Limos and cars cram parking lots. Couples squeeze between boisterous groups of people, happily plopping down cash to taste a variety of wines. Brides and grooms exchange vows under arbors, then dance among vineyards. Wineries are building hotels to accommodate the influx of tourists.
Could you be in Napa? Perhaps, but you’re in Southern California’s stature-gaining wine country: Temecula — some 80 miles from Palm Springs and Los Angeles and 50 miles from San Diego.
TEMECULA’S CALLING CARD
Gentleman farming: Those two words in a Wall Street Journal ad diverted Vincenzo and Audrey Cilurzo on their way to investigate a McDonald’s franchise in Escondido. The couple had been climbing the Happy Place’s waiting list for more than two years, but forfeited their spot to buy 100 acres in a rustic community with a population of a few hundred.
The Cilurzos killed 56 rattlesnakes while planting Temecula’s first commercial grapes (40 acres of petite sirah and chenin blanc) in 1968. They survived a grasshopper invasion the first summer and the rampant attack of the glassy-winged sharpshooter and Pierce’s disease in 1999-2000. Now retired, they have published a pictorial history titled Temecula Wine Country (Arcadia Publishing, 2009). Sitting in their Murrieta living room, Vincenzo describes the growth they’ve witnessed.
“Audrey could sit in the tasting room and read a whole book and five people would come in. That would be a big day,” he says. “When we sold [the winery and vineyards in 2004], we were getting over 1,000 people a week. Wilson Creek Winery now gets 1,000 or more in a day.”
In lockstep, the population swelled to 102,600 in 2009. Wineries number about 40, with 15 to 20 in development and county officials planning for up to 100, reports Carolyn Fittipaldi of the Temecula Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But there are more than tasting rooms on the drawing board. Many wineries are hosting at least two or three weddings a week, including Ponte Winery, which plans to open a hotel in three years. South Coast Winery Resort & Spa is doubling its capacity not only with wedding facilities (i.e., ballroom and banquet rooms), but also with general guest accommodations by adding a 50-room hotel.
Louis Darwish, CEO and four-year owner of Mount Palomar Winery, has the biggest plans — 315 acres worth. His expansion project includes a hotel, 18 vineyard estate home lots, 256 timeshares, 42 villas, 25,000 square feet of retail space, wedding chapel, 2,000-barrel wine cave, winery production building, and second tasting room. Darwish plans to replant 136 acres of citrus with grapes and triple production from 10,000 to 30,000 cases. And he plans to accomplish it all in two years. Meanwhile, the winery features a large hilltop terrace with panoramic views. Mount Palomar wines include several blends, as well as single varietals and a couple of unusual offerings: cortese and charbono.
VINES OF THE TIMES
You could think of Temecula as “Napa Light,” but that would give this agriculturally rich destination short shrift. In the land of Opus One and black-tie wine auctions, you won’t find a similar concentration of small family-owned wineries (about 95 percent, according to Thornton Winery owner John Thornton).
One of only a couple Temecula wineries making methode champenoise sparkling wine, Thornton sells more than 27 types of wine (including its first petite sirah, introduced in May), gourmet cuisine at its Café Champagne, and music (now in its 22nd annual jazz concert series — this month featuring Norman Brown, The Rippingtons, and Fourplay).
A more private ambiance prevails at nearby Briar Rose Winery (open for tastings by appointment), where Les and Dorian Linkogle own a replica of Snow White’s cottage. One could wax poetically about the hand-plastered, straw-thatched property built by Disneyland plasterer Beldon Fields, but it’s the wine that could dispel any witch’s curse.
Les may be as enchanted as Snow White (a.k.a. Briar Rose, a trademarked name that, Dorian says, the Disney company surprising failed to renew). He’s made fumé rose by aging sauvignon blanc grapes in barrels used to age cabernet sauvignon (“It goes against all UC Davis protocol,” he says). He created sparkling viognier with beer yeast. He makes 60 cases of free-run cabernet sauvignon. He adds bacteria to his wine for flavor, then kills it with ultraviolet beams. And he commands a $1,300 price for a 1997 cabernet sauvignon. (Linkogle, incidentally, didn’t bottle a 2009 cabernet because, he says, “I wasn’t happy with the grapes.”) In addition to regular tastings, Briar Rose offers Ultra Premium Tastings for a minimum of 10 tasters at $75 per person that include five wines priced from $120 to $1,300 and a choice of dessert wines priced at $36-$37.
