As Fauna was just opening its doors to the public last year, the buzz around it was already swirling.
The New York Times, Food & Wine and Sunset magazine had written about the luxuriously rustic restaurant in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe wine country within days of its debut. A slew of influential publications and websites followed, including Forbes, the Robb Report and the Independent in London.
Most of the hubbub centered on the estimable pedigree of Fauna’s young Mexican chef, David Castro Hussong, who’d done a stint at Noma, in Copenhagen, and spent several years cooking at New York’s Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
“Consider Fauna a stunning homecoming for a chef returning to his hometown after a first-class world tour,” wrote the Robb Report, which caters to an ultra-luxe audience.
What happened next at Fauna mirrors what’s been happening Valle-wide over the past few years.
“The first two months, it was all word of mouth that brought people in. We didn’t even do any social media,” Hussong, 28, said recently in an interview on Fauna’s patio. “Things happened really fast. By December, there were five tables in the dining room filled with people from New York.
The Valle de Guadalupe’s crazy trajectory — with this once-sleepy wine region riding a wave of accolades and hippest-hottest designations since the early part of the decade — has fueled dizzying amounts of foreign investment, global tourism and ever-more buzz.
So it’s only fitting that the area will play host to one of the biggest culinary events on the planet next weekend, the Valle Food & Wine Fest, featuring nearly three dozen of the most lauded chefs in America and Mexico and 25 of Baja’s top wineries.
The lineup reads like a food lover’s bi-national dream team: Rick Bayless, Nancy Silverton, Dominique Crenn, Jonathan Waxman, Javier Plascencia, Benito Molina, Solange Muris, Ray Garcia, Drew Deckman, Walter Manzke, Ori Menashe, Miguel Ángel Guerrero and Fauna’s Hussong among a bounty of other celebrity chefs from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Baja. The cream of San Diego’s crop is also making the 90-minute trip south, including Trey Foshee, Brian Malarkey, Jason Knibb, Flor Franco, Jason McLeod, Andrew Spurgin and Claudia Sandoval.
For this professional watcher of the food-fest scene, it’s not hyperbole to predict that the second annual Valle Food & Wine will be a knockout on a grand scale.
Three of the region’s most revered restaurants will be on display: Plascencia’s Finca Altozano will host the main event Oct. 6; Deckman’s en el Mogor will be the setting for the VIP chefs’ welcome dinner (which will honor Bayless) Oct. 5, with an A-list afterparty to be thrown at Fauna. Things get real on Oct. 7, when the top food trucks from Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada are being brought together for a street-food festival called De La Calle Al Valle (from the street to the valley). It will be held under the oak trees at the events venue El Kiosko de Santo Tomás.
For the mega-festival, the non-Baja chefs will eschew their fine-dining accouterments — festival co-founder Fernando Gaxiola joked that he told Crenn that she’d had to leave her tweezers behind in San Francisco — and cook locally sourced ingredients on no-tech, open-flame, woodfire Caja China pig roasters, barrel smokers, Santa Maria-style grills and traditional copper pans.
And the people who started it all — the winemakers and producers — will have their one-of-a-kind vinos poured alongside star-chef creations. Adobe Guadalupe, Casa de Piedra, Decantos, Lomita, Monte Xanic, Torres Alegre and Viña de Frannes are among the wineries represented.
“The wine is just getting better and better,” said Valle wine expert Michael Langdon, who, as a former wine and spirits buyer for Whole Foods, has given Baja a big boost in San Diego.
“You listen to the winemakers talk — they’re realizing it could be even better. You still have your older generation … but there’s a new generation coming up, maybe they’re not the farmers their dads and grandfathers were, but they're willing to experiment; they want to make better wines.”
Like anyone who travels to the Valle with any regularity, Langdon said he sees wineries opening up every time he goes down.
“My goodness, there are so many new ones,” he said. “The last time I was there, there were three wineries that hadn’t been there a couple of months before.”
For a little perspective on the Valle’s roots, we tapped the historical memory of Tru Miller, owner of the magical Adobe Guadalupe, the elegant ranch-style inn that opened in 1997; the winery’s first vintage was released in 2000.
“We were the only ones here back then; now it seems like we’ve been doing interviews every day with U.S. (media), Europe and Mexico,” Miller said.
“The wine brought the chefs, and the chefs brought the people.”
She said the Valle’s relaxed, small scale and anything-goes attitude when it comes to blending wine grapes distinguishes it from the wine regions it’s often compared to — Napa and Sonoma.
