By Christy Scannell
SDUN Senior Editor
If you think you need to hop a plane or drive half a day to visit quality wineries—perhaps in Sonoma, Napa or Paso Robles—think again. Just an hour away from your Uptown doorstep, the Temecula Valley winegrowers are making delicious and affordable wines that rival what you’ll find at points north.
Surprised? So was I on a recent visit.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be one of those polished kinds of wine countries,” said Peggy Evans, executive director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, a consortium of 31 wineries founded in 1968. “Everybody here owns their own hats. We know we’re never going to be the King of Chards or the King of Cabs but that’s OK. If people understood the blood, sweat and tears that goes into [the winemakers’] efforts, they would appreciate it even more.”
It wasn’t always that way. Until 1989, the association had just a handful of members growing in its 33,000-acre viticulture area. But with the economic boom of the 1990s came “hobbyists,” as Evans and her members diplomatically call them, who brought bags of money but no knowledge of how to grow grapes or make satisfactory wine. Instead of pushing for quality wine, the hobbyists marketed their tasting rooms, creating a Southern California tradition of drunken limo tours to Temecula for bachelor parties, birthdays and the like.
Then came Pierce’s disease, a bacterial outbreak carried by flying insects that cuts off vines’ water supply. In the late 1990s, it wiped out about a third of the Temecula vineyards at a cost of $20 million. Yet the winemakers who survived say it was a blessing in disguise.
“Pierce’s disease was one of the best things that could have happened to us,” said Nick Palumbo, owner and winemaker at Palumbo Family Vineyards. “It caused us to rethink how we do everything, like trellising. Those of us who stayed are feeding our kids off this—it’s not some hobby.”
Joel Reese, who hosts tours at Leonesse Cellars, said that period was when growers successfully reevaluated not only how they were cultivating but what they were growing.
“There was that saying, ‘Nothing good comes out of Temecula’ and that was very true in the ’80s and early ’90s,” he said. “But some of that was due to growing the wrong grapes. People realized this isn’t pinot noir country—it’s a Rhone Valley.”
If anyone can point to what works and what doesn’t in Temecula wine country, its Leonesse’s owners Mike Rennie and Gary Winder. They started farming avocadoes and citrus there in the 1970s, with Rennie eventually adding grapes as “something extra, a little romance,” he said. At first they sold the grapes to other winemakers, but as their surplus grew, Rennie and Winder decided to make their own wine for friends and family. By 2002 they had opened a winery that now produces 25,000-30,000 cases per year, much of it sold over the counter in Leonesse’s tasting room or through its popular wine club.
Rennie is strikingly humble about his company’s growth.
“We are really farmers first, and good grapes make good wine,” he said. “But (compared) to the big boys (in Napa and Sonoma), we’re still boutique.”
Whether large—like big producers Callaway, South Coast and Wilson Creek—or small, it’s not unusual to hear Temecula winemakers talk about the importance of camaraderie in their region.
“It’s really a community, a collaborative effort,” said David Raffaele, winemaker at Keyways Vineyards, one of the original wineries in the area, explaining that winemakers often visit each other to help problem solve—a cooperation not found in other California wine areas.
But while the winemakers meet monthly to share ideas and assess each other’s wines (“They are ruthless,” Evans said with a chuckle), there is no lack of competition between wineries to attract people for tastings and more. Many offer a full slate of concerts, plus space for special events and catering services. For example, Keyways hosts “Wine Down Fridays” the second and fourth Friday of each month, which includes a meal, glass of wine and live entertainment for $15.
“It’s the best cheap date night you can find,” said Mimi Harlan, Keyways’ operations manager.
Perhaps more extravagant, Thornton Winery’s Champagne Jazz Series, now in its 22nd year, brings jazz headliners such as Dave Koz and Chris Botti to its courtyard stage. General admission ticket holders can choose from a variety of upscale drink and food options to take to their seats, while those who buy the Gourmet Supper Package (an extra $60-70 per person) receive a three-course meal and paired wines served at linen-covered tables.
That rivalry is bound to expand as the number of wineries increases. Evans said six have opened in the past three years with 10-12 planned for the next two years. Ponte Family Estate Winery is expanding with a 64-room hotel, South Coast Winery is adding 52 rooms, Mount Palomar Winery just received county approval for new facilities including a restaurant and 25,000 square feet of retail space, and others are adding vineyards and generating more estate wines. Overall, Evans estimates the appellation—which Riverside County rigorously protects through licensing and code—could support 100 wineries.
Now that the Temecula winegrowers are taking themselves seriously, what will it take for others to follow suit?
For Palumbo, whose bottles appear on wine lists at such prestigious San Diego restaurants as A.R. Valentien and Nine-Ten, just making a terrific product isn’t enough.
“It’s easy to say it’s good but it’s another thing to say, ‘Hey, world, you need to drink this wine,’ ” he said. “We need somebody in the industry like a sommelier or one of the big wine magazines to stick their neck out for us and tell people what they’re missing out on here.”
How about a community newspaper? Uptown wine drinkers, consider yourself informed.
