“What’s the number one reason after Disneyland that visitors come to California?” asks Elizabeth, my host for the day.
As I’m on a Grapeline Wine Tour of California’s Temecula Valley Wine Country, I think I can guess the answer.
“Wine!” I belt out.
Ding, ding, ding.
That’s over 20 million tourists to California wine countries each year, accounting for $2.1 billion spent in the state. Another fun fact: California is the USA’s largest wine producer, accounting for 90% of the country’s wine (making it 4th in the world!). To put it simply, California is not a small player when it comes to the world of wine.
The coach has picked me up from my hotel, the Temecula Creek Inn, and is now whisking me away to a land of endless rows of sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon vines, hilltop cellar doors and colorful rose bushes. I quickly learn these beautiful flowers aren’t just for aesthetics: rose bushes typically require the same growing traditions as grape vines, allowing them to act as early detection for disease. Wine regions in California that have a Mediterranean climate — like Temecula Valley — are prone to Oidium, a powdery mildew that can destroy crops. As roses are more susceptible to the fungus than vineyards, winemakers can watch for symptoms on the roses and will know when to take proper precautions, like spraying sulfur. Regardless, they add a whimsical element to the already idyllic scene.
As we arrive to our first stop of the day, Lorimar Vineyard & Winery, I’m pulled out of my trance and am forced to peel my face from the coach’s large picture window and gather my belongings.
Here we’re each allowed six full tastings, and I begin with their “California Sparkling,” an effervescent wine with lemon and tangerine notes. I figure I’ll start light then move onto the heavier stuff as the day progresses. It doesn’t take long for the six tastings to turn into 10, as our winery guide brings four open bottles on the tour of the property.
What makes Lorimar unique is its dedication to art, music and wine, especially enjoyed all at once. While around the winery you’ll find works of art, they also show family-friendly films in the vines once per month. Setting the tone of the venue is big band and jazz music, and on weekends live music is featured — which is never cancelled, not even for a wedding (they’ll just change the location slightly). On white wine bottles you’ll notice custom art labels, while the red wines are named after musical terms like “Allegro,” “Solo” and “Trio.”
While by the end of the visit my mind is slightly foggy, I do remember my favorite wine was their “Duet,” a red wine featuring cabernet sauvignon and mourvèdre, for a libation that’s full bodied and somewhat acidic, with notes of blackberry, black cherry and black pepper spice.
A fun wine they serve is a White Merlot rose, which I’m told by staff is a “hot tub wine” — as in it’s great for drinking in the hot tub. The slightly sweet but uber fruity wine — I personally taste lots of strawberry and cranberry — would never be my must-have with dinner, but would definitely be appreciated in a warm and laid-back setting.
Next we’re off to Robert Renzoni Vineyards & Winery, serving high quality Bordeaux and Italian varietals as well as their namesake marinara sauce, which they serve to tasters alongside napkins of log-shaped crackers.
“You guys must be well-known for this sauce!” I gasp, taking a tasty scoop with my cracker.
The bartender laughs. “Well, I hope we’re known for ours wines! But yes, people love the sauce.”
The tasting room is spacious and clean, with dangling bare bulb lights, wood accents and sunflower-adorned tables providing a rustic feel. It’s not surprising the Renzoni’s focus on Italian varietals, as the family’s ancestry hails from Northern Italy, near the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where Robert’s great-grandfather Federico began making wine in 1886. The beautiful four-generation story of the business takes many turns, beginning with Federico immigrating to America at 18. The family business changed names and mission statements numerous times, shifting from cordial creation, where Federico was joined by his brother-in-law, Romeo, to wine distribution, where the team was joined by Federico’s son, Domenic — and eventually Robert, his brother and father.
Although that business ultimately didn’t work out, the family came together in Temecula Valley, where their passion for winemaking was ignited, bringing them back to their original Italian roots. This is seen not only through their 12 acres (five hectares) of vines comprising mainly cabernet sauvignon, pinot grigio and sangiovese, but through wines like “Prosecco Superiore” with grapes sourced from Veneto and notes of green apple and lemon; a sweet and fizzy “Moscato d’ Asti” featuring Piedmonte-sourced grapes and a tantalizing honey finish; and a classic-style “Barbera” that’s just a touch more fruit-forward than you’d find in Italy.
Pair with some of their Italian food products and you’ve got yourself a true global table adventure!
Cougar Vineyard & Winery was opened by Rick and Jennifer Buffington in 2006, named after their old home of Cougar Mountain in Washington. It is also focused on Italian varietals, although here everything is estate grown and these varietals make up the total output — no French of Spanish grapes to be found. This helps them to focus on acquiring grapes you won’t really find elsewhere on the continent, such as primitivo, falangini, prosecco, arneis, sangiovese, aglianico and montepulciano.
This winery easily becomes my favorite of the day. Maybe it’s the Italian in me, maybe it’s their Boar’s Head deli counter that I so desperately needed, or maybe it’s the adorable “wine dogs.” I’m almost positive, however, my love of this winery comes from the fact they have an outdoor hilltop patio overlooking the Temecula Valley, complete with giant Adirondack chairs. I could have laid their all day sipping my vermentino-based “Cougar Bubbly,” with notes of Asian pear and green apple just as delightful as the sun washing over me.
But alas, there is more wine to be drank. The last stop for the day is Longshadow Ranch Winery, which, as the name suggests, is also a ranch. As the coach crawls its way to the top of the hill, I see animals of all kinds: horses, goats, bird-life (they’re nestled on a protected bird sanctuary). I can’t help but feel like I’m in the Old West, and I’m not surprised to learn that visitors can take a carriage ride of the vineyards. I’m also not surprised — although I am impressed — when I’m told that Belgian Draft Horses and Old World machinery are used to work the vineyards.
The timber winery, with its immersive barn feel, wine barrel bar tops, tumbleweed chandelier and wines named after Old West terms, offers something unique in Temecula Valley. Oh yea, and did I mention they serve “Port” wine (technically to be called Port the wine must come from Portugal’s demarcated Douro Valley Region) in a Belgian chocolate cowboy boot? Don’t let the silly presentation fool you. It’s a smooth solera-style Port — meaning the current release features a mix of vintages — aged in 50-year-old whiskey barrels and is seriously delicious, with decadent notes of raisins, caramel and honey that pair perfectly with the chocolate.
The best time to visit is Saturdays, between 6 and 10pm, when fire pits and live music add to the fun.
After spending my day imbibing in California’s Temecula Valley, one thing is clear to me (well, as clear as can be while sitting in the fog of 25 wine tastings): this region deserves more recognition. While Napa and Sonoma get all the credit, and make places like Temecula Valley seem like an afterthought, the truth is the region is full of offerings; unique cellar doors, winemaker stories that transcend generations, beautiful views, award-winning wines and events in the vines are just a few.
Whether you want to sip rare Italian varietals or just want to shoot fortified wine from a chocolate cup, you can find an enjoyable wine experience in Temecula Valley.
Have you visited California’s Temecula Valley Wine Country? Which wineries would you recommend? Please share in the comments below.
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