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For an Epic Southern California Wine Weekend, Look to the Inland Empire

California Wine Insider Guides
by Alyssa Pinsker Mar 10, 2020

Anyone seeking the perfect weekend wine trip from California’s southern coast simply has to look inland. The fairytale pink clouds and chateau wineries of Temecula sit in Riverside County just over an hour north from San Diego and one-and-a-half hours south from Los Angeles. Temecula Valley’s modern wine production roots date back more than 50 years, and it became an American Viticultural Area in 1984. Today, the region is home to more than 40 wineries, and there are plenty of tasting rooms to make it worthy of a weekend trip from coastal Southern California. While you should come for the rolling vineyards and castle-like estates, the contemporary cuisine, the casino, and the Wild West Old Town round out the experience.

Where to sample the valley’s best wines

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It’s fairly simple to make it to a number of Temecula Valley’s wineries thanks to the main wine trail, Rancho California. Companies like Destination Temecula and Grapeline Wine Tours can escort your crew down the trail, or you can navigate the trail yourself if you have a designated driver.

Historically, the primary varieties grown in the Temecula area include chardonnay, merlot, and sauvignon blanc. Viognier, syrah, and pinot gris are increasing in popularity. Around 90 percent of the region’s wine is sold directly from the wineries because, locals say, the area can’t produce enough to keep up with the demands of distribution. Though wine-of-the-month clubs from the region abound, Temecula, which means “land where the sun shines through the mist,” is best seen and experienced in person where you can also learn about the story of the indigenous people of the region and ride horses or a hot-air balloon.

The Rancho California is made up of two sections, east and west, with the latter being the initial section where you’ll likely begin.

The stately South Coast Winery Resort and Spa is the place to kick off your tasting tour, with indoor tasting under rustic, vaulted beamed ceilings. The resort’s vintners are the only in the valley to have earned four Golden Bear awards, signifying recognition at the California State Fair for agricultural excellence. The resort’s classical styled Vineyard Rose Restaurant has vintage Tuscan design and overlooks the coveted seating on its vineyard-laced stucco patio. The food is classic European-American and highly recommended with a pairing of the popular gewürztraminer.

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Just a quick three minutes away is South Coast Winery’s sister property. Carter Estate Winery and Resort is the larger, albeit more rustic, property with even more views of the valley’s hilly vineyards. Carters is known for its sparkling wine produced in the méthode champenoise, the traditional French method for crafting Champagne, and can be savored in the gardens for full effect.

Another three-minute drive down the trail is Avensole Winery, one of the most picturesque on the block. It has a luxury floral interior designed by one half of the husband-and-wife owners. Situated on a hilltop, Avensole catches the cool ocean breezes but has wind windows to block too much gust. The wines, all from on-site grapes except for the Brut Sparkling, have won 99 points at the California State Fair. The food is farm to table and Instagram-friendly, with dishes like baked brie and roasted salmon plated next to signature pink roses.

Leave time for the region’s smaller De Portola Wine Trail

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De Portola Wine Trail is a 20-minute drive from Rancho California. Two wineries stand apart here. First, there’s Fazeli Cellars Winery, which has modern Moorish architecture. The estate is described — rather accurately — by its owners as “the ancient traditions of Persia rooted in the modern expression of California.” The estate produces more than 20 varieties for its blends and varietal wines, including cabernet sauvignon, mourvèdre, petite verdot, syrah, and viognier. Also try the traditional Persian food at Baba Joon’s kitchen.

Away from the old-world wine row staples is the hip Peltzer Family Cellars, a winery that offers excellent wine in a rustic-chic “crush house.” Tastings cost $20, and neighborhood taco trucks complete the vibe.

