Temecula wine country is a pretty easy region to travel to as it is about sixty miles north of San Diego and ninety miles southeast of Los Angeles. Located within the larger South Coast AVA, Temecula Valley sits about twenty miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Given the ease of reaching the area, I was surprised that it took me so long to visit. Well better late than never.
And who knew, but modern winemaking began in Temecula in 1968. Prior to the 1960s, Temecula consisted of a 100,000 acre cattle ranch. During that time, Kaiser Industries and Aetna Insurance formed a partnership and bought the ranch and had planned to develop a residential agricultural community. They hired a consultant to determine what agricultural products would grow best there and were quite surprised with the answer – premium wine grapes. No one imagined they could grow premium wine grapes there.1 But with its elevation (beginning around 1,500 ft), the Rainbow Gap, which is a gap in the Coastal Mountain Range to the west of the Valley that allows cool ocean breezes to reach the region’s vineyards almost on a daily basis and helps the fruit retain their all-important acidity, and the well drained sandy soils, it was indeed possible. Overall, Temecula has a Mediterranean climate that is similar to northern Napa from Rutherford to Calistoga. The region gained AVA status in 1984. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a big shoutout to Phil Baily of Baily Vineyards for all of the historical context.
Wine or Tourism? Or Both?
So, I’ll admit, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Temecula wine country. Particularly when the first thing that struck me about the area was how upscale it was. Was it a case of folks with too much money that just wanted to play with wine? Was it all form and no substance? Or was there some serious and good wine to be had? Well, I think it is a bit of both. After visiting and talking to folks, there definitely seemed to be two sides to Temecula. There are some committed winemakers that really care about creating quality wines that showcase the best of the region. And arguably there are folks that are more interested in providing a nice tourist-based experience but where the wines seem to play second fiddle. But then there are some folks that do a nice job of straddling the fence and make good wines but also offer all the bells and whistles that some tourists want.
Over the last several years, much has been done to raise the profile of Temecula and promote it as more of a tourist based destination. The region needed that push to grow, but did this angle of promotion as a tourist destination over-shadow the wine? Perhaps. However, looking at the big picture, this probably isn’t the worst thing. There are visitors that will certainly be interested in a wine-based experience over a tourist-based experienced and vice versa. So perhaps Temecula has it right in offering divergent experiences. And that is what I found when I visited. I was able to visit with some folks that are all about crafting excellent wines and I was also able to visit with folks that seemed more concerned with offering a fun, party-like environment. And again, depending on what you’re after, there’s value in both.
The Temecula Wine Identity
In addition to the divergent paths that producers in the Valley seem to be on, I also found it intriguing that Temecula really has no “signature grape.” It seems that a little bit of everything grows in Temecula. And this too has producers divided. Does the lack of a signature variety mean the region doesn’t have a solid identity? Is it better to force the issue and risk being pigeon-holed? It seems there are pros and cons to that. Arguably, a signature variety is great from a marketing perspective. But if you have an ideal climate with several smaller microclimates, have modern viticultural techniques at your disposal, and can do a lot of things well, why limit yourself? After all, this is the new world where we make whatever we want, where we want, and when we want. As Palumbo winemaker Nick Palumbo put it, Temecula can be seen as a “valley of choice” and at the end of the day, I think many of us would go along with choice, particularly if one of the choices is something that we want.
If Temecula has a variety that can be done easily and at a high level, it is probably Sangiovese. Rhone or Spanish varieties wouldn’t be fair behind as these varieties also play nicely in the Valley. But it’s safe to say that whatever your interest in wines, you’ll likely be able to find it in Temecula wine country. I was personally thrilled to be able to taste a wide variety of wines as well as have a range of experiences.
Ok, ok, so what and where did I taste?
Baily Vineyard and Winery
Baily Winery was my first stop and totally put my mind at ease regarding quality and serious wine in Temecula. With two locations in the Valley – the main tasting room on Rancho California Road (no reservation needed) and the estate tasting room at the winery which allows for a more intimate experience (reservations needed) – Baily is a must visit. The main tasting room offers a selection of Baily’s current releases while the estate tasting room allows for a vertical tasting experience.2 Baily’s highly-regarded restaurant, Carol’s is also located at the main tasting room and is a great idea if you need some sustenance with your wine.
