Temecula Valley Vintners

Temecula Valley Vintners

The Riverside County district is coming into its own with a critical mass of award-winning artisan wineries.

By Irene Lacher 10/03/2013

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When Los Angeles oenophiles are in search of a quick fix, their thoughts usually wander north – toward Santa Barbara and beyond. But a promising patch of wine country is fermenting a mere 90 minutes to the southeast, amid 35,000 acres of rolling hills and vineyards in the Temecula Valley.

Temecula’s winemaking industry actually dates back to 1820, when mission padres began planting the area, 18 miles from California’s first winery at Mission San Juan 

Capistrano. Commercial vineyards first took root in 1968, but the thennew and humble wine region 1,500 feet above sea level struggled with a tepid reputation until the ’80s, when Temecula won its official stripes as an American Viticultural Area (now known as the Temecula Valley AVA) and began catching the eye of big-city wine critics. In 1987, 
Temecula wine pioneer and TV lighting director Vicenzo Cilurzo’s 1983 Miramonte Cabernet Sauvignon was trumpeted by the Los Angeles Times as “first-class.”

The new millennium has seen another blossoming of Temecula Valley’s wineries, which have since doubled in number to more than 40. Its boutique winemakers share at least one thing — passion for their craft — but there is some dispute over which grapes are best suited for its micro-climate. As Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association President Nicholas Palumbo of Palumbo Family Vineyards explains, the area’s low rainfall and greater solar intensity produce an early growing season. Then cold air from the ocean 22 miles to the west creates an ideal weather pattern for growing wine grapes by moderating its warm sunny days and cooling down the nights.

While a good Cab isn’t hard to find in the valley, the older wineries tend to champion the hearty French varietals that made Northern California’s reputation. Indeed, Phil Baily launched one of Temecula’s oldest wineries more than 25 years ago with grapes from the esteemed Wente Vineyards in Livermore. Aiming to serve the sophisticated wine consumer, he recently started offering unusual private tastings at the Bailey Vineyard & Winery, allowing visitors to compare different vintages of the same wine, rather than different varietals. Those tastings at the production facility are by appointment only, and Bailey can accommodate up to 12 people at a cost of $40 per person. Call (951) 676-9463 to book in advance.

But some newer winemakers, such as Cane Vanderhoof, are placing their bets on Rhône varietals. When the UC Davis graduate founded the Miramonte Winery in 2000, he focused on Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, Viognier and other wines grown in the Rhône Valley. Now Miramonte is offering fabulous wine tastings with sweet and savory bites designed to pair nicely together. Vanderhoof has also added live music to the winery’s menu, a trend that has also picked up steam at the Lorimar Vineyard & Winery, which sports a music note on its logo.

If you go, don’t miss the Wilson Creek Winery, founded in 1996 by Gerry and Rosie Wilson of South Pasadena and still family-run.  The winery’s open-air Creekside Grille Restaurant (sheltered from the sun) is a lovely place to dine and sample their signature Wilson Creek Almond Champagne. And if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the spirited family’s mascot, Molly Merlot, the micro-mini pig in a pink tutu (and yes, she has a Wilson Creek wine named after her). 

Another don’t-miss activity is hot-air ballooning over Temecula Valley at dawn, when the winds are mild. Balloonist/winemaker Dave Bradley of California Dreamin’ leads early-morning journeys floating over citrus groves, after which intrepid early risers are rewarded with a sparkling-wine breakfast at his Vindemia Winery. Then head over to Old Town Temecula and tour its 19th-century buildings housing restaurants, a theater and shops offering locally grown lavender, olive oils and other reminders of a lovely weekend away. A great time to go is Nov. 2 and 3, when the winegrowers association throws its 23rd annual Harvest Celebration Barrel Tasting Weekend. Visit temeculawines.org for details and tickets. 

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