Temecula Offers a Two Thumbs Up Wine Experience

While the 23 wineries of the Temecula Valley are a fraction of what you might find in ever-popular Napa - with at last count, around 300 local wineries - Temecula's wine-tasting experience is getting high marks from travelers who have happened on this scenic valley almost by accident.

Located just off the well-traveled Interstate 15, between Riverside and San Diego, the gently rolling hills and scenic vineyards of Temecula now are becoming a destination in their own right. Not just a gimmick to boost local tourism, the wineries of Temecula make good wine - and presumably good money - turning the fruit of the Valley into wines that are satisfying even the most sophisticated palates.

And, as festive visitors now pack many of the tasting rooms on weekends, wineries continue to pop up at the rate of two to four per year, according to Linda Kissam, executive director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association. Big resorts are on the way, too, such as the South Coast Winery's new Resort and Spa that was estimated to cost $20 million but will cost well over that by the time the complete facilities open in early 2005. Not to worry - the resort already is on its way to paying off that investment with its 76 villas booked solid on weekends even though the resort offices, restaurant, spa and winery are still under construction.

"The whole goal here," says Mark Zovic, South Coast's general manager, "is for Temecula to be taken seriously."

Zovic compares Temecula to the Napa Valley of 20 years ago when its tourism infrastructure was catching up with the growing popularity of the region. But one of the local winemakers pointed out there is a big difference - many of Temecula's wines are already considered competitive with Napa and certainly not 20 years behind in the attainment of overall quality.

One vintner who feels pretty good about the quality of his wines is Nick Palumbo, a 38-year-old grape grower who just two years ago opened his own winery, Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery. Picture a 20-year-old rambler farmhouse set on 12 acres of vineyards and you see that the emphasis in this business is on family. The oak barrels containing the 1,500 cases of wine he produces each year are piled high in what was once Palumbo's three-car garage.

Palumbo grows the grapes and "drives the tractor every day" up and down his vineyard rows to make sure the four varieties of grapes he is using will be the quality needed for his special wines. He's an example of what you'll find elsewhere in Temecula - a vintner who is willing to stand there a few minutes and tell you how it's done. That's another difference from Napa, the locals say: almost all of the Temecula wineries are family-owned.

"If I didn't have control of the vineyards," Palumbo says, "I wouldn't have control of the quality."

Palumbo says the reason his mom-and-pop operation can produce wine commanding the highest prices in the valley is "I can do a lot more tricks than the other guys can." For example, he can split his lots and make a big difference in taste by using different yeast in each lot and then blending the two together.

Over at Ponte Family Estate Winery, the emphasis is a little different, according to owner Roberto Ponte. "I was confused before," Ponte explains. "I thought it was all about the wine."

The people who visit his winery, Ponte says, are interested in a getaway experience, and wine just happens to be part of that. Beginning with a concept of "a day in the park," Ponte set about to create a kind of mini-theme park all built around his winery and surrounded by hundreds of acres of vineyards. Opening in the summer of 2003, Ponte Family Estate Winery offers one of the Valley's largest tasting rooms and a gift shop - similar to what you find in Napa - and also serves gourmet California cuisine in the popular Smokehouse Café.

Visitors are encouraged to stroll the grounds of the winery where they will find park-like pathways and exhilarating vineyard views in addition to the many features of the winery such as the giant stainless steel containers, the wine storage area ("where the wine sleeps," Ponte says) and other buildings and processes related to winemaking. The setting is popular with couples who choose the winery for a wedding backdrop, and Ponte has a large event tent used for meetings and parties.

With the exception of the new South Coast villas, most of the accommodations in the Temecula Wine Country are bed-and-breakfasts or small inns, and there aren't many of them. That's one reason that Luis and Sherry DiBernardo are enjoying early success with their new bed-and-breakfast inn, the Castle. Built three years ago, the Castle was designed to be a spectacular home for the DiBernardos but they left one wing of the home unfinished just in case they decided to become innkeepers. In January of this year, they did just that.

Guests can roam throughout their landscaped grounds to enjoy the countryside views that begin with the swimming pool and groves of olive trees right on the property. The Castle itself is not just a name - the European décor and furnishings, the high ceilings and chandeliers all add to the medieval feeling. One end of the Great Room has a stone wall and long breakfast table befitting King Arthur. Medieval paintings cover another wall. The four guestrooms also share in this motif to one extent or another, and most include Jacuzzi tubs.

For the DiBernardos, Temecula's burgeoning wine industry and the wide open spaces were enough to lure them from the San Fernando Valley, where Louis had been involved for many years in investment banking. The couple bought the property because they loved the 'crickets, frogs and stars in the sky?and now it's like getting paid to have a party every weekend.

Visitors to Temecula will find they can reasonably visit between four and six wineries in a day - most of the wineries are clustered in an area along Rancho California Road. But wineries are not the only attraction in town - the city's Historic Oldtown is a popular day trip for people from surrounding communities. A number of historical buildings are highlighted in a walking tour of the area, and there are many festivals held throughout the year to bring attention to the area.

If shopping is your thing, about 15 miles north on Interstate 15 is the Lake Elsinore Outlet Mall, which includes dozens of outlet stores, each offering discount prices on brand name merchandise.

There are seven championship golf courses in the area, as well as lakes for fishing. And, if you want to try something totally unique, local hot air balloon companies will give you an angle on the valley you won't get from anywhere else - a dreamy view from hundreds of feet above the gorgeous wine country.

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