of laws totally disregards the local culture. How are you supposed to live or work here? It’s a very hard place to find workers. It’s an expensive area to live in. Living conditions (for locals) are pretty awful because the government doesn’t comply with what they’re supposed to do and say they have no money.”
“I want to preserve the Valle for my kids and grandkids and all the local people from Ensenada,” Alcocer insists. “Even though I wasn’t born here, I try to honor this place. A lot of members of ProVino aren’t from here, but they want to help and keep it nice for the locals. Some people from outside aren’t interested in conservation at all. They just want to sell to the highest bidder.”
“The next generation of farmers are not going to be able to live and work here if they want to buy a piece of land,” Alcocer speculates. “A square meter is above $19/US right now. Imagine the son of a farmer that wants to keep the family tradition alive but can’t because the new landowner is making so much money from other interests.”
“The next generation of farmers are not going to be able to live and work here if they want to buy a piece of land.”
– Roberto Alcocer
Alcocer lays part of the blame for damaging the reputation of food and wine in the region on Mexico’s gastronomic media. “At first, the press came here to report on the Valle. But now they are charging restaurants for promotion. These people used to be journalists, but now, they’re not writing about the best, but for whoever pays their price,” the chef points out. “They’ve lost all credibility. Unfortunately, they have a lot of influence over the younger generation.”
He concludes, “When they offer the new kid on the block a selection of promotional packages, they pay for the most expensive one. They’re going to make the periodical covers, even if their product doesn’t stand on its own. With so many customers, what kind of food are they going to serve? I know my Valle. There aren’t a lot of local, artisanal farms that sell in those quantities. So now, those places end up selling lies — selling salads from Costco and telling everyone it’s local.”
What YOU Can Do to Help
All the regulations in the world won’t make a difference without public support. Here are ten things you can do to help ProVino and the Valle de Guadalupe’s stakeholders in their struggle to maintain the integrity of the region and culture:
- Don’t support businesses that defy land management regulations. This pertains to projects that may be developing on land formerly reserved for agriculture.
- Don’t support businesses that diminish, but don’t replace, natural resources. This includes businesses that don’t comply with eco-friendly and sustainable practices.
- Don’t support businesses that damage the environment. This includes off-road and ATV activities in and around the Valle.
- Stop the party at midnight. Don’t attend nightclubs, events or weddings that play loud music or obscure the night sky with bright lighting after midnight.
- Don’t drive drunk. With the proliferation of late-night clubs and events and cantinas selling hard liquor, it’s more important than ever to stay off the roads after drinking or to have a designated driver. Many roads in the Valle are precarious and riddled with speedbumps, curbside parking lots and other nighttime hazards.
- Savor the Valle’s wine culture. Don’t get wasted the night before you’re out enjoying the Valle’s gastronomy. It’s no fun tasting and dining when hungover. Make the most of your culinary experience in this rich gastronomic destination.
- Dine at restaurants that use quality, local ingredients and promote local wines. Local farmers, Valle winemakers and your taste buds will thank you.
- Take the time to verify that a “hot new place” is hot for the right reasons. Is it popular because the food and wine are top notch, or because some bought-and-paid for “journalist” says it is?
- LIKE and follow ProVino’s Facebook page for more information and new developments. Although it’s in Spanish, Facebook offers a handy “See Translation” link that makes posts easy to read in English.
- Share this and other articles on Valle preservation efforts NOW. It’s critical to spread awareness of these regulations to your north-of-the border friends and family who love the Valle and support its sustainable growth. And as soon as possible before the window of opportunity to have the laws approved closes.
Author’s note: I intentionally omitted names of existing or proposed developments that are running counter to proposed regulations. I’m not interested in ruining anyone’s business. Some existing businesses are beginning to align with regional best practices and not all of the facts are known in regard to how new developments are being built or plan on aligning with Valle-friendly standards. The information on many of these businesses and developments is readily available online, so you can conduct your own research and make the decision on whether to frequent them.