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Tuscany? Look Again

Join the party at Baja's Las Brisas del Valle

November 19, 2006|Barbara Thornburg

"Mexiterranean" is Eileen Gregory's word for Las Brisas del Valle--not only the inn, but the fusion cuisine of its 26-year-old chef, V. Omar Garcia Salazar, and the wine country setting. It's a taste of Italy in Baja California, and it's also home. The idea of living surrounded by a vineyard had always appealed to Eileen and her husband Phil, a former recording studio manager. So in 2002, after Eileen left Innergy, which she co-founded as a European lifestyle cable channel that focused on social consciousness, self-improvement and organic farming ("like a green Martha Stewart," she says), they decided to settle down, grow grapes and enjoy life. A colleague had told them about a wine region somewhere south of the border, but on their first visit, no one they asked knew where it was. A Rosarito Beach Realtor finally directed them to the Guadalupe Valley, about eight miles north of Ensenada, off Highway 3 leading to Tecate. Eileen compares first seeing the valley to "Brigadoon" and "the notion of turning a corner and discovering a magical place." Her idyllic universe is just 90 minutes from San Diego, in a slightly drier locale than the verdant Scottish paradise the musical evokes. They purchased 70 acres, and two years ago built an ochre-hued villa on a hill. The south-facing portico of arches and wrought-iron balconies overlooks a field of lavender and olive trees, recalling the Mediterranean lands they both love. But step backward too quickly and the Nopal cactus remind you that you're in Mexico.

Embraced by mountains on the east and west, the valley's quiet beauty is usually disturbed only by the braying of a neighbor's burro or a boisterous rooster. Mostly you hear the breezes rustling the artemisia, buckwheat and sage that pepper the rocky plain. Indeed, they are the inspiration for the name Las Brisas del Valle. "A soft wind begins about an hour and a half after sunrise," Eileen says, "and then the evenings are quite still. Often a mist will settle. We watch the sun rise on one set of mountains and set on the other. It's magical."

The inn, which has six guest rooms, is decorated like a sophisticated hacienda with contemporary Mexican art and custom furnishings, including cowhide-covered equipales, soft leather sofas, terra-cotta pots and indigenous Indian baskets. Outside, though, is where the Mexi-Med fusion really gets going. In an herb garden, Mexican chiles, cilantro and yerba buena mingle with thyme, oregano, rosemary, basil and other Mediterranean herbs.

The Gregorys' estate reflects the gastronomic revolution in the 14-mile-long valley, which is about two-thirds the size of Napa. Avant-garde restaurants offer dishes based on local produce, much of it organic, and the bounty of the nearby Pacific. The valley is rich in wine grapes (first planted by the Spanish as early as the 17th century) and, of course, wineries. Some are calling it Mexico's nascent Napa.

When Eileen and Phil invite local friends for a Mexiterranean cocktail party, Omar relies on his personal organic farmer's market just outside the kitchen door. Herbs are only the start. The inn's ever-expanding orchard (70 citrus trees have been planted to date and 40 more are on the way) boasts lemons, Mexican limes, tangelos, Valencia, navel and Mandarin oranges, pomelos and grapefruits. Then there are the vegetable and flower gardens, thousands of lavender plants, olive grove, flock of araucana chickens supplying fresh blue eggs and, of course, the vineyard, with 3,700 vines.

Formerly a chef at Ensenada's Embotelladora Vieja (which means "old bottling plant"), Omar says that at Las Brisas he combines Mediterranean food with "la toque Mexicana." Because there are no set menus at the inn, "Cada dia yo invento"--every day I invent.

He devises fusion creations for the party: sopes, mini-pizzas made out of cornmeal topped with rosemary-scented valley quail, and quesadillas with homemade fig jam--"a winning combination," says guest Benito Molina, owner and chef of two of Baja California's best restaurants, Manzanilla and Silvestre.

For the ceviche, a popular Latin American seafood appetizer, Omar trades a traditional onion-tomato-green-pepper marinade for an updated mix of avocado, mango, cucumber and purple onion. Placing it on top of a thin round of homemade Italian focaccia gives it a Mediterranean twist and the look of a pretty little layer cake.

"We usually eat our ceviche with chips or tostadas," says architect Claudia Turrent, who with husband Alejandro D'Acosta recently designed the winery Paralelo.

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