“Here’s to the good life!” said the cheery, garrulous Patrick McIlvain, winery manager at Lorimar Vineyards and Winery in Southern California’s Temecula Valley, after treating visitors to a tour, wine tastings and some bumpy off-roading through vineyards bursting with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
Off-roading too rough for you? No problem. At Lorimar, where the bottle labels carry music-inspired monikers such as Allegro and Crescendo, you can also groove to blues and rock concerts, browse an art gallery and view movies projected onto inflatable outdoor screens.
Temecula Valley, a young, burgeoning wine region with more than 30 vineyards. The valley is about 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles and a million miles away from the wine snobbery satirized by the 2004 film “Sideways,” in which a cranky oenophile flinches at the mere mention of Merlot.Opened less than two years ago, Lorimar personifies the insouciant spirit of
Not that Temecula Valley wines are low-brow. Many vintages have earned gold and silver medals at county, state, national and international competitions. South Coast Winery Resort and Spa, a valley mainstay, was just named Golden State Winery of the Year in the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.
But the ambience in the tasting rooms and restaurants here is more casual than you’ll find in California’s better known Napa Valley north of San Francisco, and prices often are lower. Hot-air balloon trips, for instance, can be booked for about $150 a person, or about $50 less than many such trips command in Napa.
The landscape is different too. On a recent sunrise balloon ride, 11 of us who shared a basket together viewed far more than vineyards. We drifted by orange and grapefruit groves, Mount Palomar with its renowned observatory, and the sprawling Pechanga Resort and Casino. We dipped so low that we spotted rabbits scampering between rows of vines and called out to well-wishers waving to us from their patios.
California Dreamin’, gamely explained. For our horizontal movements, we were at the mercy of the breezes, which dictated our landing spot after more than an hour in flight.Except for the intermittent whir of the burners that kept us aloft, we floated silently. “I can’t control where the balloon goes,” David Bradley, pilot and co-owner of our tour operator,
To celebrate our safe arrival, we breakfasted on pastries, fruit, mimosas and sparkling Grenache on a patio at Vindemia vineyard and winery, which Bradley co-owns. Yes, we were imbibing before 9 a.m. Wine country does that to you. Thus fortified, we competed in stomping grapes, an activity that some area vineyards offer on special occasions. No, that’s not how they make wine here, but Maria Melo, an intern at Vindemia, said her native Portugal still enlists feet on the first crush for some ports.
Founded in 2005 and producing about 1,200 cases a year, Vindemia is smaller than most Temecula Valley wineries. But its youth is typical. This is a wine region where many establishments are less than 20 years old.
A wide range of grape varieties, including Riesling, Fume Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, thrive in the sunny, Mediterranean-type climate, according to the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association. The wines, from vines planted in loam — a rich soil of clay, sand and organic matter — are known for a distinctive “minerality” or “flintiness,” said Gus Vizgirda, winemaker at Maurice Car’rie Vineyard and Winery.
Harvest season, typically from August to mid-October, brings activities here to a fever pitch. “I haven’t had a day off since Aug. 3,” Vizgirda said during a mid-September tour of his winery, which dates to 1986, making it one of the area’s more venerable vintners. “My wife says she’s a wine widow.”
While the bustle is fun for visitors, there’s a downside: Daytime highs in summer can reach triple digits, as they did during my trip. The weather is likely to be milder for the season’s big closing event, the Nov. 2-3 Harvest Celebration, which will include barrel tastings, food sampling and tours of wineries throughout the valley.
You don’t have to be a wine connoisseur to enjoy visiting the Temecula Valley. Besides taking hot-air balloon trips, you can golf at several courses, ride horses, bike, hike, gamble or take in a show at the Pechanga resort, browse the shops in historic Old Town Temecula and more.
Typical of wine country, gourmet restaurants abound. New inns and dining venues seem to spring up daily. Among the latest to open:
• Wilson Creek Manor, a nine-suite retreat across from the family-owned Wilson Creek Winery and Vineyards.
• South Coast Winery Resort and Spa has added 50 guest suites to its lodging options.
• Ponte Vineyard Inn, rated Four Diamonds by AAA, with a restaurant and 60 rooms at the 300-acre Ponte Winery.
• Farm House Kitchen at the Temecula Creek Inn. This restaurant, with a bar, serves up creative “farm-to-table” fare, premium wines, several barrel-aged whiskies and a panoramic view of its golf course. The executive chef, Igor Krichmar, is the former executive sous chef at the tony Montage Deer Valley in Park City, Utah.
With growth come growing pains, and the Temecula Valley is no exception. My lamb chop at the Farm House Kitchen, for instance, arrived well done, not medium rare to medium as intended, when I dined on the day after the restaurant opened for business.
But certainly you can rely on one thing in this ever-changing region: Whatever it’s like today, it will be different tomorrow. That’s part of the adventure.
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