— TEMECULA, CALIFORNIA — “Sunshine through the mist” is what the valley’s first residents named Temecula Valley. The Luiseño Indians of the Pechanga Band were the first residents. It wasn’t until the 1900s that roads finally made it to the valley and opened it up to the rest of the world. Thank goodness. Temecula Valley today is one of the most beautiful, verdant wine regions in Southern California.
Temecula has been named one of the “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and with good reason. There are 44 wineries to date, ten breweries, and two distilleries. In an area spanning only 30-miles, there are 3500-acres of grapes.
Best Things to Do in Temecula, California
Carter Estate Winery makes exceptional wines, the Founder’s Reserve Private Collection being one, and an attached resort that is nothing short of spectacular.
Upon entering my accommodations, I was stunned to find that it wasn’t your standard room but rather an entire suite. I was greeted with the Founder’s Reserve Private Collection on the dining room table with a note of welcome and a corkscrew to assist in my wine indulgence. Very nice.
Wandering out onto my private patio, I was welcomed by vineyards that went on for acres. Beautiful.
In the morning, I received coffee on the patio, fresh pastries, orange juice, and hot air balloons drifting across the vineyards, low and silent to visit pleasure on anyone fortunate enough to witness the spectacle. It was a fabulous way to begin another wonderful day.
In the evening, a bath big enough and deep enough for two and a glass of wine awaited my arrival after a long day of Temecula Valley explorations.
With a full itinerary planned for my visit, I began with dinner at the Vineyard Rose Restaurant at the South Coast winery. I’d heard good things about it, but the reports didn’t prepare me for just how wonderful it would be.
Beginning with a dinner salad, rolls, and a glass of wine, I soon realized this wasn’t just your standard salad. It had greens, cranberries, feta cheese, and candied pecans, with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing on the side.
The rolls were crunchy, soft, and chewy on the inside, with garlic and chive butter to slather on to your heart’s content. The South Coast Sauvignon Blanc was just the right combination of citrusy tartness.
Next came the main course with braised short ribs, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. The short ribs melted in my mouth with a sauce that complimented the ribs perfectly. The potatoes were buttery, creamy, and smooth.
Typically, broccoli is served just as tops, but these were long-stemmed and cooked perfectly in butter. So yummy.
Dessert was apricot bread pudding that was so refreshing I didn’t feel like I’d eaten dessert at all. Of course, they topped it with vanilla ice cream and apricot sauce. Heaven. I returned to my room, very well fed.
The following day began with the spa treatment at the Grapeseed Spa. Mud and hot stones were the order of the day.
The grounds are stunningly beautiful, with bougainvillea of different colors lining the entrance. Once inside the gate, I was greeted by a pygmy rabbit sitting smack dab in the middle of the walkway. What a cutie. Not afraid of humans at all. I took his picture; he went away, almost as if he expected to be photographed, or maybe he’d been trained to make that as part of the cost of admission. Either way, once I did the deed, he left.
An hour and a half later, I was relaxed and had a glass of wine in my hand, sitting on the veranda in a fluffy white robe. Mind you, it was only 10:30 a.m. I felt genuinely spoiled despite the hour — it was 5 o’clock somewhere.
The next stop on the agenda was the family-owned and operated Oak Mountain Winery. The owner, Valerie Andrews, showed me around and gave me a rundown on the history of the place. Oak Mountain is Southern California’s only mined wine caves. Real caves. Incredible.
Their chefs create award-winning creations in the underground Cave Café that will make your mouth water before you even take a bite. I had pulled pork tacos that were delectable along with a grapefruit-infused Sauvignon Blanc that paired very well with them.
Oak Mountain is also known for its raspberry and strawberry champagne as well as 30 other award-winning wines. Delicious.
Valerie and Steve Andrews are a husband-and-wife team. Steve is a Vietnam vet and is an engineer at the winery. Both have fascinating backgrounds.
Before becoming winemakers, their backgrounds couldn’t have been further off the winemaking path. Valerie was a painting contractor, and Steve was an auto towing and dismantling guy.
Their first winemaking endeavor was in their home. They made a delicious batch of pineapple wine. From there, they tried pumpkin wine which was “…awful. We used the wrong kind of pumpkins.”
The cave is 110-feet underground. It is naturally cool and perfect for storing wine. There is geologic evidence in the walls dating to the 1600s. They have pipes running through the floors for drainage and condensation.
The other thing Oak Mountain is known for is “Paws Fur a Cause,” an organization that raises money for animal diabetes to help folks afford medications, needles, etc., for their pets to live more comfortably with diabetes.
They also have themed parties now and again. For example, “Speakeasy” and “Under the Sea.” The parties are very popular among locals and tourists alike.
The public can have lunch or dinner at Oak Mountain following a cave tour if they choose. The chefs are not “Trained” chefs. Instead, they’re just regular folks who love cooking and feeding people. Could’ve fooled me. My pulled pork tacos were not only beautiful, but they also tasted like something you’d get at a Michelin Star restaurant. Maybe even better.