I opted for the estate tasting ‘cause I wanted to see the winery and ‘cause yeah, I’m a wine geek that gets excited about verticals. #DontJudgeMe. I was met at the winery by Phil Baily, owner and winemaker, and liked him instantly. Seriously, how could you not like someone that names their cats Riesling and Bordeaux?! He had a great sense of humor and knows so much about the industry. Phil and his wife, Carol moved to Temecula when they decided they wanted a business venture together but also wanted to raise their kids in the country. So off they moved to Temecula and opened their winery doors in 1986.
Baily specializes in Bordeaux varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon being its flagship, but also includes a few other wines in its portfolio. The vertical tasting experience at the winery typically involves a flight of either Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, or Meritage wines. They hold back an allotment of wines from each vintage to be able to offer these experiences and also to have enough for purchase. For my experience there, we did an ahh-mazing 11 year vertical (note the norm is 5-6 wines) of Cabernet Sauvignon from 2005-2015.
One of my faves? The 2005 which was still going strong! Yes, real wine is in the Valley!
Tastings at the main tasting room are $15 for six wines and includes current releases such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Port. Tastings at the estate tasting room consists of two different formats – a standing vertical tasting at the bar of five years for $20 or a sit-down vertical tasting of five years served with bread and cheese for $30. Be sure to read more about my visit with Phil Baily.
Cougar Vineyard & Winery
With wine roots in Texas (gotta rep my texas peeps!) that also took them through Washington State, the Buffingtons eventually found their way to Temecula and opened Cougar Vineyard & Winery. And they have truly created an absolutely gorgeous winery with breathtaking views.
Growing from 800 cases when they first opened their doors to 8,500, they’ve found their wine home in the Valley and haven’t looked back. When researching where to visit, I was particularly intrigued with their production as they specialize in Italian varieties and if you know me, you know I enjoy drinking up and down the boot. Falanghina, Arneis, Canaiolo, Sagrantino, Lambrusco, and more, they’ve got Italy covered. And their commitment to Italian varietals has often found them cutting through the red tape of having a variety allowed in the U.S. for the first time.3 Cougar has quite the portfolio which is even more amazing given that just about everything I had was from their very own estate.
I had the pleasure of learning the ropes with owner, Jennifer Buffington. She and hubby Rick had just celebrated their 25th anniversary (how could you not be happy with wine around?) but she was still so kind to show me around and tell me all about their journey to Temecula. I was also able to spend some time Rick Buffington who gave me the goods on Cougar’s production. Whether delving deep into familiar or ‘new to you’ Italian varieties or taking in the views from their beautiful terrace, Cougar is a place that will beckon you to kick back. Those comfy chairs are dangerous! Even more so with a glass of their Estate Primitivo!
Cougar also has an Italian-inspired deli onsite (Sangio’s Deli) and though I didn’t have time to indulge, I’ve heard that the pizza as well as the paninis are amazing. Oh, but I did have their Port chocolate truffle paired with their Primitivo dessert wine and wow! Yeah, ya gotta do that. Primitivo times two for the win!
Tastings are available daily for $20 which gets you six selections as well as a glass.
Wines Tasted: 2017 Estate Falanghina, 2017 Estate Arneis, 2015 Estate Cask Sangiovese, 2015 Miscuglio del Circolo (75% Sangiovese / 25% Montepulciano), 2014 Sangio + Reserve (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, & Aglianico), 2015 Estate Primitivo, 2014 Sagrantino, 2014 Lambrusca di Alessandria, and 2014 Primitivo Dessert Wine.
Carter Estate Winery
So I popped into Carter Estate Winery on a whim as I was staying there (more on that later) and received a voucher for a free tasting. I hadn’t planned on using it as I’d had a difficult time getting much info on their wines so I figured I wouldn’t be missing anything. But then I decided why the heck not? It ended up being a great choice on my part as I loved their sparkling wines! I mean, who knew? I wasn’t expecting to find any sparkling wine in the region, let alone good sparkling wine. Why they don’t have more information about their wines on their website is beyond me! And surprise, surprise, there is a Texas connection here as well.4 Jon McPherson (son of legendary and pioneering Texas winemaker Doc McPherson)5 is the winemaker at both Carter Estate and sister property South Coast Winery and is widely regarded as a force in sparkling wines.
