Good food, good wine, good company

With its location between Los Angeles and San Diego, its inland balmy weather and its impressive group of first-class wineries, it’s no wonder the Temecula Valley has become a major weekend destination for SoCal leisure travelers.

There are 35 wineries in Temecula, most of them conveniently located along a few major thoroughfares that stretch several miles eastward from Temecula’s more densely populated areas. The city itself has expanded in recent years to the point that more than 300,000 people live in the Temecula Valley.

Along with that expansion has come several big-time wineries that have built tasting rooms, restaurants and other tourist-friendly facilities right alongside their wine-making operations. The valley hasn’t, of course, caught up with Napa and its 300-plus wineries, but Temecula still weighs in with an abundance of scenery and a variety of wineries that gives you a feel for both the big and small, the more corporate as well as the more down-home family operations.

We had the chance to sample a few of the wineries during their World of Wine Barrel Tasting Weekend this month, a fun event that each year is marked indelibly on the calendars of many locals and visitors alike. During the two-day event, most of the area’s wineries set aside special areas in their tasting or barrel rooms for visitors to taste one or more select wines as well as sample a specially prepared food dish.

Barrel Tasting Weekend is a little like Halloween for adults — minus the witches and goblins, of course. For one flat price, participants are given a special wine glass that they take from winery to winery to see what special treats are in store. As the name implies, the selected wines are current wines, not yet for sale, and right out of the barrel. The samples are generally small but often a winery also will give visitors free tickets to a regular wine tasting in their Tasting Room where they will be able to taste a variety of wines, all of which are currently for sale.

The menu items are superb and, when we visited, ranged from scrumptious slow-smoked Brisket of Beef at Maurice Car’rie Winery to the Provolone and Broccoli Rabe, Sausage and Peppers along with Caramelized Pear and Goat Cheese Strudel with Arugula Salad at Callaway Vineyard and Winery. You get the idea — this is the kind of event where they pull out all the stops.

We especially enjoyed chatting with Imre Cziraki, proprietor of Bella Vista, Temecula’s first winery and the most homespun of the several wineries we visited. Cziraki’s wife Gizella had cooked up her Hungarian Gulyas with Fry Bread, enough for a meal all by itself. Then Cziraki took us upstairs to the gigantic bar and tasting room where people of all ages were having what amounted to a mid-day party. “From here,” Cziraki said, “it’s all downhill.” And he was right: they were up on a hill so all the other wineries were downhill from there.

We remember a previous visit to Temecula in which we stopped by to see another family-run winery, Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery, operated by Nick Palumbo. 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 thousands of cases of wine he produces each year were 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 varieties of grapes he is using will be the quality needed for his special wines.

“If I didn’t have control of the vineyards,” Palumbo told us, “I wouldn’t have control of the quality.”

And then Temecula also has its larger operations. One of the wineries we stopped by this time was South Coast Winery and Spa, offering an outdoor seating area for the Barrel Tasting that was reminiscent of a wedding reception complete with wine tables, a serving table offering Coq au vin with Lyonaisse potatatoes, and a Spanish Flamenco guitarist offering live entertainment. We stopped in at the South Coast tasting room to witness a Saturday afternoon crowd just as big, noisy and happy as anything we’ve seen in Napa.

Such is the flavor of the Barrel Tasting, a two-day party that attracts young couples and singles as well as an equal number of middle-agers on up. Good food, good wine, good company – it’s hard to beat that for a weekend event. A similar event is held in early November called the Harvest Celebration.

There are excellent overnight accommodations in the area, several designed to take advantage of vineyard views. South Coast offers stays in its villas, while places like the Inn at Churon offer more of a bed-and-breakfast experience. The area also has several brand name lodgings, most located in the downtown area. Temecula even has one of the state’s biggest destination casinos – Pechanga – which offers accommodations, a variety of restaurants and big-name entertainment presented in one of the best concert halls you’ll ever find for live music shows.

If you’re not visiting during Barrel Tasting, you’ll find you can reasonably visit between four and six wineries in a day, asmost 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 Temecula Valley Wine Country.

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