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September is California Wine Month and the harvest is in full swing at the more than 40 wineries in the Temecula Valley and prime time for a weekend getaway in the Southern California wine country.

About two hours outside of Los Angeles in the rolling hills nestled on the border of Riverside and San Diego counties, the Temecula Valley wine region has shaken its reputation as a cheap wine party bus destination and was chosen as one of Wine Enthusiast’s 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations of 2019. And with award-winning wineries like Doffo, Avensole and Callaway, they have the points to prove it.

Doffo Winery (Michele Stueven)

Winemaking began in Temecula Valley when the Spanish brought the first non-native grapes to Southern California’s missions via Baja in 1820. There are vines on the Pechanga Indian reservation that date back to 1880s which still provide zinfandel fruit to local wineries. In addition to growing award-winning chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc, more recently the wineries produce Mediterranean varietals like viognier, syrah and pinot gris.

According to the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, Vincenzo and Audrey Cilurzo established the first modern commercial vineyard in the Temecula Valley in 1968. In the same year, Guasti-based Brookside Winery planted its own vineyard. In 1971, Brookside produced the first wines from Temecula grapes at their Guasti winery. Callaway Vineyard and Winery began farming grapes in 1969 and opened the first Temecula winery in 1974.

Temecula  sunrise at the Ponte Vineyard Inn (Michele Stueven)

Its founder, Ely Callaway went on to gain fame and fortune in the world of golf with his namesake company, Callaway Golf. John Poole’s Mount Palomar Winery opened in 1975, and in 1978 the Cilurzos opened the third Temecula winery at a new site. Their original vineyard, Temecula’s oldest, is now owned by Maurice Carrie Winery.

Temecula Valley’s 1,500-foot elevation makes for cool summer nights and warm breezes that blow in through Rainbow Canyon from the ocean 22 miles away every afternoon throughout the summer.

Masia de la Vinya winery (Michele Stueven)

A Pacific mist lingers until mid-morning, resulting in cooling factors which affect the flavor development of the grapes. As the sun warms the inland valleys east of Temecula, the air rises, forming a low-pressure area. The colder and much heavier air is then drawn inland.

The coastal mountain range allows the colder air to pass inland through gaps and low spots. The Rainbow Gap and the Santa Margarita Gap are two of these low places in the mountains — and just beyond them lay Temecula Valley. The cool air flowing inland moderates the blistering daytime temperatures and helps to create a pattern of warm sunny days and cool nights, ideal conditions for the best wine grapes.

Akash Winery (Michele Stueven)

The valley is experiencing a growth boom with more wineries, farm-fresh restaurants and vineyard lodging equal to California’s wine regions to the north, while maintaining its Latin roots, at a better price. Growers are being recruited from Mexico’s burgeoning Valle de Guadalupe wineries in Baja familiar with petite syrah and malbec varietals that are popular in the Temecula Valley. Wine flights in dozens of tasting rooms are generous, approachable and affordable, with many offering six tastings of awarding-winning 95-point wines for $15.

Here’s a beginner’s guide to what the valley’s original inhabitants going back thousands of years,  the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, call “the land where the sun shines through the mist.”

Wineries

Doffo Winery

When Marcelo Doffo came to Southern California from Argentina in 1975, he got into the collision repair service and owned a body shop.  His two hobbies were collecting and restoring vintage 1960s motorcycles and making wine in his backyard in Orange County. On a trip to buy fruit in Temecula one weekend, he came across an old school house next to a pepper tree similar to his native Argentina and bought the property as a place to retire. Together with his sons, Doffo spent two years planting vines, laying irrigation systems for cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cab franc, zinfandel and malbec varietals. His intention was to retire and make a little wine, but never expected it to become a full-fledged award-winning estate winery.

Doffo Winery tasting room (Michele Stueven)

His obsession with wine is matched only by his obsession with collecting motorcycles, which is evident by the tasting room’s décor. Once the garage overflowed with motorcycles, he started filling up the tasting room with his collection of 235 bikes. Plasma screens of live motorcycle racing line the walls, reflecting the family’s passion for bikes. Wine flights in the tasting room are generous and affordable, all made from handpicked grapes. Nothing is machine harvested. An unusual California find, grab a bottle of the Doffo grappa. Doffo Winery, 6083 Summitville St., Temecula; (866) 469-8466, doffowines.com.