The sparkling wines are made using the Methode Champenoise with extensive lees aging and were available in three different cuvees – Brut, Blanc de Blanc, and Blanc de Noir. I loved them all for their elegance, finesse, and crispness.
Upon further research, I learned that Carter Estate was built for the purpose of producing world class sparkling wines. Explains a lot. But then I was like, how is it even cool enough to produce sparkling wines of this nature in Temecula? Apparently the Rainbow Gap can result in temperature swings up to 40 degrees. I think I felt those swings every evening too as I was always reaching for a jacket when the sun went down.
Tastings at Carter Estate are seated which makes for an engaging experience. $20 gets you five wines to taste but they also have a “thing” where you text to a particular number and get a sixth taste. But if you are a guest at the resort, then you receive a complimentary tasting. Whether you spend your time in the upscale tasting room or the gorgeous patio, it’s certainly time well spent.
And while I was most enamored with the sparkling wines, the still wines should not be overlooked.
Wines Tasted: 2013 Brut, 2014 Blanc de Blanc, 2014 Blanc de Noir, 2017 Pinot Gris, 2013 Malbec, and 2012 Syrah.6
Wiens Family Cellars
When someone adds “Home of Big Reds” as a tag line, they better be producing some darn good red wines. Well I’m happy to say that Wiens Family Cellars does indeed produce some big red wines – and that they are delicious, well crafted wines. In addition to red wines, it seems that Wiens does many things in a big way. A beautiful, energetic tasting room, extensive grounds for picnics, parties, weddings, etc., and a robust selection of wines. And if white wines are your forte, no worries as there are plenty of white wines on offer.
With wine beginnings near Lodi, the Wiens brothers found their way to Temecula in 2003. Originally, comprised of the efforts and talents of four brothers – Doug, Jeff, George, and Dave – the family wine business now has over ten members of the family involved and is truly a family affair. Sales, marketing, winemaking, architecture, payroll, accounting, etc. – you name it and a family member is involved. I had the pleasure of learning the family business from Jeff, who is part owner and General Manager. Wiens also runs a brewery in town. And yes, family members work there too. So are my family and I just slackers? Hmmm…
With an experimental nature at heart, Wiens produces anywhere from 25 to 30 varieties with recent plantings of varieties such as Fiano and Carmenere. But Cabernet Sauvignon reigns supreme and is their flagship, comprising about 30% of production. In addition to traditional Bordeaux varieties, Italian varieties7 also occupy a prominent place in the family’s portfolio.
There are three different series of wines on offer at Wiens. The White Label series consists of their everyday wines, many of which are single varietal. The Artist Label series, with labels designed by local artists, are mostly blends and seem to be wildly popular with tasters.8 Finally, their Black Label series consists of their higher end Reserve wines and are mostly served in their Cellar Room.
Tastings at Wiens are available daily with 6 tastes for $20.9 And while the white label and artist series wines are nice (and certainly worth trying),10 not to mention the wide varierty of wines available, I’ll submit that where Wiens really excels is in its black label reserve and smaller production wines. The Grand Ciel (a Bordeaux style blend) and Kriel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon are killer sips that could go toe to toe with some of the best from Napa.11
For the best of what they offer, go for their Cellar Room tasting, which is a seated tasting in their beautiful cellar for $40.
Wines Tasted: (I tasted a wide selection of wines but a standard tasting is 6 wines) 2017 Pinot Grigio, 2017 Vermentino, 2017 Chardonnay, 2017 Reserve Chardonnay, 2017 White Crowded, 2017 Pink Crowded, 2017 Montepulciano, 2016 Malbec, 2015 Cabernet Franc, 2016 Red Crowded, 2016 Refugio, 2016 Grand Rouge, 2016 San Ignacio Merlot, 2015 Kriel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery
There is so much to love about Palumbo Family Vineyards. Palumbo wines conjure up terms such as artisanal and boutique and hand-crafted. And all of these things are true. With a focus on blended, full-bodied red wines, you will find excellent, well-crafted wines. And with all the press (at least it seems that way in the New World) on single-varietal wines, I love that they are committed to crafting red blends a la Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Bordeaux, etc. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of my favorite regions and Palumbo’s wines were certainly reminiscent of that style of wine.
