"Wine is bottled poetry."-Robert Louis Stevenson
Ol' Bob, of Treasure Island fame, obviously knew a few things about wine, and it's becoming equally clear that the folks in Temecula, just a cork-pop north of the San Diego/Riverside county line, are finding their grape groove.
Sure, when Californians talk about the fermented grape, much of the chatter centers on the big hosses up north in Napa and Sonoma counties. But mark CityBeat's word: Temecula's not just for former San Diegans trying to beat the local out-of-control housing prices anymore-it's wine country is bustling as well.
Just a leisurely-at least on weekends-one-hour drive up Interstate 15, the wine country a few miles east in Temecula Valley is becoming a must-jaunt for wine-loving San Diegans looking for a quick getaway (most often minus the kids). And if it's wine you want, it's wine you're gonna get.
Linda Kassam, executive director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, said about 30,000 outta-towners will wind their way through the scenic territory along Rancho California Road in search of the great grape this summer. While San Diegans make up a good portion of those visitors, Temecula's proximity also makes it a no-brainer trip for residents of Orange County and Los Angeles who have heard of the area's growing reputation as a fine producer of varietal wines.
You can spend a dizzying half day visiting a handful of Temecula's 23 wineries that are open to the public for tasting, a marvelous-and relatively inexpensive-ritual that allows wine connoisseurs and wannabes alike to try out a host of award-winning wines. Cost runs from $5 for half-a-dozen tastes at many wineries to $15 for a sit-down taste-a-thon at the Thornton Winery, which features a variety of California champagnes.
Other than dog parks, there may be no other place where smiles rule. People young, old and in between travel the short distances between hillside manors, funky shacks and tented tasting rooms where you're just as likely to run into a traveling bachelorette party as you are one of the friendly owners and winemakers who always seem ready with advice on pairing wine with foods or which other vineyards are must-sees.
One of the funkiest wineries you'll encounter is Bella Vista Cilurzo Winery off the beaten path on Calle Contento, which boasts the oldest vineyard in the valley-planted in 1968-and one of the newest owners. Imre Cziraki, a Hungarian émigré who bears a slight resemblance to a younger Ronald Reagan, bought the winery just a month ago from the original owner, Vincenzo Cilurzo, a former lighting director for ABC-TV who made great wines but struggled on the business side.
Sitting in a back room crowded with boxes of bottled wine while dozens of chattering visitors sampled more than a dozen wines next door, Cziraki-a Fallbrook resident who has grown grapes in the area for years (his grandfather began teaching him the fundamentals, he said, when he was 6)-said Temecula's reputation is gaining notice from the country's other wine regions.
He's quite proud of a 2002 petite sirah that he says is good but "could be 10 times better" with a little more time in the barrel. During wine tasting, wine ambassadors-including his effervescent wife, Gizella-provide small pieces of sausage to clear the palate between reds and whites. "In two weeks time, we doubled our sales of red wines because of that," Cziraki boasted.
Like the area-with the boom in vineyards only outpaced by housing construction-Cziraki has big plans for the sprawling complex, including wine caves for proper storage, a restaurant atop a scenic hill and a much larger tasting room.
Some of the newer vineyards, like South Coast Winery, are marketing themselves as resorts and spas as well, giving visitors more reasons to spend a weekend in the area. Balloon rides, golf courses, jazz concerts, bed-and-breakfast inns and the quaint historic town of Temecula itself (just west of I-15) are also popular draws, as are air-conditioned limousine tours. And all of the wineries, save one (the corporate-owned Callaway), are family-owned and -operated, so formality is overwhelmingly discouraged.
Just a word of advice, though: Pace yourself on the wine tasting-the hot, dry weather can make sobriety an elusive ambition, and we want to make sure you and your new collection of bottled poetry get home safely.