Robert Renzoni Vineyards

Robert Renzoni Estate Vineyards is 12 acres devoted to cabernet sauvignon, pinot grigio, sangiovese and barbera. Ten of the vineyard’s acres are planted with the classic Bordeaux and Italian grape varieties.  In addition to a stunning tasting room with a carefully curated playlist of classics to set the mood (that also includes a speakeasy,) their patio restaurant, Mama Rosa’s Trattoria, overlooks the vineyard serving lunch and dinner. A perfect spot to relax in the harvest breeze, try the bruschetta al prosciutto alongside a glass of Fiore di Fano, their delicate Tuscan style blend of estate cabernet sauvignon, estate brunello di sangiovese, merlot, and cabernet franc. Robert Renzoni Vineyards, 37350 De Portola Road, Temecula; (951) 302-8466, robertrenzonivineyards.com.

Bruschetta lunch at Robert Renzoni Vineyards (Michele Stueven)

Hart Winery

One of the oldest wineries in the valley and still family-run, the Hart winery opened in 1980. Together with his two brothers and dad, Jim Hart staring planting vines in 1973. Dad is 87 and still comes to work from Carlsbad every week. They grow Syrah, sauv blanc, cabernet franc and merlot. Hart judges wine every year in the Guadalupe valley in Baja and says the wine quality in Temecula is the best it’s ever been. Their reputation is getting better every year with the  national wine publications taking notice and giving accolades. Hart Winery, 41300 Ave. Biona, Temecula; (951) 676-6300, vinhart.com.

 

Masia de la Vinya

This boutique winery was thoughtfully designed to offer a casual, relaxed wine tasting experience with a scenic view of its vineyard, the mountains and the valley. They offer handcrafted, unique wines which are fruit‑forward and made to pair well with food. Masia de la Vinya, (roughly translated, “manor house of the vineyard”) has a heavy Spanish influence in the wines. Varietals include muscat, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, viognier, grenache and mourvedre. Wine flights for six tastings that range from red to white to sparkling range for $16 to $18. Try the sparkling floral NV Magrana with pomegranate. Seated tastings at $40 include food pairings with  charcuterie and fruit. Masia de le Vinya, 40230 De Portola Road, Temecula; (951) 303-3860, masiadelavinya.com.

NV Magrana at Masia de la Vinya winery (Michele Stueven)

Akash Winery

One of the newest vineyards in the valley, Akash Winery & Vineyards is owned and operated by the Patel family. With a lifelong dream of owning their own winery, the Patels invested in a parcel of land in the Temecula Valley wine country in 2010 and opened their contemporary tasting room this summer. They recruited the talents of Guadalupe winemaker Renato Sais, which put them on the fast track to an award-winning winery in record time.

Akash Patel at Akash Winery (Michele Stueven)

Born of African immigrants, the 29-year-old Akash does everything from manage the vineyard and curate tastings to shuttle guests up and down the hill to the modern white tasting room through the vineyards in his golf cart. The comfortable airy lounge where guests can taste award-winning cabs, zinfandels and fruity sauvignon blancs from the estate winery is a look into the future of what lies ahead for the Temecula wine region.  The family has a long lineage of hospitality and is continuing to expand with the start of construction on an adjacent boutique hotel and pool overlooking the vineyard. Akash Winery, 39730 Calle Contento, Temecula; (951) 888-1393,  akashwinery.com/home.

Bottaia Winery

Arguably the most beautiful new winery, which includes a cafe, tasting room, cocktail bar, swimming pool and cabanas, Bottaia Winery produces over a dozen single-varietal Italian wines and blends, all sourced from estate vineyards in Temecula wine country. As with all the wineries in the valley, there are wine club memberships that offer exclusive experiences and worthwhile discounts. Bottaia offers barrel room tastings, seating tastings with charcuterie pairings in their airy and bright facility overlooking miles of vineyards as well as a unique blending experience for those 21 and older.

Blending wine at Bottaia Winery (Michele Stueven)

An intimate experience in their professional blending lab inside the fermentation building with views of the casks, concrete and oak vats, guests blend four separate red wines into three separate red blends, using graduated cylinders and pipettes for exact measurements. Each guest gets to bottle, cork, capsule and take home their own blend that same day. The wines in this experience are red wines only — alenaca, barbera, san giovese and monte pichiano. Bottaia Winery, 35601 Rancho California Road, Temecula; (951) 365-3388, bottaiawinery.com.

Avensole Winery

Also relatively new, the Avensole Winery has 20 acres of vines. The estate varietals grown there by the Lytton family are cabernet sauvignon, muscat canelli and heritage zinfandel. Their  outdoor terrace restaurant and marketplace perched, on a hilltop overlooking rolling hills of vineyards along the Rancho California Road ridge line, are a relaxing spot for lunch (or dinner) featuring a menu sourced from the local Temecula farmers markets (they have three a week,). Try the ahi sandwich with sushi grade tuna, orange sesame glaze, avocado spread, Asian slaw and pickled watermelon radish or a Temecula farmers market salad with a glass of their fruity 2018 Grace Note viognier (subtle peach, apricot and grapefruit notes.) Avensole Winery, 34567 Rancho California Road, Temecula; (951) 252-2003, avensolewinery.com.

