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Forget Napa, Temecula Is the Underrated Wine Region to Visit in 2024

Friday, January 19, 2024 2:00 PM

Photo: Flickr/Karon Elliot Edleson

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A wine-filled escape just a couple hours drive from LA and San Diego.

By Mary Beth Abate, and Ben Mesirow

In most well-established wine regions, wine tasting presents a compelling juxtaposition of cultures, the aspirational and the agricultural. Wineries trend toward luxury, sumptuous palaces built in the style of European chateaus, but at their core wineries are farms—winemaking is hard, messy manual labor that just happens to produce a product considered sophisticated, a fit for the finest tables. On wine tasting trips, groups often chase prestige, awards, and price. But for as great as they are, Southern Californians who run straight to vaunted Napa or Sonoma or even Santa Barbara wine regions are missing a rustic, casual wine tasting trip with some great juice in its own right—Temecula wine country is the underrated wine region to visit this year.

There have only been commercial wineries in the Temecula Valley since the mid-’60s, but in the intervening 55 years the industry has grown immensely and there are now almost 50 active wineries. It’s an officially recognized AVA with hot afternoons and cooler nights thanks to the breeze off of the Pacific Ocean, which gives the area the right growing conditions for lots of different grapes, particularly Mediterranean varieties. With all those wineries to explore (and lots of other things to do in Temecula), it makes a fantastic day trip from LA or from San Diego, and a fun, laid-back weekend getaway in Southern California. To help you make the most of your visit, here are the best wineries in Temecula:

Wiens Cellars

Wiens Cellars started in 1996 with five varietals on 14 acres, but over the last 27 years they’ve grown to 150 acres with some 27 grape varietals planted across them. The tasting spaces are similarly expansive, from the classic mahogany-decked tasting room, to the cellar lined with tanks and barrels, to the large outdoor lawn and patio outside. They also regularly host local artists on a stage set up at the edge of the lawn, most often on weekends through peak season. Wiens has earned a great reputation for their big red wines like syrah and tempranillo, but don’t overlook their well-built chardonnay and fiano.

Bottaia Winery

This Italian-inspired destination vineyard offers four luxurious wine tasting options, in addition to a pool (the only all-ages section of the property), plus a cafe and cocktail bar. Bottaia is one of the newer wineries in the region, though the Ponte family have been farming in Temecula since 1985, and have operated their namesake winery for 15 years, focusing on unique Italian varietals. You can enjoy those wines on the covered deck, in the living room lounge, at a seated tasting with charcuterie, in the barrel room where you can taste wines from the barrel, or in the wine blending lab where you can become a winemaker for the day.

Oak Mountain Winery

Oak Mountain Winery opened in 2005, specializing in temperate Mediterranean varietals typical of the Temecula valley, but they’re also known for their bubbly wines, including Bentley’s Bubbles, a pale pink Grenache rosé that’s full of fruit and berries, with a lovely floral nose. You can enjoy them in the tasting room or on the expansive pavilion, but for a truly unique experience, make a reservation for a tour of SoCal’s only mined subterranean wine cave. You’ll travel 104 feet underground to the 10,000-square-foot cave where you’ll learn more about the winery and enjoy a pairing of cheese and charcuterie with estate wines. If spirits are more your style, they also run The Cave Distillery, a speakeasy-style distillery and lounge with their own bourbon, single-malt whiskey, vodkas (both grape and corn-based), gin, rum, and agave spirits.

Somerset Vineyard & Winery

Lovely Somerset Vineyard & Winery sits at the head of De Portola Road and specializes in Spanish varietals and Rhône grapes. It’s open later than most Temecula tasting rooms, which typically close at 5 pm—on Friday and Saturday you can visit until 9 pm, when they also have live music. Book a "Behind the Scenes View" of the wine-making process and their amphorae aging vessels, along with six tastings, including a barrel sample, held three times a day on Saturday and Sunday, but reserve at least a day in advance. There’s no on-site restaurant, but the tasting room has a nice selection of cheeses, charcuterie, and pre-packaged salads.

Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery

Palumbo is a Certified Sustainable Vineyard & Winery, which means they use farming practices like fertilizing with composted grape pomace and using beneficial insects, soil fauna, and natural predators like owls and hawks to repel pests. Even the tasting bar is made of recycled wood from scraps found at a local guitar factory. The grapes for their signature full bodied reds are estate-grown or sourced from nearby properties. Choose a standard tasting or reserve a tour for a deeper dive into the winemaking process. The winery is open Friday-Sunday from 11 am-5 pm and unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on the property.

Callaway Vineyard and Winery

In 1969, long before he became a big figure in the golf industry, Ely Reeves Callaway, Jr., purchased a plot of land in the Temecula Valley that provided spectacular views of the surrounding hills and valleys, which he turned into one of Temecula’s founding estate wineries. Callaway wines are 100% estate-grown and include cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, and syrah fermented with wild yeasts, as well as a number of dessert and sparkling wines.There is also Meritage, the farm-to-table restaurant on the premises, where you can taste their wines with a full meal

Cougar Vineyard and Winery

After a couple decades as home winemakers in Texas and eastern Washington, Rick and Jennifer Buffington purchased a small plot of land in Fallbrook and planted it with brachetto, a relatively obscure Italian varietal, grown mostly in Piedmont, that produces light-bodied, aromatic wines ranging from still to spumante. Their success with it led to becoming a bonded winery in 2004, and purchasing their Temecula property a year later. There they planted additional Italian varietals from the familiar sangiovese, barbera, and pinot grigio to the lesser known ones like arneis, a white grape grown in Piedmont, and vermentino, another white variety that mainly hails from Sardinia and Liguria. Sangio’s Deli is on hand serving up pizza, charcuterie, sandwiches, salads, and appetizers. Cougar Vineyard and Winery is open daily from 11 am–6 pm.

