|Temecula, California: Where horses, golfers and grapes live in harmony.|
Do you like surprises? I do. When driving at night past the golf course near my home in northern Arizona, I am pleasantly surprised when inky, humped shadows turn into elk munching peacefully on the fairway.
I like the unpredictably of Arizona sunsets. Would we so admire the hot reds, fuchsias and purples if they were visible from our decks at every setting of the sun?
Just the thought of a surprise birthday party terrifies me. But I love being blown away by unexpected complexity in a first taste of an unpretentiously-priced wine.
I like surprises and so I am liking Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country. I didn’t do much research before coming, but I did look at a map. I envisioned Temecula as a flat expanse of dull, plowed agricultural lands. From all my travels to grape-growing regions, I should have known better. Grapes are best grown on rolling hills that provide drainage and optimal sunlight. But on the two-dimensional, beige-colored map flattened on my dining room table, Temecula looked … beige and flat.
Now in Temecula, I’m caught unaware by tall, rolling hills striated by grapevines with backdrops of dramatic granite-bespeckled mountains. Here horses, golfers and grapes live in harmony. Lush green hills around golf courses and horse properties are dotted with squat olive trees accented occasionally by spires of Olympic cedars pointed to the heavens. The brilliant pink and red rose gardens spilling with ample blossoms skirt the edges of robust vineyards and daze me with their heady fragrance. This looks like the land of milk and honey to me.
The wine region gets its name from the American Indian word meaning “Where the sun breaks through the mist.” And as wine aficionados know, sun + mist = remarkable grape-growing environs. Hot days cooled by Pacific sea breezes flowing through a strategic mountain notch make this unique microclimate a winemaker’s heaven.
Southern California’s long growing season with harvests starting in August and extending through December produces grapes with a big fruit-forward taste. In the whites you smell peach and tropical fruits while the reds thrill with bold berry tastes.
You could take the easy route and experience this wine country with prepackaged wine tours. But I recommend a customized tour from the knowledgeable and friendly folks at Grapeline Wine Country Shuttle www.gogrape.com or WINEormous www.wineormous.com. They’ll bring a lot of fun and information to the party. Ask them to include Leonesse Cellars, Ponte Winery and Hart Family Winery. Walk the rows of carefully pruned vines, scrape the Temecula soil from your soles and then enjoy top-notch dining.
Local foods are an integral part of Temecula’s dining scene. Southwest Riverside County has the highest number of boutique farms per capita than any other in California.
This morning, my taste buds did summersaults over Chef Tim Nallck’s Crab Benedict (crab cakes and hollandaise) and Pork Chop Katsu at Journey’s End located in the at the Four-Diamond Pechanga Resort. Breakfast for two about $50. Rooms $99-$359 per night. www.pechanga.com
Dinner at Thornton Winery amazed with simple, gourmet cuisine. “Over the years I’ve learned to get back to the simple things … three or four ingredients so you can taste what you are supposed to taste,” says Chef Steve Pickell, who worked in DC, New York City, Chicago and LA before returning to southern California. This fall the winery hosts its 22nd annual Champagne Jazz Series showcasing nationally renowned jazz artists. $240-$360 for two includes reserved table seating, three-course gourmet meal and wine. www.thorntonwine.com
Don’t miss the Temecula Olive Oil Ranch located out of town near the old Butterfield Overland Stage route. Co-owner Tom Curry grows and harvests varieties of olives that were first brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s. Not much has changed in this ranching country since the last stagecoach rolled through.
Meander through the wind-pollinated olive groves or sit at the outside tasting bar and learn the difference between a buttery, nutty late-harvest olive oil and the grassy-flavored new-harvest oil. This authentic boutique farm experience is available by appointment only. $15 per person. www.temeculaoliveoil.com
Temecula Creek Inn and its 27-hole golf course is a locals’ favorite. Corner suites overlook lush golf fairway from two walk-out sliding glass doors opening to wrap balconies. These spacious junior suites offer plush bedding, wet bars and refrigerator areas. $149-$269/night. Or splurge for the three-bedroom, two-bath Creekside Suite with full, gourmet kitchen for $399-$799/night including a private putting green and party patio. www.temeculacreekinn.com
Charming Sal Giuliano, Executive Chef at Temecula Creek Inn's Temet Grill creates outstanding dishes inspired by locally-grown foods and local vineyards. Chef Sal’s award-winning brunch is worth booking a late flight out of either San Diego or Orange County Airport.