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Temecula

Temecula Wine Country – Part III

When you leave Thornton you’ll exit onto Rancho California again.  Turn right and, as you go, keep an eye out on your left for Mount Palomar Winery.  It’s pretty well marked, but if you reach the cross-street named Calle Contento, you will have gone a bit too far.  Drive up the steep hill to the Mr. Palomar parking lot and there you will find perhaps the oldest winery in Temecula.  There you can sample a wide array of varietals from Bordeaux, the Rhone, and, not surprisingly, Italy.  Palomar’s one of the few wineries in this country that produces the white wine, Cortese, which is the predominant white in Italy’s Piedmont.  I’m not crazy about it, but its singularity is always intriguing.  Try the winery’s really excellent 2009 Castaletto Sangiovese.  Summer’s rolling in, and, as my son Greg pointed out in a recent blog, it’s rosé season … Palomar’s rosé, made from Sangiovese is an excellent start to the season.  Want something simple but hearty to go with the summer’s grilling?  Try Shorty’s Bistro Red, which starts out with a bunch of Cabernet Sauvignon and then throws in all kinds of other stuff from all over Italy and France.  Lots of fun to drink.

The entrance to Mount Palomar Winery

The entrance to Mount Palomar Winery

Want more?  Go back to Rancho California, turn left, and make your way past Anza Road to a smaller street to the right: Monte de Oro.  Turn right and then keep your eye out on the right for the entrance to Palumbo Winery.  Go up the hill through the vineyards, and, to your left, there’s a parking lot of sorts.  This tiny operation is, in my view, the best red wine winery in the Temecula Valley, and has been so almost from its inception.  Everything red they make is first-rate.  Make sure you try the Tre Fratelli  … it’s a stunningly good meritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.  Funny thing: when, in my student wine classes, I first started talking about Temecula, I noted that, although the valley seemed promising for the likes of Sangiovese and its Italic brethren, I held out small hope for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other Bordeaux varietals.  Then I made my first visit to Palumbo.  So much for that lecture.

The Lorenzi line-up

The Lorenzi line-up

A bit further up Monte de Oro is a new winery, Lorenzi.  Well, it was new to me because, as often happens in Temecula, Lorenzi had been producing wine for some years, but with tasting only available in the area of Old Town, which I rarely visit.  This year, however, Lorenzi opened a formal and large tasting room right at the winery, not yet on most Temecula maps, and so, as often happens in this region: a heretofore untested and untasted wine experience.  They do a nice ’09 Syrah, and and even more impressive  ’09 meritage called “Adam and Eve.”  This last is particularly interesting because it’s blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot is reminiscent of Bordeaux’s spectacular and largely unaffordable Cheval Blanc.

How about one more stop?  Go back (left) to Rancho California, and turn right to Glenoaks Road.  Turn right and keep driving until Glenoaks Road dead ends at De Portola Road.  De Portola more or less parallels Rancho California, and is often spoken of locally as its own “wine trail.”  Turn right on De Portola and, a bit further on, on your right, is Danza del Sol winery.  This, for years was the site of Filsinger, one of Temecula’s smaller and older wineries and a producer of pleasant Sauvignon Blanc and little else.  It’s a lot bigger operation now, with some very impressive red wines.  Try, in particular, Danza del Sol’s 2011 Petite Sirah, for, as the Cilurzos discovered long ago, that varietal thrives in Temecula.

Looks like Danza del Sol is ready for us!

Looks like Danza del Sol is ready for us!

This winery, too, has a fine meritage, along the line of the one at Lorenzi.  Interestingly, the del Sol’s Cabernet Sauvignon by itself is not particularly interesting, but, in the meritage, it thrives.

Danza del Sol was the end of my most recent travels, but let’s not forget the other 35 wineries in the area.  Plan a trip and make some choices.  Tasting at four or five wineries should be enough for any one excursion, and remember, you’re tasting, not drinking.  If you consume all the wine they pour you from all of those flights they serve, you’ll be blotto in no time.  If this last advisory sounds excessively paternalistic, remember that I’m an old man and entitled to be paternal.

Drive carefully!

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More on Temecula, CA…Thornton Winery

Since we are at the point of visiting the first winery on my list, Thornton, I’d like to make some general points about visiting any winery in Temecula.  Good winery maps of the area are available on the internet, and so is the information on each winery you intend to visit.  All Temecula wineries are open on weekends, but check to find out what specific days they’re open during the week.  Find out, too, when the tasting rooms open and when they close.  To my knowledge, only one winery – Briar Rose – requires reservations.  Again on the internet, check the subject of Temecula winery coupons, and print out those for your intended visits.  They generally offer two-for-one tastings, which, added to the fact that some wineries charge less for tastings during the week, could make a clear, if modest, difference in your expenses when you visit Temecula Monday through Thursday.

Ready to head into the tasting room!

Ready to head into the tasting room!

So … traveling east on Rancho California you’ve crossed Butterfield Stage Road, and a couple of hundred yards on your right is the entrance to Thornton Winery;  signs will direct you up the hill to visitors’ parking.  Many years ago, the site of Thornton was occupied by Culbertson Winery, which made only sparkling wines.  Thornton, however, while continuing to make an entirely decent sparkler, has branched out, and was one of the earliest wineries in Temecula to make the surprising (to me, at least) discovery that the area was strikingly kind to Italian varietals.  You can taste Thornton’s wines in their comfortable inside tasting room or outside on the adjoining terrace.  Thornton was the first Temecula winery to offer not just a menu of individual wines from which to choose, but several different pre-selected four-wine flights with different kinds of emphases.  If you only wish to drink white, for example, there will be a flight entirely devoted to such, even though other predominantly red wine flights may contain one or another apposite white.  The pours are quite generous, so plan to share them if you have one or several guests with you.  If you don’t like one particular wine on a flight, the exceedingly hospitable hosts (a general Temecula phenomenon, I’m pleased to report) will be happy to replace it with a wine more to your liking.

On my most recent trip, I thought that the following wines had special merit:  2012 Sangiovese, the principal red grape of Tuscany, and the 2012 Cabernet Franc, famous in Loire Valley reds, and southern Bordeaux blends.  What really startled me, however, was an Italic white wine: Vermentino.  Vermentino is originally a Sardinian/Corsican grape which has moved to the central Italian mainland.  I have always thought of it as drinkable, but not much else.  Not this one!  The Thornton 2013 Vermentino is the best bottling of that varietal I’ve ever tasted.  Observe that I have taken care to list the years of each wine I mentioned.  Even though the difference between good and more difficult years is much less pronounced in California than in Europe, there are distinctions worthy of note.  Last year’s Thornton Nebbiolo (the major red grape of Italy’s Piemonte), was nothing short of spectacular.  This year’s version is pleasant enough, but of no special merit beyond that.  Thornton allotted only one bottle per person for purchase of last year’s Nebbiolo; you can buy all you want of this year’s.  So … let’s move on to the next winery.

And here we are - ready to sample today's pouring!

And here we are – ready to sample today’s pouring!

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Temecula Tripping

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.

TemeculaSteve

Always take paper and pen to take good tasting notes!

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.

TemeculaChef

Tasting at Mt. Palomar