At their request, I took some friends and colleagues of mine to Temecula last weekend for some selective wine tasting. Temecula, once known as Rancho California, is a relatively late arrival to the state’s wine scene and is commonly regarded as a pleasant viticultural area, but without the loftier vinous virtues of such as the Central Coast, Napa, or Sonoma. Do not be deceived, for some remarkable things have happened to the Temecula Valley and its wines since the first modern vineyards were planted there in the late 1960’s. When my wife and I first visited Temecula in the early 1970’s, the population was ca. 500 and there existed but 3 wineries, all brand new. Today, you’ll find a population of 100,000, and nearly 40 wineries.
Those three active wineries I mentioned – Callaway. Mt. Palomar, and Cilurzo – were producing wines that, at their best, were pleasant but little more. Then Vince and Audrey Cilurzo began to make a Petite Sirah that was really impressive and that has always seemed to me to be the first real indication of what Temecula wines were really capable of achieving. Vince and Audrey, alas, sold their winery some time ago, but I remember fondly having helped them with their ’82 crush. By the way, their son, Vinnie, founded the Russian River Brewing Co., which still produces some of the state’s most distinguished IPA’s.
For those from the Los Angeles area, it’s less than a two-hour’s drive to what has now become genuinely serious wine country Take the I-15 south to the Rancho California exit. Turn left and go east for a couple of miles toward the vineyards. En route, it looks largely like any California suburbia until you reach Butterfield Stage Road, and then, as if someone had drawn some kind of topographical line in the middle of the road, you’re in wine country. Is it as pretty as, say, the Silverado Trail in Napa? No, but it’s still a lovely vista of vineyards and wineries where you’d least expect it. Just past Butterfield Stage Road, and still on Rancho California to your right is Thornton Winery, your first important stop.