By Marissa Willman
Tucked away in our backyard is a town “where the sun comes through the mist.” We know it better as Temecula, and the vino savvy know it best as Southern California’s premier wine country. With summer temperatures in the triple digits and cool vineyards less than a two-hour drive away, what are you waiting for? Pack your bags – and your favorite wine glass – for a summer getaway to Temecula.
When you’re coming to visit the wineries, you may just want to sleep among the vineyards at one of the wineries with an onsite hotel. But don’t dismiss the limited-service hotels lining Jefferson Avenue: these aren’t the no-frills hotels you thought they were.
Case in point: The Hampton Inn & Suites Temecula (951-506-2331, rates from $109/night), where stonework accents greet you from the moment you arrive. Comfort is king throughout, whether you’re kicking back in your oversized room or reading the day’s paper in the grandiose lobby.
Attention to detail can make or break a hotel stay, but with touches like disposable earphones in the gym (in case you forgot to pack a pair) to microwavable popcorn in your room (and not a minibar charge to be found), you won’t be left wanting for much. A hefty continental breakfast, in-room microwave and fridge, pool and business center round out the amenities here, and with a location just minutes from Old Town and a 10-minute drive to the wineries, the Hampton Inn sets the bar for value.
Wandering through the Wineries
There’s a secret to why Temecula makes for prime wine-growing country, and it’s called the Rainbow Gap. This W-shaped dip in the Coastal Mountain Range allows the sunny days to cool off substantially at night, making both wine grapes and desert rats happy come summer.
Dozens of wineries call Temecula Valley home, and you’ll find most along the vineyard-lined Rancho California Road. First-time wine tasters and those looking to sip without pretention will appreciate Callaway Vineyard and Winery (951-676-4001, callawaywinery.com). Before you get to the tasting, though, stop by the onsite Meritage Restaurant, headed by Chef Mike Henry. The intimate, glass-enclosed patio overlooking Callaway’s vineyards sets the scene for lunch with the girls or a romantic date night.
The Meritage menu is greatly influenced by his travels to Europe, Central and South America, and you’ll find tapas, salads, seafood and steak with farm-to-table roots that are only fitting. Start with the ceviche mixto (citrus-marinated tuna, octopus, clams, wild shrimp and blue crab) with a glass of 2010 Special Selection Sauvignon Blanc before digging into a half chicken roasted with herbs or the daily special, which you’ll find on the blackboard against the wall.
Sangria Sundays bring music and wine to the lounge, while Women & Wine Wednesdays bring a lighthearted craft hour (with small plates by Chef Mike Henry) to the Reserve Room.
In the tasting room, you can opt for a self-serve or guided experience. The self-serve pourers help move the tasting experience along on a busy afternoon, but chatting with the living, breathing wine pourers behind the bar can help you unearth your next treasured wine, such as the sweet Gewurztraminer (lychee, rose petal, apple, candied orange peel and nectarine) or the heavy-hitting Mourvedre (blackcurrant, dried cranberry and licorice).
Two miles up the road, enthusiastic winos looking for an energetic vibe will enjoy an afternoon at Ponte Winery (951-694-8855, pontewinery.com). Before your tastings, it’s worth touring the lush grounds of this 10-year-old winery to see Temecula’s largest vineyard up close. The tour also includes a stop at the barrel room, where you can pour a sip of wine from the oversized oak barrels.
The tasting room at Ponte offers no shortage of custom blended reds and whites to choose from. The hands-down standouts here, though, are the Beverino (a sweet red that means “easy to drink” in Italian) and the Zinfandel Port, with notes of dark chocolate, blueberries and black currant that don’t mess around.
Two restaurants vie for your attention at Ponte: The Restaurant at Ponte, a popular outdoor dining spot where lunch reservations are strongly recommended, and Bouquet at Ponte Vineyard Inn, where you can enjoy romantic vineyard views in a more subdued setting. The Restaurant at Ponte shines with farm-fresh salads, pastas and wood-fired pizzas, while Bouquet’s fine dining experience offers Mediterranean and Californian influences.
Wine tastings end at 5 p.m., but the fun certainly doesn’t. One of the highlights of Ponte is The Cellar Lounge, where wine enthusiasts mix and mingle in the dimly lit and elegantly decorated basement cellar. Here, you can lose yourself in the evenings with a few pours of your new favorite wine over small plates with new friends.
A Stroll Through Old Town Temecula
On any given weekday, you can head to the one-mile stretch of Old Town Front Street and find yourself passing by a class of 3rd graders as a volunteer teaches them about Temecula’s history. On Saturday mornings, you’ll find the street teeming with produce, flowers and handmade crafts from local farmers and artists during the weekly farmers’ market.
No matter what day of the week you visit, you won’t find chain stores or big retailers here – instead, you’ll discover local treasures like Temecula Olive Oil (951-693-0607, temeculaoliveoil.com), where you can taste more variations of olive oil and vinegar than you ever dreamed were possible, all for free. The tasting guides seem to have their favorite EVOO and vinegar blends, such as the blood orange olive oil (pressed with crushed blood oranges) mixed with a vanilla bean and fresh fig balsamic vinegar. Another favorite? The fresh basil olive oil mixed with pomegranate white vinegar. Yes, you could spend hours in the bottle-lined tasting room, mixing and matching until you find the perfect – if not unexpected – match.
Venture further down Old Town Front Street, following the wafts of lavender until you find Jan Schneider at Temecula Lavender Co. (951-676-1931, temeculalavenderco.com), where what started with just a few plants bloomed into a full-time business. Lotions, soaps, bubble baths, oils, candles, scrubs and even jellies are made with the fragrant plant, of which Schneider grows 17 different varieties. This summer, you can even tour the 6,000-plant farm in wine country by appointment.
Back on Old Town Front Street, you’ll find all sorts of shops beckoning you to stop in for a visit. And in true Old Town fashion, you’ll find the actual owners behind the counters, ready to chat about their wares, Temecula or even the weather. Be sure to stop by Old Town Sweet Shop (951-693-1919, oldtownsweetshop.com), a retro candy store selling old-time favorites like candy cigarettes and candy buttons. Aside from the impressive selection of yesterday’s favorite candies, you can feast on freshly crafted sweets ranging from fudge to chocolate-covered potato chips. Down the street a bit further, you can wash down a couple slices of chocolate bacon with your choice of more than 500 soda varieties at Old Town Root Beer Company (951-676- 5088). Consider this a challenge to try to think of a soda that owner Cory Montgomery doesn’t stock. Good luck.
When it’s time for a heartier meal, you’ll find all sorts of Old Town novelties to please the palette – but don’t judge on appearance alone. The Gambling Cowboy (951-699-2895, gamblingcowboy.com), for example, looks like a Wild West saloon from the outside but once you enter, you realize it’s actually a rather upscale steakhouse with an impressive menu. And while Texas Lil’s Mesquite Grill (texaslilsmesquitegrill.com) looks like little more than a red barbecue shack on a corner in Old Town, don’t turn your nose up: any local will tell you Texas Lil serves up the very best tri-tip and baby back ribs in the city. From the upstairs patio at the Gambling Cowboy or a stool facing the heart of Old Town at Texas Lil’s, sit back and enjoy where the sun comes through the mist.