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Temecula Valley City Trip

Temecula Valley's vineyards
Temecula Valley's vineyards

72 Hours in Temecula

by Tara de Lis

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Situated less than 90 miles from Los Angeles — 30 miles closer than Santa Barbara's famed Wine Country — and just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from neighboring San Diego County, the Temecula Valley is an increasingly popular getaway.

The name Temecula comes from the Luiseño Indian word "Temecunga," meaning "where the sun shines through the mist." Because of its remote geography and hot summers, many believe the area is all desert. In fact, it's a more complex microclimate, surrounded by mountains reaching up to 11,000 feet, but like the desert, it can cool down by as much as 40 degrees overnight — and this is significant in the region's attractiveness as a viticultural area.

The first vines were planted in the late 1960s. By the mid-80s, there were a handful of wineries in the area; now there are more than 35. As the American appetite for vino increases, so do the number of vineyard restaurants and lodgings at every price level.

The Inn at Europa Village exterior archways
The Inn at Europa Village

Many Temecula wines were developed for novice drinkers with a sweet tooth (e.g. Wilson Creek's Almond Champagne and Falkner's Luscious Lips dessert wine), but there are serious wines, too. Highly recommended are mom-and-pop producer Palumbo, longtime vintners Hart and Baily, as well as Leoness Cellars, Robert Renzoni Vineyards & Winery and Doffo Winery.

The Temecula Valley also caters to beer drinkers, with nearly a dozen breweries and brewpubs in and around town. At Aftershock Brewing Co., conveniently located on Front Street just outside Old Town, taste beers like Kumquat Wheat, Faultline and Espresso Stout.

For advice on tasting options and an area map, stop in at either the Temecula Valley Visitors Center in Old Town, open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Tuesdays), or the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, open Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Most tasting rooms are open between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Some of the smaller ones require appointments, especially during the week. Check www.temeculawines.org for winery schedules.

If you're staying in wine country, there are several lodging options to choose between: the private "villas" among the vines at South Coast Winery; the mission-style, upscale-boutique hotel Ponte Vineyard Inn; and a casual, bed-and-breakfast experience at The Inn at Europa Village. Also, about fifteen minutes away from the wine country by car, the verdant Temecula Creek Inn is another good choice, especially for golfers.

TEMECULA DAY 1: Hart, Falkner Winery, Baily Winery, Longshadow Ranch

If you're staying at a bed and breakfast, you'll likely enjoy a nice spread there. Chef Dean at The Inn at Europa Village creates a hearty two-course gourmet meal each morning. It's served in a gorgeous outdoor setting overlooking the valley and vineyards.

Other breakfast options are very limited. One of the best snacks on offer — and practically a tradition — is the sourdough baked-brie bread loaves at Maurice Car'rie or at sister winery Van Roekel Winery. Enjoy it with an easy-drinking white or red wine, either on the wraparound Victorian porch or out on the ample picnic grounds.

Falkner Vineyard in Temecula
Falkner Vineyard

After breakfast, start on Rancho California Road, and hit the wineries furthest west before they get too busy. The first one along this stretch is Hart, one of the oldest in the Valley with continuous ownership. Owner and vintner Joe Hart planted the property in 1974. Inside the unassuming wooden structure, which doubles as his winemaking facility, a wall of ribbons is a testament to the family's accolades over the years. Hart is probably best known for his crisp Sauvignon Blanc, but also makes a really intense volcanic soil-grown Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Next, head south on Butterfield Stage for a stop at Briar Rose Winery, straight out of the fairy tale it was named for (Briar Rose is the proper name of "Sleeping Beauty"), with sit-down tastings available only by appointment. The experience is very upscale, and the couple who run the winery are the consummate hosts.

Now, get ready for a great eclectic, Mediterranean-inspired lunch at The Pinnacle at Falkner Winery. The orange dome-like structure houses a clean Italian design, with gleaming hardwood floors and gorgeous panoramic views. The menu ranges from prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and a blackened ahi salad to herb-crusted salmon and a chipotle chicken sandwich. It's also a great time to experience Falkner's wines, particularly the popular Super Tuscan-style Amante.

Another great lunch option is Carol's Restaurant at Baily Winery. There's both indoor and outdoor seating, but the medieval motif replicated from the adjacent winery is best enjoyed from inside and is a great relief from the elements on particularly hot days. Baily's impressive wines feature prominently on the menu. Two top picks are the elegant Sangiovese and the flagship Meritage.

Longshadow Ranch
Longshadow Ranch

If you opt for lunch at Falkner, you're in a great location to hit Longshadow Ranch. For a taste of the Old West, it offers a big meadow for picnics, live music on summer weekends — and kids get a kick out of the corralled Belgian draft horses. Don't forget to get your shot of whiskey barrel-aged Ponderosa Port.

Head to Mount Palomar, just west on Rancho California, to try its signature sherry, and if you're still a bit hungry, Shorty's Bistro has great Mediterranean-style snacks like hummus, stone-baked pizzas and gyro sandwiches.

If you opt for lunch at Carol's, instead follow this route: Head back east on Rancho California to Miramonte. Known for their Rhone-style blends as much as for their wine-bottle etching business, Miramonte offers the opportunity to buy different labels with various rock-star decorations (Rolling Stones lips logos, for instance). If you had a big lunch and only feel like a nibble for dinner — cheese and charcuterie plates are available — this is a great place to end the day, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when there's live music and the tasting room stays open until 10 p.m. You can also opt for wines by the glass or bottle.

For dinner, Thornton's Café Champagne restaurant offers a nice menu of continental fare with a global fusion twist. Dishes include a generously portioned tapas plate, seared Hawaiian ahi and grilled filet mignon. As the restaurant name suggests, the winery is still best known for its portfolio of sparkling wines, produced using the traditional méthode Champenoise.

Nearby Meritage restaurant at Callaway Winery features Mediterranean-inspired sharable small plates and entrées like duck confit tacos, roasted manila clams and roasted half-chicken. The winery itself debuted a brand-new, state-of-the-art tasting room in the summer of 2012. Note: this isn't the same Callaway sold at convenience stores in magnums; these wines are only available at the estate.

MORE TEMECULA INFORMATION

* Vineyards sunset image by Chip Morton courtesy of the Temecula Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau

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