To most Americans, the phrase “wine country” means Napa Valley; to the sophisticated it can also mean Sonoma County or even Santa Barbara. Few think of Temecula Valley.
Yet many other regions of California beside the “big brands” have prime growing conditions for fine wine grapes, including the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, Sierra Foothills, Mendocino County, and Paso Robles.
Many were first recognized as having the right soils and climates for fine wine grapes by studies conducted by the University of California and state agricultural experts dating back as early as the 1880s.
Temecula: A History for Growing Wine Grapes
One region that the experts, as late as 1972, said was not right for planting fine wine grapes, at least for table wine, was Temecula Valley in southern Riverside County. In a report some 40 years ago, agriculture experts said that wine grapes growing south of the Tehachepi Mountains would be best for dessert wines such as port and sherry, but not for dry table wines.
That was odd in view of the fact that the region grew grapes for sound table wines as recently as the 1940s. Moreover, the experts’ comments about the area being too warm to grow fine wine grapes ignored the fact that a gap in the western hills, the so-called Rainbow Gap, permitted late-afternoon cooling ocean breezes that kept acids in the grapes to a sound level and made for balanced wines — and slowed down maturation of the grapes.
The small narrow swath through the southern Riverside County hills known as Temecula Valley offers that perfect harmony of climate, adding to well-drained soils to create a new “wine country,” and that’s what it means to many who live within range of this area and who tour it regularly.
And regularly it is toured. Just 60 miles north of San Diego and 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles, Temecula draws thousands of visitors weekends; weekdays aren’t as heavily traveled except in summer.
Touring the Temecula wineries is rather easy in view of almost all the dozen wineries are within a three-mile radius and all are hospitable and parking is not a problem.
Start a tour with breakfast in Old Town Temecula, west of
Interstate 15 — and see if you can tear yourself away from the plethora of antique shops.
Drive east on Rancho California Road four miles to the first winery in the region, Hart Winery. White-bearded former teacher Joe Hart was among the first to blaze the Rancho California Road trail, founding a winery here nearly 40 years ago, when the region was still brush and undeveloped rocky ridges.
Today Hart Winery remains small and unaffected by the development of homes and wineries around him. Joe continues to make some of the best wines in the region. His Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc will surprise you for their high quality, and his rose and red wines, one a Bordeaux-styled blend, are a treat.
Just next door is Callaway, the really Big Guy in the Temecula neighborhood. Callaway was founded by former textile king Ely Callaway, one of the real pioneers in this area, who later sold the winery to Allied Lyons of England and who then went on to success in a third career — developing the famed Hickory Stick golf club line.
Callaway Winery, once entirely a white wine producer, today makes an array of stylish wines.
Perhaps the best winery in the region is on down the road a couple of miles to south Coast Winery.
Twice named by the California State Fair wine competition as the winery of the year or its great wines, South Coast has won more medals than any winery in the Temecula area. Also on site is a handsome and luxurious hotel and spa as well as a fine restaurant.
Jon McPherson is the wine maker at South Coast and his wines are also available at the winery’s sit-down restaurant.
For dinner, there is no better spot to stop than at Carol’s Café, affiliated with Baily Vineyard and Winery and located on the same property along Rancho California Road. The continental cuisine Carol’s is exceptional. Phil Baily, Carol’s husband, also makes an array of excellent wines.
For Southern Californians, this part of southern Riverside County is wine country. There are literally dozens of Temecula wineries with hospitable tasting rooms and the entire region is worth investigating.
For detailed information, contact the Temecula Wineries Assn. at 951-801-9463 or see the website http://www.temeculawines.org.