Farmers market salad and ahi sandwich at Avensole Winery (Michele Stueven)

Temecula’s Old Town

Old town is a charming and lively place to stay with plenty of shopping, restaurants, native American history and lodging, all within walking distance of each other.

Pop into the Temecula Olive Oil company for tastings of their extensive olive oil and vinegar selection. An almost overwhelming variety of oils, including hickory smoked, blood orange, habanero and lime fajita frenzy reserve late harvest, is sourced from their own olive groves in nearby Aguanga  (ranch tours are also available.) Take home a bottle of vanilla and fig or pomegranate vinegars. Temecula Olive Oil Co., 28653 Old Town Front St., Temecula; (951) 693-4029, temeculaoliveoil.com.

Temecula Olive Oil Co. (Michele Stueven)

The Old Town Spice and Tea Merchants shop is a hidden Hogwarts closet of floor-to-ceiling selection of more than 100 black, green, white and herbal tea blends. Pick any of the loose-leaf flavors and they will brew you a cup on site. There are also more than 75 custom blend spice mixes from India, Latin America, Africa, China and the Middle East. The Old Town Spice and Tea Merchants,  41925 5th #101, Temecula; (951) 587-2223.

For dinner, try The Nightingale with a sunset view of the southern Temecula hills. A community gathering spot for locals, it features a good selection of local wines from its vault and artisan pizzas — like duck confit, smoky bleu cheese, and ricotta — from the wood-burning oven. The halibut on a bed of roasted leeks, mushrooms, kumquat and fresh fennel is a good match for their Beet Margy, a healthy mix of mezcal, beet juice, lime and pistachio. Also get an order of the steamed clams with smoked guanciale with preserved lemon garlic broth. The Nightingale, 41923 2nd St., #103, Temecula; (951) 506-9929, thenightingaletemecula.com.

Halibut with fennel and kumquats at Nightingale (Michele Stueven)

E.A.T.

If there is a ground zero for the emergence of a good culinary scene in the Temecula Valley, it’s thanks to innovative chef Leah di Bernardo and her E.A.T. Marketplace. Coming from New York and settling in California, di Bernardo is in the forefront of the slow food movement having worked side by side with icons like Alice Waters. Her menu and ingredients stem from understanding the food system, how that affects our bodies and her responsibility as a chef to see that we aren’t eating products doused with chemicals and are hormone- and antibiotic-free. She sources her produce from the local Sage Farms. The baked goods are made in house — the blueberry scones with lemon glaze and vegan donuts that are baked, not fried, are phenomenal. The perfect spot for breakfast, try the smoked Alaska wild salmon toast or the mighty house granola bowl with seeds, nuts, Greek or coconut yogurt and fruit. E.A.T Marketplace, 28410 Old Town Front St., Temecula; (951) 694-3663, eatmarketplace.com.

Ponte Vineyard Inn (Michele Stueven)

Lodging

There are plenty of affordable places to stay in the city of Temecula, which is about two to three miles from the wine trail. But if you want to experience waking up in the middle of a vineyard at sunrise with cottontails scurrying about and hot air balloons taking off,  The Ponte Vineyard Inn is an island in itself.  The 90-room boutique hotel rivals anything Napa, Paso Robles or Santa Ynez has to offer. There’s an Olympic-sized pool, tasting rooms for the vineyard and courtyards everywhere overlooking ponds, vines and fountains. There is restaurant at the vineyard as well as at the inn.  And even if you’re not staying at the Spanish mission-style inn, it’s an idyllic spot for breakfast with indoor and outdoor dining.  The huevos rancheros or loaded French toast with apple compote and candied walnuts is a great way to start off a day of winetasting. Ponte Vineyard Inn, 35001 Rancho California Road, Temecula; (951) 587-6688, pontevineyardinn.com.

Ponte Vineyard (Michele Stueven)

Wellness

After a weekend of wine infusion, a spiritual cleanse might be in order at the newly built 25,000-square-foot Spa Pechanga, with two-story panoramic views of the resort’s golf course, the rocky hills of the Pechanga reservation and its own separate pool. Inspired by the strength of the Great Oak known as Wi’aasal that can be seen from the massage table, many of the ingredients used are grown in their own Native American garden in the facility which is separated from the rest of the resort and casino. Treatments include an acorn and walnut renewal scrub, chia firming therapy, prickly pear and turquoise sage body treatments as well as rosemary foot reflexology. Spa Pechanga, 45000 Pechanga Parkway, Temecula; (888) PECHANGA, pechanga.com/indulge/spa.

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