My visit at Palumbo was with owner and winemaker, Nick Palumbo. His wine journey began when he was on a drive though the mountains and encountered Temecula Valley. Intrigued by the possibilities, in 1998 he purchased some acreage and began his wine career. Initially just growing grapes for others and continuing to learn as much as he could about the business, it wasn’t long before he purchased more acreage and embarked on his own winemaking endeavor.
In talking to Nick, it was apparent how meticulous he is in his craft. He has intentionally kept operations small so that he could focus on quality. Everything from the grape growing to fermentation12 to aging and beyond is done with a sense of precision. Grapes are picked with many passes through the vineyard as Nick brings in different sections of the grapes at different times depending on the orientation of the vineyard. Additionally, the different sections may also have different yeast strains applied to them. All of this allows him to build layers of flavors13 for a particular variety.
As a former chef, it’s a sure bet that he crafts complex wines that are a natural for food pairing. Tastings are available for $15 which gets you access to the winery’s current releases.
Wines Tasted: 2017 Rosato Secco (Mourvedre & Grenache), 2014 (Due Rossi) Sangiovese/Merlot Blend, 2014 GSM (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre), 2013 Cellar Dweller “Jimbo’s Blend” (Mourvedre, Syrah, & Cinsault), and the 2014 Tre Fratelli “Meritage” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc). The Tre Fratelli is the signature wine and the wine upon which Palumbo built its reputation. It was also my personal favorite.
Nick told me that he recently planted Tannat, and as a #fangirl of Tannat, another visit to Temecula wine country may be in order!
Where to Stay
When deciding where to stay, I was torn as Temecula wine country is blessed with some really beautiful options. I ended up staying at Carter Estate Resort in one of their vineyard bungalows. It was the patio, literally at the edge of the vineyards, that sealed the deal for me!
A quite spacious room with fireplace, wet bar, and both an indoor and outdoor dining area. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay longer.
Before bed, I dutifully placed my breakfast card on my door and the next morning I was greeted with a breakfast tray full of goodies. Of course this meant that I could sit in my soft terry cloth robe, eat, and enjoy the vineyard views a little bit more.
The only drawback to the property overall was the lack of a full service restaurant which meant I had to actually go somewhere for dinner.14 So, I took my opportunity and finally tried In-N-Out Burger – with some great Temecula wine of course!
So the Temecula wine county verdict? Absolutely worth going. I plan to visit again when next I’m in Southern Cali.
- Some of the region’s earliest grapes came from the Wente brothers in Livermore who had a large grapevine nursery and were beginning to expand.
- An FYI in case you didn’t know, a vertical tasting is where you taste multiple years of the same wine. It’s a great experience and allows you to really see variations in vintages.
- I was amazed (probably should not have been) at the effort it takes to get a grape allowed in the U.S.
- It’s true, Texans are everywhere. Even when I travel to other countries, I almost always encounter someone from the Lone Star State.
- Learn more about Doc McPherson and why he is considered as one of the fathers of the Texas wine industry.
- I was trying to limit myself and bought two of the three sparklers, but easily could have gotten all three.
- Some notable varieties include Barbera, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Aglianico.
- Their Red Crowded Wine in the Artist Series, is an annual blend that typically consists of 6 or 7 varieties and is their best seller. They also offer a white and a pink Crowded wine.
- They also always seem to have a 2 for 1 tasting coupon on their website so be sure to check it out before going.
- I bought a couple of bottles from these lines to take home. That Montepulcianao!
- Bottles of both made it home to my cellar.
- When it comes to fermentation, Nick is quite literally hands on. Palumbo’s grapes are fermented in small open bins instead of the oft used larger tank fermentation. And while Nick has used larger tanks in the past with everything that comes with it (e.g out and backs, pump overs, agitation, etc.), he prefers the smaller bins as he says it gives him better control of the fermentation process, allows him to lock in the polyphenols and flavonoids, and ultimately helps him to craft a better wine. All of the grapes are kept separate while being processed.
- Weirdo moment – As a fan of the TV show, Chopped, I’m a fan of building layers of flavor.
- Carter Estates does provide a transport shuttle that will take you to sister property South Coast, which has a restaurant and a spa onsite.