The Old West lives on in Old Town Temecula

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Collecting bottles of wine in a box as you move down the trail is common practice among visitors and, due to limited distribution, the best way to stock up on Temecula wines. But leave some room in said box for anything that catches your eye in Old Town Temecula. The spoils of the pioneers live on here, where a brass sign welcomes you to the period of the 1880s. Stroll and pop into quaint boutiques and award-winning restaurants that serve everything from haute cuisine to food truck grub. Stop by local favorite Temecula Olive Oil Company, which sells fresh-pressed concoctions from the nearby actual olive ranch (which you can also visit and meet the owner as it’s only 20 minutes away) and offers samples. The lemongrass extra virgin can be used as a seasoning for your salads and meals, or as a scented moisturizer for your face, hair, and body.

Old Town Spice and Tea Merchant is one place where the area’s chefs get their international seasonings. Down the street is Temecula Lavender Company, where you can find variations of the calming herb if you need a sensory sedative after all that wine and food.

The food is just as good off-vineyard

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Go slow at E.A.T. Marketplace, an open space popular with locals. Chef Leah Di Bernardo and her sister serve healthy and fresh food, including foraged options. Try the yam cake and freshly baked doughnuts for dessert. The Vail HQ is a market and a sort of historic stage set up to resemble the Old West, with food and drink available on site and a farmers market, evening dinners, and live performances.

Viewers of Food Network’s Great American Food Truck Race may recognize Devilicious, which won the show. Now it is a full-on restaurant. Known for butter-poached lobster grilled cheese, there’s also, of course, an extensive wine list along with a large beer menu with trivia and music nights.

Other ways to explore the region

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Exploring the outdoors is an easy task in Temecula. One way to do this from above is in a hot-air balloon, and there are two options for taking off. California Dreamin’ flies an average of 1,500 feet over panoramic views. The flight culminates with a large European breakfast of freshly baked bread and a Champagne toast served in a private rose garden. A Grape Escape also takes off early mornings over the gorgeous lowlands and ends with a continental breakfast, Irish prayer toast, and a certificate of flight.

Back on the ground, you can also ride horseback to the wineries. Saddle Up Wine Tours meets you at Leoness Cellars on the De Portola trail, heading to two additional wineries and back to Leoness. Each tasting is about one glass of wine. Each horse at The Saddle Up Ranch is a rescue, so feel good about supporting their efforts. You can also do goat yoga twice daily there by appointment. Their Trail Riding Tours, where you can see famous ranches and learn about Temecula Valley’s bronco history is on the ranch, and camping is available onsite. Bonfire Tours takes riders on a sunset trail ride followed by dinner cooked over an open fire (think: sweet corn, meats or veggies, and s’mores).

The oldest ranch in town lets you ride across 50 lush acres on the scenic working Green Acres Ranch. They are known for crafting their tours for families. Keep on eye on Groupon as Green Acres occasionally offers specials to visit nearby wineries after you take a ride at the homestead.

Where to sleep in Temecula

The Pechanga Resort Casino, a Native-run property with a luxurious four-star hotel, is the most popular option for lodging in and around Temecula. It offers a luxury spa, genuine American Indian culture, and the largest casino floor on the West Coast. The resort has 12 restaurants and four bars along with seven pools, cabanas, a fire pit, and a relaxation deck facing the surrounding mountains.

The spa features divine rituals using native botanicals. You can also tour the history of the Pechanga Reservation and learn the inspirational story of the land and sacred tree. The Lobby Bar & Grill has a wellness menu in addition to the surf and turf, as well as thoughtful touches like banana paste replacing sugar in the caramel sauce. If you’re a golfer, play a round on the onsite golf course designed by Arthur Hill.

For posh, old-world digs head back to South Coast Winery for a five-star, Tuscany-inspired resort with a spa, restaurant, tasting room, and pool. To really feel like you’re in Italy, book a villa that overlooks the vineyards. The Inn at Europa Village is a charming, hilltop bed and breakfast. A stay includes a two-course gourmet breakfast “experience” prepared slow-food style by their in-house chef. Just want to be in the Valley? The brand new Best Western Plus or Home2Suites are both walking distance to Old Town Temecula.

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