Distance from Uptown: about 65 miles
Driving time: a little over an hour
To get there: Take I-15 north, exit Rancho California Road and drive east. Wine country begins at Butterfield Stage Road. Most wineries are on either Rancho California Road or De Portola Road, which runs parallel, plus a few on the cross roads between.
Best time to go: Any time, although rainy season won’t allow for as much enjoyment in the beautiful vineyards and picnic areas.
Avoid: Some wineries are only open for tastings on weekends but be ready for crowds. Weekdays are better.
Best for: Adults age 21 and older.
Not so great for: If you don’t like wine, stay home or be the designated driver. But please don’t hang around the tasting room with your can of Bud Light.
Don’t miss: Schedule at least one tour so you can better understand the winemaking process and perhaps talk with a winemaker.
Tip: In September, take advantage of California Wine Month with a $40 ticket that provides tastings at your choice of five participating wineries. See temeculawines.org for more information plus maps and other planning tools.
Temecula is prime for a romantic weekend with your significant other. Here is a sample itinerary:
• Enjoy a leisurely drive up the I-15 and through Temecula to wine country. Stop for a couple of winery tastings, then check in to your hotel.
• Take in a concert and dinner at Thornton Winery’s Champagne Jazz Series (ask for Katherine’s section if you book a dinner table) or at another winery.
• After breakfast, travel around to three or four wineries for tastings. Call ahead for a tour appointment at the winery of your choice.
• During the day, enjoy a picnic lunch (either buy one from a Temecula market or order from a winery) with a crisp rosé or sauvignon blanc.
• Return to the hotel to relax, visit a spa for a treatment or fit in a few holes of golf.
• Go for dinner at one of the seven winery restaurants. The Vineyard Rose at South Coast Winery offers a to-die-for lobster ravioli plus other well-prepared meat and vegetarian dishes and, of course, a stellar wine list in a chic setting.
• Start the day with a dreamy sunrise balloon ride above the valley, followed by breakfast with mimosas.
• Return to your hotel to rest until checkout.
• Head over to Old Town Temecula (on the west side of the I-15). Stop by the clever olive oil tasting bar at Temecula Olive Oil Company and then have lunch (plus another wine tasting!) at the Longshadow Ranch Tasting Room, both on Old Town Front Street.
Baily Vineyard and Winery
33440 La Serena Way (@ Rancho California)
Tip: Carol’s Restaurant onsite is a locals’ lunch favorite with scrumptious salads and sandwiches
Try this: 2008 Dry Riesling ($14.95)
Keyways Vineyard and Winery
37338 De Portola Road
Tip: Keyways’ “Keyzzas”—gourmet pizzas—were created to complement their wines. Enjoy “thieve” barrel tasting through August. (The valley’s only woman-owned winery!)
Try this: 2006 Krystal Ice Wine ($40)
38311 De Portola Road
Tip: My best recommendation for a tour and lunch. Call for an appointment and ask for menus from Marie Fowler of The Special Event Connection. If your time is limited, Leonesse’s vineyard has a self-guided tour.
Try this: 2007 Zinfandel ($36)
Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery
40150 Barksdale Circle (off of Monte de Oro Road)
Tip: For a more personal experience at this small, rustic tasting room, call ahead for a weekday tasting appointment with Nick Palumbo.
Try this: 2007 Estate Tre Fratelli Meritage ($36)
37350 De Portola Road
Tip: This family’s winemaking history began in Italy in the late 1800s so expect wines that honor an Italian heritage. Free Sunday afternoon concerts add to the ambience.
Try this: 2007 Fiore Di Fano ($58)
32575 Rancho California Road
Tip: The Champagne Jazz Series sells out early but the winery’s lauded Café Champagne is open daily for lunch and dinner. Wine tastings are 2 for 1 on weekdays.
Try this: Non-vintage Brut ($24) (Thornton uses the Méthode Champenoise for its sparkling wines)
Best place to recover from wining and dining
Loma Vista Bed and Breakfast
33350 La Serena Way
It’s so much more fun to stay for a night or two in wine country rather than rush back the same day—yet the chain hotels near the I-15 are convenient but dull. Instead, try Karl and Connie Sweigart’s comfortable 10-room inn, which is perched on a hill above Rancho California Road and offers all the views and breezes you want in a relaxing weekend. Each room has its own bathroom and most have a balcony, and the common area has a widescreen TV with living room seating. A cozy outdoor hot tub is available to guests, as is a fire pit for the valley’s cool evenings. Connie’s decadent breakfasts feature fruit, scones and hot entrées, plus fresh juice, coffee, tea and even sparkling wine. In the afternoon or evening, enjoy a bottle of “Molly’s First Crush,” a wine named for the Sweigarts’ gentle Shih Tzu, Molly, who quietly serves as the inn’s cuddly host. Rates begin at $130 per night for two, including breakfast. Adults only.
For something really different, book a hot air balloon ride with California Dreamin. The sunrise adventure—yes, it’s worth the 5 a.m. wakeup call—takes you on an hour-long trip across the rolling valley over about five miles. Hot coffee, tea or hot chocolate will great you on arrival at the balloon’s launch site, while traditional mimosas are served during the flight. After your gradual return to earth, breakfast is provided in a secluded rose garden at the private vineyard La Vindemia. Rates in a shared basket start at $133 per person.