Tuscany? No, Temecula
by Jim Farber
The two-lane country road follows the softly rolling contours of the hills, as do the symmetrical rows of vineyards with their lush green leaves and plump, almost-ready-to-be-harvested grapes. On the hilltop a russet stone villa basks in the sun. Umbrellas are spread welcomingly on the terrace, where visitors are relaxing, sipping wine and enjoying the view.
You could easily imagine you were in Tuscany, but you would be wrong. You are taking in the pleasures of one of Southern California's lesser-known wine regions -- the Temecula Valley, nestled 60 miles north of San Diego and 90 miles south of Los Angeles on Interstate 15.
The Pechanga Tribe, which operates the impressive Pechanga Hotel, Spa and Casino, is said to be able to trace its roots back 10,000 years. They were there when the Spanish arrived and established their system of missions and grand rancheros. Then came the gold rush that changed California forever.
In 1857 the stagecoach arrived, then came the railroad, the highway and finally the freeway. With its ideal climate for farming and ranching, the town grew up around its historic Old Town. Then in 1969 an adventurous vintner named Ely Callaway realized those sun-drenched rolling hills, the ones the cattle liked so much, could produce a bountiful harvest of grapes. In 1974 Callaway Winery served its first vintage. The Temecula Grape Rush was on.
Today the Temecula Valley is probably the fastest-growing wine region in California, producing prize-winning vintages and blends of Italian, Spanish and French grapes such as Sangiovese, Syrah, Montepulciano, Viognier, Zinfandel and Tempranillo.
Aware that the landscape bore a striking resemblance to Tuscany, wineries such as Robert Renzoni, Europa Village, Fazeli Cellars, Leoness Cellars, and the South Coast Winery Resort and Spa decided to double down on the Italianate fantasy.
The Temecula Valley wine region is concentrated just a few miles east of historic Old Town, where the vibe is decidedly more Wild West than Tuscan. The sidewalks are wooden and the architecture is early California saloon. A fun place to hang out is Texas Lil's Mesquite Grill with its gingham tablecloths and "How ya doin', honey" waitresses. Try the catfish sandwich.
To reach the more than 40 wineries head east on Rancho California Road. You will soon see signs indicating the locations and turnoffs. It is a stop-and-taste experience that is easily worth several days, especially if you decide to stay at one of the more luxurious vineyard resorts and spas. Wine trail guided tours can also be arranged. The quality of wines will surprise you, even if the delicious offerings of Napa represent your benchmark.
In addition to the enjoyment of tasting, there is the treat of experiencing the different environmental and architectural settings that set one winery apart from another. Depending on the time of year, there may be barrel-tastings or concerts of live music. For the full-on Tuscan experience the wines and setting of Robert Renzoni Vineyards and its Mama Rosa's Trattoria are hard to beat. But for sheer uniqueness, you have to visit Ponte Winery and its tasting room decorated with vintage motorcycles.