Give the pioneers and standard bearers credence, but also give Temecula’s newcomers credit. Lorimar’s Mark Manfield (a Kansas City, Mo., transplant and former Wilson Creek winemaker), for example, has opened a tasting room in Old Town Temecula and submitted plans for an event-centric operation just off winery-lined Rancho California Road. His initial lineup of 11 wines includes a fragrant co-fermented chenin blanc and viognier.
Danza del Sol owner Bob Olson also hails from the east — in his case, Minnesota. The former rally car driver bought the former Filsinger Winery and in February opened a large tasting room. Olson can rely on the expertise of a winemaker who has an impressive history in Temecula wine country: Mike Tingley, who started his career scrubbing floors and cleaning tanks at Callaway Vineyards and Winery and later became a winemaker for the Cilurzos. Danza del Sol’s offerings include a refreshing viognier, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc blend; a zingy blend of tempranillo and zinfandel; and a luscious blanc de blanc methode champenoise sparkling wine.
In 1997, Marcelo Doffo (an Italian by heritage who grew up on a farm in Argentina) purchased 15 acres (10 are planted with grapes). In 2002, Doffo Winery released its first vintage and opened a tasting room in 2008. All the red varietals are made from estate grapes; white wines come from grapes grown in other Temecula vineyards. Mistura is Doffo’s field blend of mostly cabernet sauvignon and syrah with a touch of petit verdot, cabernet franc, and merlot. But don’t overlook the lushness of Doffo’s single-varietal bottlings or the charm of Marcelo and his son Damian pouring in the tasting room.
Keyways Vineyard & Winery has been around since 1989, but Terri Pebley only took over — as the only woman to own and manage a Temecula Valley winery — in 2004. Reinventing herself every 10 years (CPA turned lawyer turned Realtor), Pebley came to Keyways to get the real estate listing when the former owner was selling the property. “Instead of me selling it for him, he talked me into buying it,” she says. Also a self-reinventor, David Raffaele (writer and photographer turned winemaker) has made rousanne (rousanne and viognier); off-dry rousanne; and, this year, the winery’s first late-harvest rousanne.
In June, Woodworth Vineyards (represented at The Collective in Old Town) released an ultra-rare Temecula varietal: cool climate-loving pinot noir from vineyards in the De Luz hills 8 miles west of Temecula. “We’re only 12 miles from the coast, so we have a stronger coastal influence,” Marlene Woodworth explains. “We’re in the fog three to four mornings a week through August and September.”
TIES TO THE PAST
Wooden sidewalks lined with fragrant jasmine make a walk through Temecula’s Old Town a pleasing escape even if you’re not into perusing the many antique stores. Historic buildings include The Bank, built in 1913 and the site of Riverside County’s first bank robbery. On Aug. 30, 1930, the thief escaped with $2,000, but was caught about two miles away. These days, you’ll get out with much less, because The Bank is now a Mexican restaurant with a top menu price of $12.95.
Lose yourself in a Bog Willows swing at The Hickory Artisans or among the bins of vinyl records at Old Town Records, where owner Don Weddle can fill you in on stories behind the album covers. Grab a 45 of Elvis Presley’s “Loving You”/“Teddy Bear” for $38 or an LP of ABBA’s Greatest Hits — a nostalgic steal at $5. Remember King Crimson, Hot Tuna, The Velvet Underground? This is your spot.
Read the handwriting on the large chalkboard at Temecula Valley Cheese Co. to select a sampling of aged and fresh cheeses from around the world or buy artisanal cheese by the pound to go. Adjacent to the cheese shop, breathe an entirely different aroma. Temecula Lavender Co. is filled with body, bath, and home products made from the purple herb grown on the owners’ family farm.
