Am I a wine snob? Um, well, I like good wine. Of course everyone's definition of good wine is different. I'm a bit partial the French definition, having lived there for nearly 2 years. Italy, don't be mad. You do great work too. Napa, I may have lost a taste for some of your bold in your face flavors while enjoying the subtle, earthy nuances of French wine, but I have returned, and Napa has mellowed as well. Temecula? Yeah, not usually a name I'd include in a conversation like this, but seeing as I live in Los Angeles, sometimes a spontaneous trip to Napa or Paso Robles just isn't in the cards. Sometimes I just want, and need, to be in the vines in under 2 hours. Santa Barbara has served me well (thanks Urban Wine trail), but it was time to (re)visit the wine down south in Temecula.
Temecula has quite literally built itself into a wedding and event mecca. Places likes South Coast Winery, Wilson Creek Winery and Ponte Family Estate Winery have created one stop shopping for a party complete with wine, food and accommodations. Pechanga Resort also offers a casino, restaurant, golf and nightlife perfect for the last visit I made for a friend's baby shower (don't worry she adopted. No pregnant wine drinkers with us). We did the whole obnoxious rent a limo, day drink, enjoy ourselves too loudly, and have a rollicking good time, but it wasn't about the wine. Temecula was, and is, built for a fun time. Again, definitions will vary widely on fun, especially depending on your age and if you're looking to mingle, or get serious with wine tasting. This trip, I wanted to see if I could in fact, get serious with wine tasting in Temecula.
One way to get serious is to visit Temecula during the week when said bachelorette and wedding parties aren't crowding the tasting rooms. So I set out on a random Thursday with fellow hooky playing friend in tow, and we were happy to receive lots of undivided attention everywhere we went. Another weekday drinking note: check the Temecula Valley Wine website before you go, as there are many wineries offering 2 for 1 coupons. Most places charge around $12 for at least 6 tastings, and I was surprised to see that most people did not credit back the tasting fee when buying a bottle. The production is often not large enough to be able to give the wine away.
We started at Hart, which is one of the first major wineries you'll hit off the 15 when arriving in the area. Hart was one of the originals, producing wine from way back in 1980. Yeah, that's old here. Like most Temecula wineries, Hart offers some white and a Rose, and like most, you should simply avoid them and skip right to the reds. Refer back to the wine snob comment, but if you like your wine sweet with citrus and fruit notes, then forget my last statement (not about being a wine snob though, you'll need to remember that), you'll love the whites.
There's a lot of fruit flavors in the reds too, but some of the older vines produce decent balance, like Hart's Syrah from 41 year old vines that we learned were planted just off the side of the driveway where we entered. Since they hand pick the grapes, I'm going to assume they're not keeping the fruit that's growing right beside the road. Hart also sources grapes locally to round out the portfolio. Other notable reds include the solid Mouvedre and Cab. Most of the wines here are retailing in the $30s, which isn't cheap, but also doesn't break the bank. And the majority of the Temecula wines can only be bought on site or through their wine club, so if you like something grab it, or enjoy it in a nearby restaurant, because you won't see it elsewhere.
Our next stop was one of the founding wineries of Temecula, Callaway, and the first to open a tasting room. Yes, this is the same Callaway name you know from golf and you can in fact golf here. And you may want to bypass the wine and go directly to golf. Ok, they weren't all horrible, but some of them scarred us. They do have a large library and I will say that they had our favorite Temecula white with their 2011 Special Selection Chardonnay - crisp, fresh, easy drinking.
Others weren't as easy. The dump bucket got a workout here, but of the reds, try the 2010 Winemaker's Reserve Calliope, a blend of the best on the vineyard. The Syrah and Profonde were also drinkable. Reds are predominant here and everywhere due to the warm weather which is in the mid 80s in "winter" and can get up to 100 in summer, so that's why you'll find big bold, fruit filled reds, but no Pinot Noir as the grape is too delicate for the temperature. Luckily there are some cool breezes at night, being 1,500 feet above sea level, and some good granite in the soil.
Callaway does have a beautiful, new tasting room with sweeping vine views. They also have a nice gift shop for all your wine tchotchkes, and even have wine dispensers to serve yourself if you don't want to talk to anyone. You might also want to stop in to Callaway's Meritage for lunch to refuel before hitting more wineries.
We wanted to compare a large winery to a smaller one, so we went smaller from here, and spoiler alert, it only gets better. Callaway produces about 13,000 cases per year whereas our next stop Doffo, only makes 3,500. The differences don't stop there. Doffo was one of our favorite stops. It's family owned and was begun by a motorcycle rider and enthusiast who has Italian ancestors with farm land in Argentina and Turin. The founder, Marcela, eventually immigrated to the US where he bought land and starting growing grapes. He's only been at it a few years, but is already experiencing great results. He even plays music in the vineyards, because like cows, happy vines produce happy wine.
The Mistura is 60% Cabarnet Sauvignon and 40% Syrah and is Doffo's #1 seller, and with good reason. It's velvety and balanced with ripe fruit, spice and oak. At $38, it's a decent buy. Another favorite was the Malbec with more great mouthfeel and a little bolder, but also a little pricier at $59. It pairs well with a homemade garlic chimichurri sauce that you can sample and purchase with the wine. The Reserve Syrah is served in a super cool bottle that can sit on its side for non-stop party fun, especially when you're having trouble keeping things upright. You may also want to grab some of their non-vintage ruby red port. Doffo offered a nice chocolate pairing with the port and you'll leave on one happy note with that final taste.
Our spirits were lifted after leaving Doffo, but we were also nervous that perhaps we peaked. Next stop was Lorenzi, an even smaller winemaker, producing just 2,000 cases. They're one of the newer kids on the block having just opened in November of 2013, though some of their vineyards date back to 2003. In that short amount of time, Wine Enthusiast rated their 2009 Catalyst blend of Zin, Syrah, Grenache, Merlot and Cab Sauv a 94, which sky rocketed the bottle price to $120. A bit pricey, but dang, a really good wine.
A little more affordable, but also solid were Lorenzi's Rated R blend ($48) of Merlot, Syrah and Zin with sweet and spicy notes, and the 2011 Cab Franc produced from 2004 vines ($58), their first estate Cab Franc. They use a lot of French oak at Lorenzi and you can taste the subtle hints of vanilla that the French are so fond of, and yes, moi aussi.
Our final stop was Wiens, another family estate, begun by Doug Wiens, and continued with the help of his brothers. We were moving back into larger wine territory with a wedding venue at Wiens, but they still had some solid varietals like their 2013 Zin, Reserve GSM and 2011 Chateau Grand Rouge. The reds were bigger, on the fruitier side, though I thought the GSM was really well balanced, but I wasn't ready to plunk down $90 for that. The labels and art were all beautiful and a nice end to a day that yielded nothing but surprisingly good results.
Temecula is still a place where large groups can go to celebrate a special occasion, but now there is some more serious wine being produced for those looking for a quick getaway in the San Diego - Los Angeles - Palm Desert region. The number of vineyards in Temecula has already doubled in 10 years from 20 to 40. I can only imagine as the vines age and everyone gets a little more time and experience under their belts, this place will improve even more like the wines they're producing.
Hart Family Winery
41300 Avenida Biona
32720 Rancho California Road
36083 Summitville Street
Lorenzi Estate Wines
36095 Monte De Oro Road
Wiens Family Cellars
35055 Via Del Ponte