There are some definite advantages to living in the Inland Empire, and not just lower cost of living and better traffic. While nothing is really close, there are quite a few fun places that are not far. Las Vegas is a 3 hour drive. La Jolla and Santa Monica are both about 1.5-2 hours, depending on traffic. Big Bear Lake, with its summer hiking and winter skiing, is about 1 hour away. Joshua Tree National Park and Palm Springs are both also roughly an hour.
Possibly one of my favorite nearby Southern California destinations is Temecula, a sun-soaked valley sometimes called “the jewel of Riverside County.” About a 40 minute drive from our apartment, Temecula has established itself as a wine growing region in its own right. It features beautiful estates and eclectic tasting rooms, and while it isn’t Napa, the wines are tasty and often surprising.
Many familiar varietals, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir don’t do well in the Temecula heat. Instead, varietals such as Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenach, and Cabernet Sauvignon thrive in the region. I love coming to Temecula to taste something new, different, and fresh. There are also a number of events that happen around here, such as hot air balloon festivals, running races, and concerts at the wineries. Temecula Wine Country is a fun wine tasting experience to do as a couple, with friends, or as part of a special occasion. It’s also not a bad place to get married!
Tasting in Temecula is a little different from wine tasting in Napa, where you are given a pre-selected tasting of 3-6 wines, depending on the estate (at some estates, such as the exclusive Opus One, you in fact taste 2 wines). Temecula wineries give you “tasting tickets,” typically good for 6 tastes, and a menu of several white, rose, and red options produced by the winery. You essentially get to design your own tasting – though I still recommend trying any whites you are interested in before moving on to the reds.
On our most recent trip to Temecula we visited Fazeli Wine Cellars, Lorimar Vineyards and Winery, and Callaway Winery. While I was a little disappointed with Lorimar, Fazeli and Callaway were awesome!
Fazeli Wine Cellars is a fabulous estate located on the De Portola Wine Trail. The owner, Bizhan “BJ” Fazeli, is descended from Persian ancestry, which is reflected in the ambiance, the names of the wines, and in the excellent restaurant located on the estate (Baba Joon’s Kitchen). All of the wines I tasted were good, but my favorite included a varietal I had never even heard of before. It was a red blend called “Mayhem,” made of 71% Cinsaut and 29% Mourvedre. I learned that Cinsaut is well matched with the growing conditions in the Temecula Valley, as it thrives in hot weather. Used most often as a blending grape, Cinsaut has low tannin and low acidity, which makes it an ideal varietal for rosé production. As a result of featuring Cinsaut in this blend, Mayhem is a lighter red with a delightfully peppery finish delivered by the addition of Mouvedre. I normally think of a crisp white Sauvignon Blanc as my wine of choice for sitting outside on a hot summer day, but this could definitely be enjoyed in a similar manner. I would recommend a visit to Fazeli as part of your next Temecula tasting experience.
Callaway Winery is worth a visit just for the views. Okay, and they have tasty wine, too! It is nestled on a hill overlooking the vineyards with an airy tasting room and a beautiful patio with tables, chairs, and couches. You can wander outside and lounge in the sun (or the shade, if it’s too hot) and sip your wine as you gaze out across the rows of vines. It is a relaxing, lovely, timeless experience.
Callaway currently grows many varietals on the estate grounds, including Viognier, Syrah, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Grenache, Roussanne, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their tasting list is expansive – I didn’t realize until halfway through the experience that I could turn the page of their menu for even more options! – and even includes a few port options (yum!). I didn’t taste anything that I didn’t like, but my favorite was their Wild Yeast Syrah. Now, I should disclose that I love Syrah. A good Syrah goes with pretty much anything, from chicken to steak and even fish like salmon. It’s also wonderful by itself or with nearly any cheese. Syrah and Syrah blends are good right out of the bottle, but they age beautifully and the flavor profile deepens over time. Syrah wines are rich and complex and darn it, delicious! What’s not to love? So yes, I do realize that I am biased. Regardless, the Wild Yeast Syrah from Callaway had everything I love in a Syrah, and the flavors changed on my palate from start to finish of each sip. Every now and then in Temecula you stumble across something like this which makes you go “wow!”
If you live in Southern California and haven’t checked out Temecula Valley Wine Country yet, I highly recommend a visit. Check out Groupon before you go, as many of the wineries offer tasting deals and discounts on winery estate tours. I find that visiting 3 wineries in one day is reasonable – after that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, if not completely sloshed. As always, be safe! There are companies that offer transportation around Wine Country, and you can always use the spittoons to help ensure safe vehicle operation capacity (it’s okay to not finish every pour…especially if you do not enjoy that particular wine!)
For comprehensive information on all that Temecula has to offer, check out the Temecula Wine Grower’s website!