A Weekend Spent Wining and Dining in Southern California’s
By Tom Plant
When Vince and Audrey Cilurzo came to Temecula, known as Rancho California at the time, the population was 350. This was in 1967 and they stopped here on their way to Escondido. They were on the waiting list to open a McDonald’s franchise there. They encountered a man named Dick Break who told them he had done studies and that Temecula’s climate was very similar to Napa’s. They abandoned the McDonalds idea and with Break as a consultant they planted Chenin Blanc and Petite Sirah vines. Ely Callaway opened Callaway Winery first, but the Cilurzos are truly the pioneers of Temecula Wine Country.
Today, Temecula’s population is right around 105,000. There are 40 wineries, give or take, and that number is expected to grow.
As you take Rancho California Road, the main thoroughfare through wine country, the first Winery you see on your left is Hart Winery. Joe Hart planted his vineyard in 1974 and opened Hart Winery in 1980. At the time there were four other wineries and he was open on Saturdays and by appointment. Joe is still very much a presence at the winery and you’ll find him there most weekdays. He has just passed the winemaker baton to his son Jim. There are a couple of whites, a rosé (Blanc d’Franc), several reds and an Aleatico dessert wine. The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc has just been released and it’s outstanding. Hart is rustic, unpretentious and fun to visit. Bring a picnic lunch if you like and sit at a table overlooking the vineyards. 41300 Avenida Biona, Temecula, (951) 676-6300.
As you continue down Rancho California you’ll find Bel Vino Winery about another mile down on your right. Bel Vino is where Stuart Cellars used to be. Nate Zema is the assistant winemaker and tasting room manager and he, Daniel Correa and their staff is knowledgeable, friendly and passionate about the wines they pour. They offer about a half dozen whites, most notably a Sauvignon Blanc and a Field Blend of Riesling and Chardonnay. Malbec, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc and a couple of Bordeaux blends are the stars of the reds offered and they also offer two Port-style wines, one a 1998 vintage that spent 15 years in barrel. Bel Vino’s Bistro is open Friday through Sunday serving a tasty array of foods. 33515 Rancho California Road, Temecula, (951) 676-6414.
If you’ve begun to work up an appetite, why not stop at the Creekside Grille at Wilson Creek Winery? Executive Chef Steve Stawinski is a true believer in keeping it fresh, local and seasonal. There are Wilson family favorites on the menu, like Bill’s Salmon BLT and Gerry’s Ruben. You’ll also find a pot roast sandwich. On our recent visit, I enjoyed the Sesame Duck Salad while my wife, Laura, opted for Seafood Louie. The portions were plentiful and everything was tasty. You’ll also get a bread bowl with sun-dried tomato butter and black salt. The Grille is located directly across from Wilson Creek’s tasting room. While their Almond Champagne put them on the map, they offer a few whites as well as some reds. Their Mourvedre is exceptional. 35960 Rancho California Road, Temecula, (951) 699-9463.
Back on the road for more wine tasting, proceed another few miles to Chapin Family Vineyards. Steve Chapin began selling his wines in his production facility. He was open on weekends and was, for the most part, dependent on word-of-mouth. Word soon spread of the quality wines he was producing and the makeshift tasting room wasn’t up to the task anymore. He took what was originally intended to be his vacation home and transformed it into a tasting room. Steve is on hand to greet visitors and pour for them about four days a week and is assisted by a great staff that includes Leroy, Jana, Tami and Michelle. His flagship wine is Syrah, but his Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are excellent as well. 36084 Summitville Street, Temecula (951) 506-2935.
We checked into the recently opened Wilson Creek Manor. Abby Trybulski was on hand to welcome us. She’s delightful and wanted to make certain our every need was fulfilled. A bottle of Wilson Creek Mourvedre was waiting for us along with an assortment of cheese and fruit and chocolate covered nuts. Rosie Wilson, the matriarch of the Wilson family, had left us a hand written welcome card. We stayed in the 1,600 square foot Almond Champagne Bridal Suite. The Manor is spacious and has been beautifully appointed. We explored the nine rooms, the grand kitchen and the game room for kids of all ages. The back yard offers a fire pit and plenty of open space. In the morning you’ll get coffee or tea, mimosas, fresh fruit and pastries. It’s a delightful experience. 35250 Loma Ventosa, Temecula (951) 699-9463.
It was early to bed because my alarm was set for 4:45 a.m. The next morning I took a hot air balloon ride with California Dreamin’. Our group of seven met at 5:45 at Vindemia Winery, owned by Gail and David Bradley, who also own California Dreamin’. We set off with Dave in his van and stopped twice to check the wind. He released two black helium balloons at different locations to try to determine wind velocity and direction. There’s no exact science to hot air ballooning. Sometimes you have to go with your gut. David was a 13 year old in Lawrence, Kans. whose neighbor owned a hot air balloon. His neighbor’s wife didn’t like getting up early, so he asked David if he wanted to be his assistant. He jumped at the opportunity and wound up getting licensed both as a hot air balloon pilot and a fixed wing pilot. We drove to our launch spot; he and his crew of three unfurled the balloon, aimed two powerful fans at it and began the process of inflation. We were aloft slightly past 7 a.m. Lift off is gentle, peaceful and nearly silent. They views are stunning. We floated over vineyards and nurseries and when the wind shifted a bit, so did our course. We landed just past 8 a.m., returned to Vindemia for a breakfast of fresh fruit, cheese, bread and mimosas. The rate for a balloon ride is $148 per person for a shared ride. Call (800) 373-3359 for reservations.
