It is possible to taste the products of all 14 of Temecula's wineries (and one microbrewery) in a single weekend, but if you drink it all down every time someone sets a sample in front of you, you're in for a potential midday headache.
And that would spoil one of the more cozy and tranquil Southland weekends you can arrange. Two days in Temecula wine country can be a tonic for the soul and the palate. It doesn't have the tony reputation of Napa or Northern California's dizzying variety of wines, but it has charm to burn and its relative compactness makes it a cinch to get around to see it all.
It is, as they say, freeway close: Exit the southbound I-15 from the Riverside area at Rancho California Road, head east for a bit less than five miles and you're in the vineyards.
You're also at the Loma Vista Bed & Breakfast, my home for the weekend. Perched on a small hill overlooking the vineyards of the Callaway winery to the west, the mission-style Loma Vista is only 8 years old, but it is spotless, bright, airy, stylish, tranquil and magnificently landscaped, and the owners, Betty and Dick Ryan, know their neighborhood well.
I had heard about the Loma Vista rather indirectly. Every time I asked friends about a good place to stay in Temecula, the answer was always something such as, "Oh, yeah. I heard there was a really great B&B; out there. Vista Grande or Vino Vista or something." Someone finally came up with the right name.
Each of the six guest rooms at Loma Vista--between $95 and $125 per night--is named for a vintage of wine. (Rates are constant throughout the year, and lower at midweek.) Mine, the Fume Blanc room, was bright white, furnished in white wicker and green plants, and had a balcony overlooking the rolling hills of Callaway vines.
The view was magnificent, with the hills rising behind the vineyards off to the west and the cool evening breeze blowing through. Only one inevitable and unavoidable blemish spoiled it: Not one mile down Rancho California Road, where once there was nothing but open fields, is now the edge of several miles of tract housing and shopping centers. They're not exactly a blight, but . . . .
I wanted to stay out of all the new development, but after complimentary evening wine and cheese at the Loma Vista, Betty suggested that I venture back into it anyway, to have Friday dinner at the Baily Wine Country Cafe. Tucked into a shopping center complex that was very complex indeed, the cafe is run by the same folks who own the Baily winery, and it's cheerful and friendly, particularly the covered outdoor table area where I sat. My view was of the parking lot, yes, but that was all wiped away with a wonderful couple of glasses of Baily Sauvignon blanc and a magnificent pork tenderloin rubbed with coriander.
Back in my room, I poured a small glass of the complimentary sherry and wandered out on the balcony. A bright crescent moon hung low over the vineyards, the stars were brilliant and numerous in the dark sky and the air held an earthy, tangy smell that many parts of Orange County used to have before the bulldozers came.
The next morning, in a roomy dining room overlooking a meticulously manicured garden of roses and herbs, Betty and Dick prepared a perfect champagne breakfast of fresh strawberries in yogurt sauce and mock eggs Benedict (leaner meat than usual, and without the hollandaise sauce). It was a fine setup for a day of wine tasting.
And I did a lot of it, from the tiny Hart winery, where you do your tasting in what appears to be a large shed (good Mourvedre) to the slicker Callaway (the largest winery in the valley) to the more formal Thornton, where I ate a fine grilled chicken and eggplant sandwich with pesto sauce at the lovely Cafe Champagne and gazed back across the valley at the Loma Vista.
The wineries are fairly consistent in their approach: Pay a couple of bucks (or a bit more, depending on how corporate the place is; some offer complimentary tasting), taste four or five wines from the list, keep the logo glass. And, at many of the wineries, do a little shopping in the gift shop or take away some fancy picnic food from their delis. One jolly woman who poured my wine at the Mt. Palomar winery (a good Riesling) mentioned that the minor league Lake Elsinore Storm baseball team was playing the San Bernardino Spirit that night at the stadium just up I-15 in Lake Elsinore, and I decided to go.
It can be a slightly hot, dusty business, this wine tasting. I pooped out about 2 p.m. and returned to my room for a nap. Falling asleep was easy. Up on the little hilltop, the afternoon breezes blow past your window and you can smell the country. And even if you don't feel like sleeping, you can relax in the garden downstairs, soak in the spa or just hang around the spacious living room, filch a complimentary cookie from the dining room and read one of the dozens of books on the adjacent shelf.
Refreshed, I set off for Lake Elsinore about 15 miles to the north, paid two bucks to park and three to get a seat on the grass berm in right field, the only seats left. It was a sellout crowd, and a magnificent minor league ball yard. The Storm lost, but the price was right and the opportunity to thumb my nose at the major leagues was irresistible. The hot dogs were tasty too. Not exactly haute wine country grub, but they came with complimentary post-game fireworks.
Next morning, fresh honeydew melon and chicken-and-mushroom crepes for breakfast, and another warm and magnificent and nearly smogless day. I visited four more wineries--Maurice Carrie, Van Roekel, Temecula Crest and Baily (and this time, having learned basic wine-tasting survival technique, I sipped a little and poured out the rest).
A beat-the-crowd tip: During the time I visited the tasting rooms, I never once found one crowded with other wine sippers. I was told that was because I did nearly all my tasting before 1 p.m. Apparently, many visitors hew fairly closely to that "sun over the yardarm" drinking rule.
On my way out of town, I stopped at the Old Town section just across the highway. Several buildings that stood when Temecula was a stop on the Butterfield stage line are still there, and in use, mostly as antique and gift shops. I happened, luckily, on Constantino's Silver Spoon Cafe, a neat little place with a patio shaded by a huge Chinese elm. There I sat and had a sandwich lunch (they also serve Greek dishes) and listened contentedly to a jazz trio play in the corner of the patio, as they do every Sunday afternoon.
One last, slightly incongruous stop: the Blind Pig Brewing Co., a tiny microbrewry operation tucked away in the back of an industrial park near Old Town. After two days of good wine, the beer was something of a jolt. But Blind Pig Golden Ale had a sturdy taste that quickly grew on me, and I liked the official Blind Pig slogan: "Temecula: It's not just wine country, it's swine country!"
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Budget for One
Gas from Santa Ana: $18.00
Loma Vista B&B;, two nights: $230.34
Wine-tasting fees: $18.00
Parking, admission, baseball: $5.00
FINAL TAB: $360.93
Loma Vista Bed & Breakfast, 33350 La Serena Way, Temecula, CA 92591; tel. (909) 676-7047.