For much of my life as a wine-sipping adult, I assumed vineyards in California were synonymous with the area north of San Francisco in Napa Valley and Sonoma. That all changed, however, with a road trip to Palm Springs.
As I headed out to the desert, I rolled through green hills lush with grapevines framed by the stunning peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains. Quiet roads turned off the main highway toward boutique wineries, and I even spied a hot air balloon hovering in the distance. Tucked into the vines, I saw the name “Temecula” on a wooden sign and immediately added it to my “must-visit” list.
It turns out Temecula, also known as Southern California’s wine country, is a gem hiding in plain sight. Best of all, it’s an easy day trip to explore the nearly four dozen wineries that dot the terrain and check out the charming old town filled with boutique shops and appealing dining spots — all without the crowds of Northern California’s grape areas.
Grapes of Discovery
Temecula’s rolling hills and green valleys produce a wide variety of wines, including sophisticated reds such as shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and pinot noir, as well as buttery chardonnay. Instead of large corporate wineries, Temecula features small, often family-owned vineyards. Some notable ones include Hart Family Winery, Palumbo Family Vineyards, Lorenzi Estate Vineyards and Doffo Winery. Other, larger options offer on-site dining and impressive amenities, including BOTTAIA winery, led by an all-female winemaking team that specializes in Italian varietals, including pinot grigio. Amenities here include a restaurant and pool, where you can pull up a chaise lounge for the afternoon (personally, I can make a day of this winery alone, so I try and hit it last). Another impressive stop is Leoness Cellars, whose dining room was voted the Best Winery Restaurant by USA Today for four consecutive years.
Although the sunny weather in Southern California makes visiting Temecula easy any time of year, harvest season in September brings a menu of additional events to enjoy in the vineyards. You can plan a visit to coincide with traditional activities like grape-stomping, arts and entertainment including Shakespeare in the Vines, or the annual CRUSH Wine and Culinary Showcase, where you can sip and taste some of the best the region has to offer all in one spot.
Sip Without Worry
For a day trip to wine country, it’s important to have a designated driver. The easiest way is to leave the driving to the professionals. Two wine tour companies to try: Straight Off the Vine and Rockn’ Wine Tours. Or for a DIY tour option, follow the De Portola Wine Trail, a series of nine local wineries often referred to as “Wine Row.”
Temecula Beyond the Wine Glass
There are plenty of other ways to enjoy this lush green getaway. Hot-air ballooning is at the top of my list for viewing the beautiful rolling hills. Options include California Dreamin’ for an early morning mimosa ride, Magical Adventures for appetizers and champagne, and Grape Escape, which is the official ride operator for the Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival, held the first weekend in June. You can also explore circa-1880s Old Town Temecula, where you can stroll its wooden boardwalks and window shop among antiques stores and local boutiques. Farm-to-fork restaurant options include Luke’s on Front, for rooftop dining with gorgeous views, Espadin for modern Mexican, and The Goat & Vine for stone-hearth pizzas and other rustic fare, all paired with local wines for the perfect wrap-up to a fabulous wine day in Temecula.
Vineyard to Villa
Perhaps best of all, you can take a taste of Temecula with you. Purchase a favorite bottle or two and then bring them back to your villa, where you can set up your own tasting in the comfort of your stylish getaway. You can swirl and sip while you watch the sunset and toast to your day of wine tasting.