Briar Rose Winery

If you’ve ever wanted to sip a crisp chardonnay or an elegant tempranillo in Snow White’s cottage, Briar Rose Winery is the place for you. It was originally built in the 1970s by a former Disney artisan as a gift for his wife. It’s now a micro-winery owned by the Linkogle family, who produce around 3,500 cases, ranging from cabernet sauvignon and merlot to rosé fumé and muscat canelli, and an unusual bubbly called Talking Frog, a blend of viognier and lager. Note that Briar Rose Winery is open Friday-Sunday from 12–5 pm only, animals are not permitted, and no one under 21 is allowed on the estate.

Leoness Cellars

The founders of Leoness Cellars share more than fifty years experience in farming in the Temecula Valley, first with avocados and citrus before moving on to grapes and wine production. Now their winery is known as much for its tall brick tower as it is for its signature cabernet sauvignons, and for their specialty tours with a focus on education in addition to sipping. Those include The Perfect Wine Experience, an all-encompassing private guided tour by one of the estate’s sommeliers, where you’ll enjoy a red wine sojourn through their Rolling Hills Estate Vineyard, learn about the processes of farming and barrel aging, as well as a look at the winemaking facilities, followed by a laid-back tasting of Leoness’ premium red blends and single-vineyard varietals. The namesake restaurant on site is wonderful when you’re looking for a more upscale dining experience to accompany your wine adventure. Reservations are not required for tastings, but are recommended for groups of six or more.

Falkner Winery

Sip Falkner Winery’s award-winning wines while overlooking the Temecula Valley at 1,500 feet of elevation. The most popular choices from the wide-ranging wine list are the flagship Bordeaux-style Meritage and Super Tuscan Amante, as well as their “Seductive Series” line, created for customers who prefer a slightly sweeter style. There’s an array of tastings and tours, from basic to a full VIP experience that includes six select wines, a charcuterie board, a Falkner logo glass, and a coupon for a discount on a full bottle. You can also have lunch at The Pinnacle, Falkner’s upscale restaurant, for spectacular views from floor-to-ceiling windows and a fitting Mediterranean-influenced menu.

Fazeli Cellars

Stunning modern Moorish architecture and warm hospitality are the hallmarks of Bizhan “BJ” Fazeli’s beautiful winery, which boasts one of the widest range of varietals in the Temecula Valley. Their wines are produced both from estate vineyards and select local growers, and the names of the collections are an homage to Fazeli’s Persian roots—The Heritage Collection honors five Persian poets, Embrace the Chaos includes Pandemonium, Rukus, Mayhem, and Uproar, and the popular Season Collection celebrates annual solstices and equinoxes. If you’re visiting at lunchtime, stop by Baba Joon’s Kitchen for Persian-influenced appetizers, sandwiches, salads, and flatbreads.

Doffo Wines

Marcelo Doffo grew up on a family farm in Argentina before immigrating to the United States as a young man. A visit to his ancestral home in Italy inspired him to begin making wine, first in his garage, then on a small parcel of land he purchased in the Temecula Valley; now more than 25 years later, the Doffo family has become integral to the local wine scene. They grow cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel and malbec, in addition to making red blends, a few dessert wines, grappa, and a cuvée-style sparkling wine enhanced with just a touch of muscat. They’ve also gained recognition for MotoDoffo, Marcelo’s collection of rare and vintage motorcycles and scooters, along with a MotoDoffo apparel line and three MotoDoffo red wines.

Akash Winery

Akash Winery opened their tasting room in 2019, but for the Patel family, the dream of owning their own vineyard goes back more than two decades. Now they produce two different lines, in partnership with celebrated winemaker Renato Sais. The estate wines include a variety of grapes grown on-site, while their Dreamville Wines are collaborative products using varietals not currently grown on the Akash estate. The winery itself doesn’t offer food, but they do host regular food vendors, Brew Boyz Tacos during the week and Bocconcini pizza on the weekends.

Baily Vineyard and Winery

Carol and Phil Baily planted their first acre of grapes on Mother’s Day in 1982, adding acreage while taking courses in enology and viticulture at UC Davis, and slowly their vineyard grew to 25 acres of mostly Bordeaux varietals. They have two different tasting rooms at separate locations: the Baily Visitor Center, where you can sample the current releases, and the Estate Tasting Room, their reservation-only, state-of-the-art production facility. There, you can taste six years of a single variety of wine for a fun vertical flight. Ask about the Library Wine of the Month program, in which Phil Baily chooses one or more library wines that are poured at both tasting rooms as a bonus to the regular tasting and available to purchase at discount.

Miramonte Winery

Miramonte Winery has one of the loveliest views in the Temecula Valley from their perch at 1,400 feet of elevation. They started out focusing on varietals from the Southern Rhône Valley, but now they’ve branched out to include some from Spain and Portugal, including tempranillo, verdelho, albariño, touriga nacional, and macabeo. Refuel at their onsite restaurant Flower Hill Bistro, where they serve flatbreads, salads, and one of the better burgers around.