We began our wine tasting this day at Europa Village Winery. In the early stages of a plan that will see three separate wineries with a small village, now their tasting room offers all three labels; Bolero Cellars (Spanish), Vienza (Italian) and C’est La Vie (French). The tasting room is lovely and their staff is top notch. Dr. Doug is a sommelier who loves answering questions from his guests and extolling the virtues of the wines he is pouring. I’m a fan of the Pinot Grigio, Vermentino, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon. 33475 La Serena Way, Temecula, (888) 383- 8767.
Just across the street is Baily Vineyard and Winery, where Phil Baily has been producing mostly Bordeaux varietals and blends for more than 25 years. Phil is soft-spoken and easy going, but he’s not shy about expressing his opinion. Most of his staff has been there for years and love to pour his wines. Richard will even give you his recipe for scallops using the Montage Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend. I like the M & M Malbec and Merlot blend. They have a wonderful Cabernet Franc and a great Meritage. Carol’s restaurant is open for lunch Thursday through Sunday with burgers, hand-cut fries, salads, seafood, steak and more. 33440 La Serena Way, Temecula, (951) 676-9463.
For lunch we stopped at Meritage, located at Callaway Winery. Executive Chef Mike Henry has a creative menu that is constantly evolving. The view is a wonderful panorama of the vineyards. There is a printed menu, but don’t overlook the blackboards with daily specials, cheeses and desserts. I love their steamed Manila clams, pork belly and crispy duck confit. 32720 Rancho California Road, Temecula, (951) 676-4001.
For the day’s last tastes we stopped at Lorimar Vineyard and Winery. As you head north on Rancho California, turn left at the roundabout onto Anza Road. Lawrie Lipton and Mark Manfield own Lorimar and their tasting room will celebrate its second anniversary this May. Their large selection includes two sparkling wines, dry whites, sweet whites and several reds. Patrick McPhail oversees a friendly staff in a fun and lighthearted atmosphere that aims to take the stuffiness out of wine tasting. Marshall Stuart, Lorimar’s winemaker, is producing excellent wines. I especially love his Fusion Zinfandel/Petite Sirah blend and Crescendo Petite Sirah. New to the list is Bravia Pinot Noir with fruit sourced from Monterey. 39990 Anza Road, Temecula, (951) 694-6699.
We checked into the Inn at Europa Village where innkeeper Dean Thomas welcomed us with Viognier Sangria made with grapefruit and apple. He and wife Nicole placed us in the Libido room, named after one of Europa Village’s wines. We sat on the patio by the firepot with two other couples and visited over a glass of Europa Village’s Bolero Garnacha.
Next we headed to town for dinner at Zagara, one of the city’s newest Italian eateries. Owner Ludo gave us a warm welcome and our server Letitia was extremely attentive. Chef Giovanni prepared a heavenly Lamb Osso Buco with polenta that I practically inhaled. Laura enjoyed savory crab cakes. We shared a crème brulée for dessert. Zagara has an extensive wine list and a full bar. I enjoyed a Maddalena Cabernet Sauvignon that was an excellent accompaniment to my dinner. 41789 Nicole Lane, Temecula (951) 676-7505
We returned to the Inn and settled into our comfortable Libido room. After a restful night’s sleep, we entered the Inn for coffee and Dean’s outstanding breakfast. The Inn is the former Loma Vista bed and breakfast. The first morning Europa Village took over the inn, Dean served Loma Vista’s guests a hearty breakfast he had brought over in a cooler. Dean and Nicole will have been at the Inn at Europa Village for three years come May. Europa Village intrigued him. He liked the growth and future he saw there. He and Nicole run the 10-room inn with his sous chef Damien Sampson. When I asked him how long he and Nicole had been married he replied, “24 years or so. We stopped counting.” She was a breakfast cook at the Intercontinental in South Carolina when they first met. When he saw how organized and efficient she was at turning out eggs for 300 guests he thought, “I need to marry that girl.”
Breakfast was a fried egg with Parmesan/Reggiano cheese alongside crispy fried polenta topped with a Spanish soffrito sauce, pork belly over a parsnip puree, roast pumpkin and a zucchini and tangelo salad. He mixes things up every day, but he always tries to go to France, Italy and Spain. He has half an acre at Peltzer Farms where he can plant whatever he wants, and on the property there are citrus, pomegranate, persimmon, avocado, fig and other fruit trees. You couldn’t ask for more gracious hosts than Dean and Nicole. 33350 La Serena Way, Temecula, (877) 676-7047.
For more information on visiting the Temecula Valley, visit www.temeculawines.org.
Feature Photo at top: The view of Temecula Valley from the California Dreamin’ hot air balloon. Photo by Tom Plant.