Winding down the conversation with Valerie, I discovered that Oak Mountain would soon be starting a brandy distillery. I am so there.
5. Le Coffee Shop
The next day brought breakfast at Le Coffee Shop. I was surprised by a completely unexpected atmosphere and a conversation with the owner. It turns out he and his wife are from the same town where I used to live in France. We had a short conversation in French that was so refreshing I could’ve stayed all day having café au lait and taking in the people. But I digress.
Le Coffee Shop takes pride in providing an authentic and enjoyable French dining experience with traditional breakfast and lunch as well as French pastries, desserts, and drinks. I had an orange marmalade crêpe with a café au lait. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I was sitting outside having breakfast on the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence.
Refuge brewery is also a husband-and-wife operation. Kurt and Diana Kucera specialize in Belgian Ales.
This place had me hooked with my first taste. Their flagship ale is Blood Orange Wit. So good. What was remarkable was the owners explained each beer and the flavors and why they brewed it the way they did.
They even use whiskey barrels with one of the beers to infuse it with the taste of whiskey. Impressive. They use nontraditional seasonal ingredients and are known as the fastest-growing production brewery. Refuge also has a hidden menu that you can order from, but you have to ask.
One of the best parts was seeing the production area. The equipment was designed by the owner, Kurt, because he couldn’t find what he wanted in the marketplace. The used grain and hops are donated to the local farmers as feed for their livestock once it’s dried.
Lastly, they have an entire wall of posters that their son designed. They are truly epic. Refuge Brewery is a genuine family operation.
Following my beer tasting and production tour at Refuge Brewery, it was time to put some food in my stomach to counteract the beer tasting. Exploring on my own in old town Temecula was so much fun. I ended up at Olivedippity Tasting Bar, which produces infused olive oil and aged balsamic vinegars.
Where to start? They have over 50 flavors of oils and vinegars, some of which they recommend be poured over ice cream. Now that’s something I’d never have considered trying in my wildest dreams, but it does sound interesting.
Their balsamic vinegar is sourced from Modena, Italy, and aged in casks for 12-years. The olive oil is sourced locally and from the Mediterranean. Please stop by and try it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The next stop in my wanderings was the Temecula Lavender Company. What a great place. They carry bar, liquid soaps, lotions, creams, candles, lip butter, foaming bath, salt scrubs, essential oils, massage oils, lavender shea butter, shampoo, conditioner, pillows, bags, and the list goes on.
The most exciting items to me were culinary lavender and cooking herbs and teas. Who knew you could use lavender in cooking? Though too much can cause a “soapy” taste. However, used appropriately, it makes lovely whipped cream or addition to ice cream or a fruit pie. Grilled peaches with lavender honey glaze are also part of that list. It all sounds so exotic.
This place was like a candy store for adults, only better. They have so many herbs and teas, it’s hard to pick just one. They also carry gourmet items for the kitchen. The list is exhaustive. On top of all that, they have a “tea of the month” club—what a great place.
10. Cowgirl Cantina
Cowgirl Cantina is tucked back off Front Street in Old Town, just below the Gambling Cowboy. It features “cowboy-inspired” Mexican cuisine. The atmosphere was friendly and accommodating, and the staff was excellent. This is one of those places that make you happy from the moment you walk in.
The chips and green salsa were phenomenal, with the tortilla chips made from flour and corn, rather than just one or the other. They had so much flavor. The salsa was spicy with very little heat, so I could still taste my food when it arrived.
My entrée was the Surfin’ Cowboy Taco made with tender Carne Asada, Chili-Mojo shrimp, roasted poblano chili, and caramelized onion, with chipotle aioli. Heaven wrapped in a tortilla. Make this one of your stops.
The Rose Haven Heritage Garden is open to the public, but it is a private garden. It’s home to over 2000 rosebushes and several xeriscape plants and has a lovely sitting area near an ancient olive tree. The entire garden is surrounded by a white, ranch-style fence, making it feel very safe and peaceful. There’s also a labyrinth at the entrance from the parking area for your meditative pleasure.
One of the cool things about Temecula Valley wineries is that many of them are husband-and-wife teams, most of whom had never been involved in winemaking before. They mostly came upon it while doing other things. They’re all very down to earth and love what they do and being part of a community that genuinely loves what they produce and support each other wherever necessary.
Nick Palumbo, the husband half of the Nick and Cindy Palumbo team, is the winemaker. Cindy takes the reins on the rest of the operation. According to Nick, she’s a “let’s get it done” person, which he appreciates. They make a great team.
The Palumbos started as fruit sellers and finally decided to go all-in and become winemakers after much discussion.
They make an excellent Viognier which is tart and acidic and quite yummy. Palumbo’s Rosé is unlike any I’ve ever tasted and is quite good as well. Their “sleeper” wine, which has something of an ethereal quality to it is, Monestrelle. It’s similar to Pinot Noir that has the smell and taste of Cabernet Sauvignon but has no tannins and no oak impact even though it’s aged in French oak.
