Tasting Temecula

Excellent wines one hour from San Diego

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Traveling east on Rancho California Road in Temecula, you come to Hart Winery just after the road narrows from four lanes to two. Since Hart opened in 1980, subdivisions have crept to within 1/4 mile of its western edge, but, owner Joe Hart explains, "The houses are going to stay there. This," he says of his vineyard at the gateway to Temecula Valley's wine country, "is zoned long-term for agriculture." Grapes have earned a valuable place here in the rolling hills of southwestern Riverside County.

And they deserve it. The vintners in Temecula Valley are making wines of impressive strength and sophistication. Even better: The area is just an hour from San Diego and 90 minutes from Los Angeles, making Temecula the easiest of wine countries for Southern Californians - or Southern California visitors - to explore. A loop drive on Rancho California Road and other backroads east of the city of Temecula will lead you to 21 wineries.

Home to reds and whites

Joe Hart's winery is a good place to start. Its Syrah is a fine example of the full-bodied reds being made in Temecula and typifies what Hart calls an "ABC winery: anything but Chardonnay."

Not that you'd have to look far for Chardonnay. Next door to Hart, Callaway Coastal Winery started here in 1969 and made a name for itself in the '80s with its all-white lineup, much of it Chardonnay. Callaway is probably the most familiar winery in Temecula, and its large tasting room continues to draw big crowds. So, too, does its restaurant, Allie's at Callaway, which occupies a series of covered terraced patios that overlook a vine-covered hillside.

Besides Callaway, three other Temecula wineries have restaurants on their premises - Baily Vineyard & Winery, Ponte Family Estate, and Thornton Winery. Thornton is notable both for its restaurant - Café Champagne, which serves some of the area's best food - and its sparkling wine. About seven kinds are produced at the château-like facility, using the traditional French méthode champenoise.

Surprising wines from a warm clime

Temecula Valley's southerly location has worked against the notion that it could produce quality wines. Many people, Hart says, "had the impression that we were in the desert. But then they came down here and tasted Temecula Riesling, and they said, 'Gee, it's really good.'"

True, Temecula is California's southernmost wine country, but it's just 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean, at an elevation of 1,500 feet. Days are warm and nights are cool, a combination that - along with the well-drained soil - can support many varieties typically grown farther north, including Gewürztraminer, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc.

And Temecula's latitude can also be an advantage. "We in Temecula are uniquely suited to produce warm-climate varieties," says Etienne Cowper, winemaker at Mount Palomar Winery, which introduced Cortese, Sangiovese, and Syrah to Temecula. "In fact, varieties like Cortese do particularly well here."

If winemaking is serious in Temecula, wine tasting is, for the most part, Southern California casual. At the family-run Wilson Creek Winery, the easternmost winery on Rancho California, manager Bill Wilson eschews the idea that wine tasting has to be stuffy. "I think the best wine is the one you like," he says. Weekends find Wilson Creek's tasting room and patio brimming with visitors. Many of the first-timers may have heard about the very popular almond-infused sparkling wine. But varieties like the Estate Zinfandel will give them a new appreciation for the winemaking taking place in Southern California's backyard.

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