The undoubtedly best time to visit Old Town is Saturday, when you can start your day at the farmer’s market (8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.). Certainly many agriculturally rich regions boast farmer’s markets, but how many of them offer jujubes (sometimes called a Chinese date), sapote (a custardy Mexican apple), dried persimmon, sugar cane, fava beans, cherimoya, loquat, fresh and dried blood oranges, and kumquats? How many feature a family hawking flash-frozen and smoked wild salmon they caught in Alaska? Where else will you find raw cacao powder, Incan berries, pickled carrots and beet, fresh pasta and pesto, garlic pastes, and an on-site knife sharpener? If you’re hungry on a Saturday morning, where else can you listen to live music and dine on a blue crab burrito or made-to-order crêpe?
You may even see Papa Soro at the market in the parking lot adjacent to his restaurant. The native Assyrian-Babylonian celebrated the opening of Soro’s Mediterranean Grill on July 4. His logo echoes the mark of Zorro, with an “S” in place of the “Z.” Claiming he shares the swashbuckler’s philosophy, Papa Soro says his goal is to make people happy: “I want them to say, ‘Let’s go to Papa’s house.’” They probably will if they like Greek food and super-friendly service.
VARIETY: THE SPICE OF LIFE
Although Old Town mostly harkens to the past, the city plans to replace the boardwalk with (stroller-friendly) stamped concrete over the next 10 years. And instead of replicating the Old West, the massive civic center under construction reflects California’s love affair with nouveau Spanish architecture.
The Edge Restaurant and Lounge’s “modern Moroccan” décor looks more like the sort of place you’d find in Los Angeles or San Diego than in Old Town Temecula. Opened a year ago, The Edge features an eclectic gourmet menu and live music nightly. It also provides “small plates” to its next-door neighbor: The Collective, a modern-style tasting room for a handful of boutique wineries (producing 200 to 1,200 cases) without their own winery facilities or, in some cases, even their own vineyards. An upstairs lounge for club members features sofa seating and a balcony.
Although housed in a 1927 building, Villa Di Calabro represents one of Temecula’s new kids in town. Once the winemaker at Wilson Creek Winery, Mike Calabro enjoys handing guests a cup of bread cubes and playing mixologist with a sampling tray of his olive oils and flavored vinegars. He and his wife also pour their wines amid the homey Italian ambiance.
Temecula Olive Oil Co. also pairs olive oils and vinegars; be sure to try roasted garlic oil with honey vinegar, courtesy of the farm’s bees. The store sells gift items, such as olive-based soaps and lotions. Gourmet sea salts include black salt from Hawaii and gray salt from Guérande, France.
This being Southern California, Temecula offers a variety of golf courses. Among the most popular, 350-acre Temecula Creek Inn Golf Resort caters to groups with programs that include “glow ball” putting contests, golf cart drive-in movies on the driving range, and “cross country golf” (playing the course backward), as well as nongolfing recreation such as grape stomps and barbecues on the patio below the resort’s Temet Grill.
Myriad annual events keep visitors returning, including Temecula Wine & Music Festival (May), Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival (June), Temecula Street Painting Festival (June), Temecula Valley International Jazz Festival (July), and Temecula Valley International Film Festival (September). Then there’s the Harvest Celebration in November — this is, after all, wine country.
WHERE TO EAT
• Café Champagne, Thornton Winery, 32575 Rancho California Road, 951-699-0099. Were it not for the French Country elegance, one would think this indoor-outdoor dining venue should be called “Nirvana.” Chef Steve Pickell’s contemporary fusion cuisine capitalizes on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Warm brie en crouté with honey-walnut sauce seduces multiple senses.
• Soro’s Mediterranean Grill, 28464 Old Town Front St., 951-587-8082. The dynamic Papa Soro oversees the warmhearted ambiance and Greek cuisine. Sit indoors or on the street-corner patio. Savor lighter-than-a-cloud tiramisu made with Turkish coffee instead of espresso.
