GETTIN' SOME RESPECT
What can you find in less than an hour's drive from San Diego besides ocean, desert and Mexico? Wine. Lots of it. From the under-publicized wine region known as the South Coast.
About the same time ink was drying on the U.S. constitution and bill of rights, winemaking made its debut in California at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The first winemakers were Spanish missionaries, planting vines and converting souls along a route that ran hundreds of miles from Mexico to Sonoma.
Although the area has traditionally suffered from a lack of public awareness (wine writers don't usually write about it and most consumers don't know it exists) the South Coast has been quietly producing fine wine over the past several years. Since its modern beginnings in 1966, more than 3,000 acres of premium wine grapes and 14 wineries have sprung up in the area.
Home to adventurous winemakers, cutting-edge wines and plenty of activities, the South Coast is an easy drive from San Diego or Los Angeles. Combined with the sun and surf of Southern California and pursuits just over the Mexican border, the South Coast makes an ideal weekend getaway for those who don't want to deal with traffic and congestion.
Through the Mist
South Coast vintners have always known what research has recently revealed: The South Coast is an ideal location for growing high-quality wine grapes. From the Temecula Valley -- the most developed area, with 13 wineries to date (and more coming) -- to the San Pasqual Valley (home to Orfila Vineyards) further south the South Coast is blessed with a unique microclimate.
The word "Temecula" is from the Luiseno Indian language meaning "where the sun shines through the mist." The growing region sits on a 1,400-foot plateau, below the peaks of the Santa Rosa mountain range, where the mild beach climate is funneled into the valley through the Rainbow Gap. Thus, Temecula benefits from mists that linger until mid-morning, which is partly the reason why grapes don't sizzle on the vine in the generally hot climate that pervades the area.
Chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc grow in abundance here. But with the recent introduction and success of Mediterranean varietals such as barbera, viognier, syrah, nebbiolo, mouvedre, sangiovese, cinsault and grenache, South Coast winemakers have an eye on the future.
Hitting the Road
Plan your trip around Los Angeles or San Diego, as the South Coast wine country proper is somewhat lacking in diversions. Both cities are less than two hours away from Temecula Valley. If you choose San Diego, hop across the Mexican border for some entertainment.
Once in Temecula you'll find 13 wineries. Most are located on or near Rancho California Road.
The first stop is Hart Winery, which dates back to 1973. The winery produces syrah, viognier, sauvignon blanc, barbera, cabernet franc, grenache, mourvedre, cinsault and merlot. In addition to growing its own fruit, grapes are purchased from other vineyards in the Temecula and Cucamonga Valleys.
Callaway Vineyard & Winery is the South Coast's largest winery, producing 250,000 cases annually. Since its founding in 1969, the winery's chardonnay ranks among the 10 best selling in the United States. Callaway's portfolio also includes cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc. Recently, the winery's been focusing attention on viognier and other non-mainstream varietals such as pinot gris, nebbiolo and muscat canelli.
Thornton is a French-Mediterranean styled winery that opened in 1988. Under the stewardship of winemaker Jon McPherson, Thornton produces 30,000 cases annually. Sparkling wines shine here. Among the best are the vintage Blanc de Blanc Brut Reserve and non-vintage Blanc de Blanc.
Beyond bubbly, Thornton produces some exciting Rhone-inspired wines such as grenache rose, syrah, viognier and Cote Red, as well as Italian varietals like aleatico and moscato. The winery also produces chardonnay, zinfandel and a cabernet-merlot. Jazz festivals are held here regularly, so call for a schedule of events.
Mount Palomar is the area's leader in Mediterranean style wines and a popular destination for wine lovers. The winery grows most of its grapes on the 173-acre estate, which includes 92 acres of vineyards, 31 acres of citrus, and concert and picnic grounds.
The most significant change since its founding in 1969 has been the transition to production of Italian and southern French varieties, bottled under its Castelletto and Rey Sol labels. Look for their viognier, syrah and Mediterranean red and white blends.
Other wineries to visit in Temecula Valley are Baily, Cilurzo, Filsinger, Maurice Carrie, Temecula Crest, Santa Margarita and Keyways.
Orphaned in the San Pasqual Valley is Orfila Vineyards. Under the direction of Leon Santoro, Orfila has set out to prove that world-class wine can come from Southern California. Orfila's Ambassador's Reserve Merlot has made its mark, showing up at White House dinners. Santoro also has his hands on Mediterranean varietals. Look for Lotus viognier, syrah Val de Mer and the sangiovese Di Collina, a velvety mouthful.
If you decide to spend the night in Temecula, don't expect much in the way of nightlife. Most activities in the area center around wine and relaxation. There are a handful of accommodations and good restaurants. For a splurge, the Loma Vista Bed & Breakfast, in the heart of the valley, is considered one of the best in the state. It offers panoramic views and a full champagne breakfast. If you want more mainstream, try the Embassy Suites. Shops are within walking distance, and the winery's a five-minute drive. Full breakfast and afternoon beverages are complimentary.
If you want to be kneaded into submission, drive 25 minutes north to Corona, home of Glen Ivy Hot Springs Spa, known to locals as "Club Mud." For more than a century, guests have been drawn to the spa's mineral waters. In California's only red clay mud bath, you can indulge in both massage and salon services.
Golfing's everywhere in the South Coast. The Temecula Creek Inn is the place to be. The resort's Golf Getaway package includes a round at its 27-hole course, plus breakfast and dinner with each night's stay.
For first-rate seafood, try Temet Grill at the Temecula Creek Inn. Start with the Dungeness crab cakes or smoked salmon. Entrees of note include the roasted salmon in champagne sauce, red grapes and leeks, and the grilled swordfish with coriander sauce, oyster mushrooms and caramelized shallots. Definitely save room for the creme brulee.
Cafe Champagne is regarded as the most sophisticated restaurant in the Temecula Valley. Enjoy California-style cuisine on the outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards. Specialties include mesquite-grilled ahi and a Belgian chocolate pecan tart.
There you have it. A getaway where you can surf and turf it with some fine wine and dine. That's what SoCal is all about, isn't it?