Miller credited the late Anthony Bourdain and Bayless, the Chicago chef who is considered America’s master of regional Mexican cooking, with spreading the early Baja gospel to the masses.
Bayless now works with Adobe Guadalupe to produce wine for his Chicago restaurants and also carries multiple Valle labels on his wine lists.
And Bayless continues to spread the word on the Valle de Guadalupe. He was featured in a multi-page spread entitled “Baja on the Rise” in the August issue on Mexico in Food & Wine, in which his tasting travels took him to Adobe Guadalupe, Plascencia’s Animalón — where you eat under a 200-year-plus oak tree — the cult breakfast spot La Cocina de Doña Esthela, and TrasLomita, the pastoral outdoor restaurant behind Lomita winery.
In the article, Bayless called out TrasLomita’s young chef for particular praise.
“I think Sheyla Alvarado has got to be the most talented chef in the Valle,” he said.
Alvarado, 28, recently was deftly multi-tasking in her kitchen without walls, tending to whole fish and asparagus spears grilling in the wood-fire oven, while answering questions from a succession of cooks, as well from a reporter interviewing her in English, her second language.
In a way, she said, the Valle Food & Wine Fest validates all the hype the Valle gets.
“It’s cool that all these people with importance are coming here to support what we do here, the open fire, the wine, our small producers of cheese, olive oil, honey, our vegetables, our animals,” Alvarado said. “We don’t have these big ... factories.”
No, she said, she’s not nervous to be cooking in the same lineup as Michelin-starred chefs (although she was last year, the festival’s debut).
“I’m making dessert, and only Nancy Silverton and I are making dessert, so that’s exciting,” she beamed. “Nobody ever complains about dessert.”
Top 5 Valle wineries to visit
There are scores of wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe, but if you’re a first-time visitor, here are my picks that will give you a true flavor for the region.
Across-the-board elegance and deliciousness in a gorgeous setting. The Adobe Food Truck outside the tasting room is a must try. Top sip: The earthy Kerubiel Rhône blend; the older the better, as Adobe wines age impressively.
The Valle’s first producer of high-quality wine, Monte Xanic’s facility is a stunner. Reservations required to visit. Top sip: The sauvignon blanc Viña Kristel for impressive acidity and intoxicating citrus and tropical fruit flavors.
A project by Valle pioneer Ernesto Álvarez Morphy Camou with an assist from the Bordeaux-based, globe-trotting wine consultant Michel Rolland. The winery is modern and stylish. Top sip: The silky and rich Legat cabernet franc.
A tasting provides a master class in how the Valle’s Mediterranean climate makes it so hospitable to Italian varietals, particularly nebbiolo. Reservations preferred. Top sip: The brick-red Paoloni brunello tastes like Tuscany.
The signature winery of Hugo D’Acosta, who’s considered the region’s Robert Mondavi. Reservations preferred. Top sip: Espuma de Piedra Blanc de Blancs, an unorthodox Mexican bubbly that’s world class.
Get a taste of the Valle in San Diego
If you’re curious about tasting Valle wines — or just can’t get enough — here are places in San Diego to try it.
Shops: Truly Fine Wine (on Morena Boulevard), Vintage Wines (on Miramar Road) and Krisp (downtown San Diego) are among the stores that put a premium on selling premium Valle wines.
Restaurants: Pueblo (Pacific Beach), Red O (UTC area), 3rd Corner (Ocean Beach), El Jardín (Liberty Station), Coasterra (Harbor Island), Vistal (downtown San Diego), and Puesto* (La Jolla and The Headquarters, downtown San Diego).
* Puesto gets a special shout-out for its extensive by-the-bottle list and — cheers! — the Valle by-the-glass, on-tap program. Puesto’s director of operations, Lucien Conner, has worked tirelessly to secure top Baja wines by the barrel. Currently on tap are Lechuza’s pristine unoaked chardonnay and Amantes red blend (which, by the way, joins the Monte Xanic sauvignon blanc, on the wine list at The French Laundry). Also by the glass right now is the Casa de Piedra blanc de blanc. Pair these balanced wines with Puesto’s tacos and you might never down a margarita or cerveza with Mexican food again.
Valle Food & Wine Fest
When: Oct. 5-7
Where: Various locations
Tickets: $125 (main festival); $40 to $500 (other events, VIP experiences)
Note: An earlier version of this story included chef Michael Mina as one of the participants. He is no longer participating.