GET OUT OF TOWN -- OR JUST EXPLORE IT
Think of wine tasting, and your first instinct may be to head north on the 101. But there’s another place to sip, and it involves taking the 15 south -- to Temecula. Yes, this city 90 miles southeast of L.A. may be known as the home of the Pechanga Resort & Casino, but you’ll also find more than 20 up-and-coming wineries. Plus, its quaint Old Town section offers plenty that doesn’t involve alcohol or gambling.
Eating & Drinking
NOT JUST A LIQUID LUNCH
If you leave at the right time on a leisurely Saturday morning, you can be having lunch at Ponte Family Estate Winery (35053 Rancho California Road,  694-8855) by noon in less than two hours’ drive from downtown L.A. Ponte’s outdoor Smokehouse Restaurant certainly feels Napa-esque, with its views of vineyards and rolling hills. It serves light fare such as grilled vegetable sandwiches and baked fig appetizers. Of course, sampling wine after lunch is a must inside the barn-like main building (try the sweet and refreshing 2006 Juliet).
STAKE OUT YOUR DINNER SPOT
For dinner, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump away to one of Temecula’s largest and most popular wine resorts, the South Coast Winery (34843 Rancho California Road,  587-9463), pictured at left. The Vineyard Rose restaurant may not win any awards, but it’s hard to beat the warm ambience, with 25-foot-high ceilings in the dining room and vineyard views from the terrace. Vineyard Rose executive chef Alessandro Serni (from Tuscany, naturally) offers nightly specials, and the food tends to be heavy on pricey New York steaks and chicken dishes. But the hearty risottos and salads are large enough to eat as a meal, and desserts (such as the double chocolate cake) dazzle. Had too much? You can sleep at the resort, starting at $299 a night.
In between courses, it’s best to work up an appetite via strolling the streets of Old Town Temecula, which has all kinds of antique and specialty stores. If wine is not your thing, the Old Town Root Beer Company (28545 Old Front St., No. 103,  676-5088) carries about 200 types of root beer and more than 300 nostalgic sodas. Old Town Records (42012 Main St.,  693-2004) offers the rarest of 33- and 45-rpm discs, including vinyl promo-only copies of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” ($150) and Elvis singles (from $3 to $125) taped up along the walls of the tiny shop. Of course, you’re also likely to find that ubiquitous copy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours.”
The Temecula Olive Oil Company (28653 Old Town Front St.,  693-0607), right, sells premium specialty varietal olive oils for reasonable prices. (For example, their fresh basil olive oil is less than $20.) The family-owned business also offers free tastings of fresh-pressed olive oils, vinegars, mustards and more.
UP, UP AND AWAY . . .
For a completely natural high, Temecula Valley has some of the most favorable winds in the Southland for hot-air ballooning, pictured above. Several companies offer early-morning rides -- quite a hangover cure, if you happened to have had one too many glasses of Cabernet. Try California Dreamin’, which has a sunrise flight daily leaving at 6:30 a.m., for $128 per person (33133 Vista Del Monte Road,  373-3359).