• Smokehouse Restaurant, Ponte Family Estate, 35053 Rancho California Road, 951- 694-8855. Enjoy the croaking accompaniment of frogs to the music of a flamenco guitarist or jazz violinist while you dine alfresco. Included on the menu are chardonnay-dough pizzas oven-fired with reclaimed grape vines.
• Carol’s Restaurant, Baily Vineyard & Winery, 33440 La Serena Way (just off Rancho California Road), 951-676-9463. The medieval dining room (check out the property’s gargoyles and armor) is lovely, but there’s nothing like wine and a cashew-crusted salmon over mesclun salad on a sunny patio overlooking vineyards for sheer bliss.
• Temet Grill, Temecula Creek Inn, 44501 Rainbow Canyon Road, 951-694-1000. Overlooking the resort’s golf course, the lodge-style dining venue serves delectable breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Particularly succulent are seafood appetizers and entrées.
• Creekside Grille, Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards, 35960 Rancho California Road, 951-699-9463. The expansive patio, serving lunch and Sunday brunch, can accommodate small, medium, and large parties.
WHERE TO STAY
• South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, 34843 Rancho California Road, 951-587-9463. Groups of four villas around a small courtyard mean no shared walls or the sound of people on floors above or below you! Enjoy your private sanctuary with wet bar and dining table, comfy sofa and chair, fireplace, richly appointed bed, spacious marble bathroom that includes a whirlpool tub, and private patio surrounded by grape vines. Another plus: a wine-tasting room within walking distance of your villa. Enjoy extra goodies such as a complimentary bottle of wine and wine tasting coupons. The staff clearly has been trained to make guests feel special. As the name suggests, the resort includes a full-service spa.
• Inn at Churon Winery, 33233 Rancho California Road, 951-694-9070. This French chateau-styled bed and breakfast is especially popular with wedding parties. Almost all 24 rooms stretch across the vineyard side. Five suites include two 800-square-foot suites, each with three fireplaces. In addition to fireplaces and marbled baths, guests enjoy wine hour and, on Friday and Saturday nights, five-course wine pairing dinners.
• Temecula Creek Inn, 44501 Rainbow Canyon Road, 951-694-1000. Surrounded by the San Jacinto Mountains, the inn offers 130 recently updated guest rooms and suites, 27 holes of golf (as well as a driving range and pro shop), tennis courts, grill and lounge, meeting/conference facilities, a late 1800s stone house (a popular wedding venue), and proximity to wine country.
• Holiday Inn Express, 27660 Jefferson Ave., 951-699-2444. Clean and bright, this hotel provides 37-inch plasma-screen TVs, microwaves and fridges, and complimentary hot breakfast. Less than a mile from Old Town Temecula, it’s also convenient to Pechanga Casino (6 miles) and wine country (8 miles).
• A Hot Air Balloon Adventure. Floating over Temecula Valley in a hot air balloon afford you not only a bird’s-eye view of the landscape, but also an opportunity to relax while soaking in the experience of quietly drifting along with the breeze. When you land, the experience continues as you enjoy champagne or a mimosa and a gourmet breakfast on a greenery-surrounded patio on Vindemia Estate Winery’s property (and hear the amusing story of how champagne became a ballooning tradition). Vindemia Winemaker David Bradley is also an expert balloon pilot. Call California Dreamin’ at 800-373-3359 or visit www.californiadreamin.com for details.
• A Gunfight. Fortunately, Old Town’s shootouts are make believe. The reenactment with costumed gunslingers is held on the fourth Saturday of the month.
• Saganaki. Soro’s Mediterranean Grill servers flambé Greek feta (served with bread and lime) tableside, turning out the lights and performing a fire dance. Remember to say “Whopa!”
• Wine and Music. Buy a bottle of wine to share while you listen to live music on a winery’s porch, patio, or lawn or in an Old Town tasting room. Thornton Winery hosts internationally known jazz artists for concerts, during which guests can opt for appetizers or full dinners from Café Champagne.
• 2 for $1. Those who appreciate the high fidelity of vinyl can grab sizzling deals from boxes on the front step of Old Town Records. The store also holds semi-annual sales (watch for alerts on the store’s Facebook page).