There’s something in the endnotes that is hard to catch and define because there’s so much going on. It makes you want to continue drinking it to see if you can ultimately catch the flavor. So good.
Palumbo only turns out 2000 cases per year, selling primarily to their wine club and locals. Every year they sell out. In addition, their tasting room is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for wine tasting.
13. Bottega Italia – Temecula
Bottega Italia is known for simple, honest cooking; the goal is to create a unique dining experience using fresh and sustainable ingredients. There are white cloth napkins on the table with a bottle of olive oil just begging you to dip your bread or pizza crust.
I had one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, the Pepperoni. Now, most folks would think that’s pretty boring, but I promise it wasn’t. It was thin, foldable, and scrumptious. The cheese was gooey and thick, and the tomato sauce was fresh and tasty. The crust…fuggedaboudit.
They also have great Italian desserts like cannoli with chocolate chips, chocolate-filled cannoli with nuts, cannoli with pistachios, gelato, fruit tarts, etc. Mmm…
Once I’d finished with lunch, I was ready to meet with another husband-and-wife team at Lorenzi Estate Winery.
Before becoming winemakers, Don and Brenda Lorenzi worked in other fields, namely, publishing, for 30-years. They publish a beautiful regional magazine for which Don creates the recipes.
The test kitchen for those recipes is in their home, and Don is also the chef. Consequently, it was a natural transition for them to get involved in winemaking. They began that particular endeavor in their garage 20 years ago. Don’s philosophy is that “with the right recipe, you can create a stunning wine.”
As a husband-and-wife team, their philosophy is to divide and conquer. Don is the winemaker; Brenda runs the tasting room. Marketing and product promotions are decided jointly.
For the magazine, Taste of Italia, Don designs, photographs, and tests recipes, while Brenda handles subscriptions, promotions, and circulation. They are decidedly and firmly dialed into what works for them.
Regarding wines, they make a red blend called Paso Doble, a combination of Grenache and Syrah named for a Spanish dance. Besides having a great name, it’s pretty tasty. Don gets a kick out of naming Lorenzi’s wines. And make no mistake, there’s always a story behind the name. There is one other wine named Obsessive, after Don.
The Lorenzi Estate Chardonnay has a depth of flavor that is unexpected and is crafted in the Burgundian style, which is to ferment in French oak, age in French oak, and stir one time a week for 18 to 20 months, then bottle and age again for eight to nine months. Another exquisite wine and the only white that Lorenzi makes.
They turn out about 4000 cases per year and sell out every year. According to Brenda, “that’s confidence and a good product.” They also sell primarily to their wine club and locals.
E-what? Yes, you read it right…E-biking.
Electric bicycling is very popular, and “assisted” bicycling can be very helpful if you find yourself in rugged terrain or you’re plain tired and want the bike to help get you home.
Call to make your reservation with Temecula Wine Country E-bike Rentals, they ask you what size bike you want, and they deliver it to you. Very convenient. The bike is yours for four hours. Once it’s delivered to you, the delivery person shows you how to operate the bike and gives you a helmet. There is also a mount on the handlebars for you to place your GoPro or phone so you can video your ride.
With the setting of a button or two, you can have the bike help you get up hills or through rough terrain, making your cycling a bit or a lot easier, depending on your cycling style. You can also set the bike to do all the peddling for you. Just thinking here, but isn’t that called a motorcycle?
I have to admit it was pretty fun. The course through the vineyard had some patches of deep gravel, and while I pedaled, the bike got me through without much extra effort. It was an exciting way to spend an afternoon. And I didn’t crash.
What could be better than bicycling through a beautiful vineyard on a warm, breezy afternoon, then returning to a glass of wine on the private patio? Not much, I’d venture.
Have you ever wanted to tour the vineyards of Temecula on horseback? Well, now you can. Diana LeFort is the owner of Wine Country Trails by Horseback and provides a one-of-a-kind riding experience through the vineyards of Temecula Valley.
Before the 90-minute ride, each rider is fitted to a horse, so the ride through the vineyard is comfortable and beautiful. It offers an opportunity for the riders to experience a whole new perspective of the Temecula Valley.
If you don’t have any riding experience, don’t worry. The horses are gentle, and you’ll be educated on what to do before you head out.
Temecula Valley is such a melting pot of people, all of whom are nice and friendly, a quality in short supply in some places. They are more than willing to help someone out and are happy to do so. Families, singles, young, old, and anyone in between would find this a pleasant place to visit or live. The weather is pleasant, and the food scene runs the gamut from casual comfort food to elegant fine dining and the wine? Far too many good ones to choose a single one.
Don’t let that “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations” thing intimidate you. The spirit of Temecula is a welcoming find among the hubbub of everyday life. Everyone should experience it at least once, if for no other reason than to sit down with a glass of wine, a mug of craft beer, or a cup of specialty coffee, and just relax. Do it. You know you want to.